Bush's Olympic Doctrine

Sunday, President Bush defended his decision to attend the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. Although I don't want to say it, his reasoning and explanation are right on target.
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Earlier today in a pre-G8 press conference in Japan, President Bush defended his decision to attend the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. "The Chinese people are watching very carefully about the decisions by world leaders and I happen to believe that not going to the opening ceremony for the games would be an affront to the Chinese people, which may make it more difficult to be able to speak frankly with the Chinese leadership," the president said as he outlined the official justification for what might be termed Bush's Olympic Doctrine.

Although I don't want to say it, Bush's reasoning and explanation are right on target. Unlike other G8 leaders such as German Chancellor Merkel, British PM Brown, and, possibly, French President Sarkozy (he seems to be still waiting to find out if more Carrefour Hypermarkets will be targeted by Chinese protesters), Bush appears to understand that a key part of Olympics diplomacy is attending the opening ceremonies and keeping the locals happy.

Despite the best intentions of the mostly Western activists who've tried to highlight China's human rights abuses and the country's links to genocide in Africa, the issues have not resonated with Beijingers or the Chinese. In fact, as we saw this spring, the unfortunate and accidental blurring of pro-human rights messaging with racist and fearful anti-China messaging backfired so monumentally that people of Chinese descent around the world joined together to condemn the protests. And yet, months later we continue to hear repetitive and, by this point, tired condemnations of the Beijing Games and tepid calls for boycotts by minor or as-yet unelected political figures who are either gleeful to use the Games to put a spotlight on their own careers or who are happy to leave the hard decisions to the folks in charge right now.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment of this post-Torch/pre-August period is that the major proponents of the Beijing '08 human rights movements have yet to recognize the importance of crafting messages that might speak to the average Chinese citizen or, at the very least, win the support and trust of members of the global Chinese diaspora. Instead, the messaging of the major human rights players has been stuck on repeat since April, playing over and over to those listeners who committed to the causes long ago.

The continuing modus operandi of the human rights groups is to shame the Chinese leadership. It isn't working. As April Rabkin wrote in the New York Times last week, "what the committee [IOC] and the rest of the world don't realize is how little China cares what they think. Here in Beijing, the Olympic Games are primarily for domestic consumption, justifying the government's new global power to its own people." The key to changing China's domestic and international human rights policy, then, may be to find out how to engage the average Chinese person and encourage them to ask whether their government's actions are justified.

Of course, creating messaging that engages the average Chinese citizen and delivering such a message are two very different things. The Great Firewall of China and the press censoring and manipulating techniques of the Chinese government certainly impede and pervert news and commentaries that are perceived to have an anti-Chinese government policy slant. But, to declare the battle for the hearts and minds of the Chinese people lost before it has begun, as has been implied by the lack of attention that human rights activists have paid to the Chinese people, is defeatist and convenient. It ignores the many weaknesses of the creaky firewall technology, a robust Chinese blogging environment, and the "black/gray market" trade in ideas and news that defines much of the country. As opposed to marching in the streets and allowing the pro-Tibet rights movement or the Save Darfur movement to be engulfed in a larger anti-China movement, activists should be signing up for Mandarin classes, reading Chinese blogs (and not just dissident ones!), reading Chinese accounts of history and globalization, and loudly asserting their differences from anti-China groups, all in an effort to know and engage with their most important audience... you know, the billion or so that haven't yet been converted.

Bush's statement earlier today indicates that he appears to understand the connection between maintaining or building friendly relations and mutual understanding with the Chinese people in order to have leverage with the Chinese government. Now, of course, as many critics have asserted, he may be attending the Opening Ceremonies primarily because the economic consequences of snubbing Beijing are just too frightening to consider. Even if this is the case, we shouldn't dismiss his official justification as meaningless window dressing (don't ignore the message just because of the messenger). Instead, we ought to consider the strategic logic behind such a justification and we ought to explore how to build on it.

The alternative is to ignore or downplay the aspirations of hundreds of millions of people and risk creating a shame-based hate of the West that could last for generations. I, for one, think it is frightening when the West's most progressive groups are willing to risk creating new global divisions and animosities because they have not adequately considered the ideas and hopes of the average Chinese men and women for whom they believe they're fighting. And, it is even scarier when the source of a more reasoned and pacific option is President George W. Bush. Given Bush's apparent Olympic Doctrine, one would only wish that Tehran was hosting the 2008 Games...

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