China: ‘so pernicious, so malign, so vile’
Tim Black reports on the outbursts of borderline Sinophobic sentiment at last night’s London debate on boycotting Beijing.
In the aftermath of the Chinese earthquake, Western antagonism towards China, so feverish up until 12 May, has become a bit more muted. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining the sparse attendance at last night’s ‘Should Britain Boycott Beijing 08?’, a debate hosted by the London-based think-tank Policy Exchange in association with Amnesty International. Where, in weeks gone by, the chance to purge some Western anxiety with a spot of China-bashing would have been gleefully seized, now such collective spleen-venting sessions seem to have gone into abeyance – temporarily.
This did not stop some of last night’s panellists from having a good go, however – although it should be said that none of them were actually calling for a total boycott of Beijing, as in Western athletes refusing to compete. In fact, very few people are calling for such a boycott. No, what is almost always proposed is a ‘political boycott’, which means that one’s elected political representatives should shun the opening and closing ceremonies. In other words, ‘party-pooping’. Calling for said boycott last night were the UK president of the Tibet Society, Norman Baker, and Edward McMillan-Scott MEP; on the other side, Ed Warner, head of UK Athetics, and Alice Hutchinson, senior parliamentary officer at Amnesty International, opposed a political boycott.
Hutchinson spoke first. She did not so much bash China as brush it very gently, and ever so slightly, against the grain. The aim of Amnesty International, she says, is to encourage China to adhere to certain commitments it made upon winning the Games, from a relaxation of media censorship to greater tolerance of dissent. To this end she advocated not punitive measures, such as an Olympic boycott, nor absolute targets such as freedom of expression, but the setting of ‘benchmarks’ against which China could be measured over time.
From the treatment a teacher might dish out to a talented but recalcitrant child, to the blind condemnation of the proselytiser: enter the dominant figure of the evening, Edward McMillan-Scott MEP. Splicing gruesome torture anecdotes with statistics showing the extent of human rights violations in China, McMillan-Scott’s bombast led him, unabashed, into borderline Sinophobic territory. ‘The position of China is so pernicious, so malign, so vile, that it is a threat to world peace’, he railed. Such was his rhetorical conviction that no historical analogy seemed unsuitable: ‘The situation in China is so severe that we need to go back to the 1936 [Olympics in Germany] – had we known what we know now, those Olympics would not have gone ahead.’
On and on he hammered: ‘We need to look at the hidden China, a China of widespread torture’, where as he put it later, ‘death is a way of life’. Now, the problem with looking at something that is hidden should be pretty obvious: you can’t see anything. This was more than just a verbal slip, however. The absence of knowledge about China, frequently alluded to last night, acts as both the precondition and, in McMillan-Scott’s case, the opportunity for Western projection. China becomes the evil other against which Western nations can regain a sense of purpose (see Using Tibet to settle scores with China, by Brendan O’Neill).
Not knowing anything about China itself is irrelevant here – symbolically intervening, in this case by politically boycotting Beijing 08, becomes an act of faith, a restoration of inner purpose. Nowhere was this more apparent than when McMillan-Scott, continuing to invoke the moral compass of the 1930s and 40s, recalled Supreme Court judge Felix Frankfurter’s 1942 response to Jan Karski’s testimony about the Nazi death camps: ‘I did not say that this young man was lying; I said that I could not believe what he was telling me. There is a difference.’ It was time for us to believe – and, therefore, to do something.
McMillan-Scott was not the only one trapped in the 1940s. From the floor, Lord Alex Stockton boomed: ‘All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.’ Athletes, like all citizens, have a right and duty to defend democratic principles, he continued, before concluding with a call to, if not arms, then at least to pro-Tibet t-shirts on the Olympic podium. Less severe, the other pro-boycott panellist, Norman Baker of the Tibet Society, was suitably Confucian: ‘China must have a carrot and a stick. So far there are lots of carrots, and not many sticks.’
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Unperturbed by the climate of the opprobrium in the room, Ed Warner of UK Athletics made a decent fist of defending the Olympics against the army of moral grandstanders. Why should athletes, ‘dedicated to their art, their sport’, have to carry the politicians’ can, he asked? Citing a Colin Moynihan article in The Times (London), he argued that while tourism, diplomatic and trade relations continue untrammelled, sport is expected to suffer (1). ‘The Olympics boycott seems like a cheap shot.’
Although he wasn’t convinced that China ‘was the next coming of the Third Reich’, this is not to say he disagreed with the portraits of China offered during the debate. Rather, he opposed the politically expedient use of sport. Gesturing to the Houses of Parliament, a stone’s throw away from the Policy Exchange offices, he argued that politicians are prepared to throw athletes to the wolves, while themselves ducking the question. He ended by calling for the maintenance of ‘the dignity of the Olympic Games’ – something that the Olympic torch protests ‘sullied’.
The crucial point came not from the panel, but from an audience member. Missing from the discussion, he said, except as torture victims, were the Chinese people themselves. Whether it is school-masterly benchmarks or anti-fascist inspired gestures, were not the panellists ignoring the capacity of the Chinese people to change things themselves?
Summing up, Norman Baker tried to address this question. As China has developed economically over the past 10 years, he said, it has shown that economic growth and an authoritarian regime can go hand in hand. Wary of what he was implying, Baker was forced to add that this was not to say that the Chinese people were culpable. ‘Fed a pack of lies’, they are not in a position to know any better, he said. And there it was, the conception of the Chinese people underpinning the pro-boycott argument. Whether brainwashed or proto-Nazis, in each case they are rendered as spiritless objects of official manipulation. Is it any wonder that the most virulent reactions to Western discussions of China come from those Chinese people living in the West, who are thoroughly exposed to Western media?
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
(1) A Beijing boycott won’t work, The Times, 22 May 2008