Shades of 1936: An Olympic Carrot Without a Stick for China

by | Aug 25, 2001 | POLITICS

Last month, the capital of an oppressive dictatorship has just been selected as the host city of a symbol of peace and civilization: the Olympic games. If you want to know how this happened, remember that it was done, not over the objections of civilized governments, but largely with their support and approval. How can […]

Last month, the capital of an oppressive dictatorship has just been selected as the host city of a symbol of peace and civilization: the Olympic games. If you want to know how this happened, remember that it was done, not over the objections of civilized governments, but largely with their support and approval.

How can the civilized world permit this show of moral support for a government that routinely tramples the rights of its citizens?

The rationalization we have been offered is that placing the 2008 Olympics in Beijing is “not a reward but an incentive.” The games, we are told, will be interpreted by China’s leaders, not as a reward for their past misdeeds, but as an incentive to increase their toleration of dissent. The political pressure of being in the “Olympic spotlight,” in this view, will help to “open up” China.

Exactly how this is supposed to happen is rather vague. Members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) utter bromides to the effect that the influx of thousands of athletes and tourists will give China greater “exposure to the West.” But with its ever-growing volume of trade and increased access to Western media, China is already plenty exposed. And what will exposure to the West accomplish — if the West refuses to condemn dictatorship?

Beijing boosters also claim that Western countries could hold the games as “leverage” over China — implying that the IOC would move the games to a different city if China chooses to massacre dissidents again. This is empty talk. Moving the games at the last minute would be logistically impossible. And where is the precedent for this? Did the IOC remove the 1980 games from Moscow after Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan?

This is a carrot without a stick. It is an enormous, undeserved benefit for China’s rulers — combined with no credible threat of punishment.

China’s dictators know it. A few short months ago, while their Olympic bid was already being debated, the Chinese knocked down our surveillance plane and detained its crew. They have also grabbed Chinese-born scholars — permanent U.S. residents, some of them only weeks away from becoming U.S. citizens — and detained them indefinitely without trial. Yet this has done nothing to stop the Chinese Olympic bid. In a shameful commentary on the IOC’s priorities, these assaults have largely been ignored — yet the IOC has imposed one important condition on the games, and the Chinese have acceded to it: they have agreed to reduce air pollution on Beijing’s streets.

At this rate, the 2008 Olympics will “open up” China about as effectively as the 1936 Olympics opened up Germany.

Everyone says that the evil of the 1936 games was that Hitler wanted to use the Olympics to demonstrate the physical, athletic superiority of the Aryan race (a goal famously foiled by Jesse Owens). But the actual evil of those games was much deeper; Hitler used them to present Nazi Germany as a civilized, cultured, advanced nation, a nation worthy of showing off its achievements to the world — even as the Nazis began their work of murder and oppression.

The acceptance of the 1936 games told Hitler that his brutal fascist policies had not reviled the world, that there was no principled opposition to his dictatorship, no moral backbone to be found in Europe and America. It was a conclusion that would be confirmed in the Rhineland, in Austria, in Czechoslovakia, in Poland, in France — as one act of aggression after another met with only token resistance.

The Chinese are getting the same message today. Australian athlete Kathy Freeman set the moral tone when she told Reuters, “I can only draw parallels between China and Australia. … Our record in the treatment of my ancestors, the aboriginal people, is horrendous.” In other words, any past sin on the part of a civilized country makes it the moral equivalent of a nation with no free press, no right to a fair trial, no protection from being machine-gunned by soldiers in the streets. Thus, the conclusion follows, who are we to cast the first stone?

That what is so grotesque about the IOC’s decision. The tragedy is not so much the reward that has just been granted to China’s dictatorship; it is the fact that, just as in the years leading up to World War II, the free nations of the world have lost the moral confidence to judge, to condemn, and to ostracize the world’s dictators.

Robert Tracinski was a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute from 2000 to 2004. The Institute promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Mr. Tracinski is editor and publisher of The Intellectual Activist and TIADaily, which offer daily news and analysis from a pro-reason, pro-individualist perspective. To receive a free 30-day trial of the TIA Daily and a FREE pdf issue of the Intellectual Activist please go to TIADaily.com and enter your email address.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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