Boycotts and Tibet – A Little Perspective

April 4, 2008 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

We all know about, or at least have formed opinions on, the recent troubles in Tibet and the many calls for a boycott of the Olympics, and of China at large. In many ways this should be encouraging, but it’s left me feeling slightly disturbed at the way in which, yet again, perspectives on international events can be severely twisted, leaving far worse actions either out of the headlines or hugely downgraded in their coverage. In the end it seems to come back not to what is being done, but to who is doing it.

There certainly seems to be some positives to the idea of a boycott, regardless of its effectiveness. The idea of large groups of ordinary people getting together and refusing to be involved with something that they believe is wrong, and refusing to buy from a country that they believe to be a violator of human rights is generally a positive thing. Even if you don’t agree with the specific action here, this is the kind of broad social movement that is generally needed to help effect change in the world, and of course China seems like the ultimate Goliath to the Davidian Tibet. Most of the people involved certainly have their hearts in the right place, although Sinophobia seems to be a factor amongst a significant proportion. But how many people have stopped to wonder why this issue has gained such vast amounts of attention, whilst others receive little or none?

Let’s look at a few things here. The main reasons given for a boycott of the Olympics and of China more generally seem to come down to the recent actions in Tibet, weapon sales to Sudan and human rights abuses at home, with Tibet seemingly gaining the most coverage of the three. All three can certainly be seen as excellent reasons for action, but how do these things compare with other recent events. In Tibet the highest claim for casualties, by the Tibetan government in exile, is 140. A maximum of 140 people killed in response to what were murderous riots (in which about 20 people seem to have been killed, mainly burnt alive in their shops and homes). The murderous riots aspect likes to be swept under the carpet, barely mentioned as it doesn’t fit the picture well, but still, 140 dead shows heavy-handed policing and brutality. So, how many Europeans have checked where their gas supplier is buying its gas from, or simply not used as much, in the cold winter months in protest at its origins? 40% of European energy supplies come from Russia, a country that has led two utterly barbaric wars against Chechnya and its people in which hundreds of thousands have died, murders journalists that speak out, and generally violates human rights in every way, and what is more, seems to be getting worse by the day. Much of the rest comes from odious central Asian regimes with appalling rights records.

There could be a fair argument made that there is little Europeans can do on this matter, after all energy supplies have to be gotten from somewhere, and most places with the energy tend not to have good rights records – Saudi Arabia has an atrocious record that possibly only North Korea could top, the Nigerian government stole the elections there and so on. But if we use the “we have to get energy from somewhere” argument, then so can China, and one of those places is Sudan. Yet this is exactly what China gets criticised for. We would never criticise ourselves for having to buy energy from Russia, we just worry that we’re becoming over-reliant on it. China also gets criticised for selling weapons to Sudan – definitely an odious practice. But who even knew about one of the EU’s newest members, Romania, having sold Sudan attack helicopters, or that much of Sudan’s weaponry is also Russian. But China seems to be exclusively to blame. There seems to be another point missing here though. That is that China sold these items to Sudan. Again, just to be clear, this is still a bad thing, but it didn’t give Sudan the weapons. How much attention was paid last year to the United States’ new plans for military aid to the Middle East? $30 billion worth of military aid is to be given to Israel over the next ten years, where if 140 Palestinians are killed it barely makes the news. $13 billion is to be given to Egypt over the next ten years, and whilst the exact figures weren’t released, it is thought that around $20 billion worth of aid will be going to Saudi Arabia over the same period. Why exactly does one of the worst violators of human rightts in the world need to be given this? Can’t they afford it with their massive oil wealth? Yet if you were to call for a boycott of US goods over such issues, you would be dismissed as being part of a lunatic fringe.
A list of human rights violators would take forever, but an argument can be made here that at least we know that much stuff comes from China, and so it can be more easily targeted for a boycott. Uzbekistan might have a vile dictatorship, but there isn’t too much point in organising a boycott, as you’d be hard pressed to find anything “made in Uzbekistan”. But how about Colombia, another nation that is provided with billions in US aid each year, where trying to organise a union will normally lead to a bullet in the head, where the government has close ties to right wing paramilitaries and human rights violations are common? How many people over the last couple of weekends have nobly spoken of boycotting China whilst tooting a little of Colombia’s favourite white export, without a care in the world for the devastation it causes? A coffee made with beans from Colombia probably helped get over the morning hangover too without a second thought.

There are many other examples of course, but there is one major one that I’ve left out. Iraq. Yes, Iraq. Again. Iraq. One million dead. And many people now believe that to be a conservative estimate. One. Million. Dead. Of course, most in the free Tibet movement were probably rightly opposed to this war too, but has a widespread boycott of US and British goods ever had a mention in the media? How many have considered it? Some would (rightly in my opinion) say that it would be entirely unfair to boycott goods from British and US companies that have played no role in this conflict whatsoever. A fair point, but again, the same logic should then be applied to China as well.

What I am saying is this: If you feel it is necessary to boycott the Olympics and China at large then you should. You should try to make a difference, no matter how small, to do what you think is right. But take a little time to think why actions against China receive so much attention, whilst similar actions elsewhere receive little or none. Think about why the ideas of an Olympic boycott and independence for Tibet have gained so much coverage, when the Dalai Lama himself is calling for neither. Is it a case of jumping on an easy bandwagon? Are you making yourself feel better by boycotting an event that in all honesty, you weren’t going to anyway and weren’t going to buy any merchandise for? Or, if you are planning on boycotting, is this going to be a first step to taking wider action. If so, try looking objectively at your own country as it may be the best place to start.

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This post was written by Natalie Jones

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