To boycott or not to boycott, that is the question. Rather, that’s just one of the questions activists are facing right now when it comes to China. At least four different Olympics boycott-related debates are currently taking place in print, online and broadcast media.
Since 2001, when the news first broke that Beijing would host the 2008 Olympic Games, activists have questioned whether it would be helpful or counterproductive for those concerned about China’s human rights record or Beijing’s ties to brutal foreign powers to pull out of this year’s games.
Then there’s the debate-within-this-debate that centers on the partial boycott plan. This plan, associated with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, among others, would have world leaders go to Beijing in August, but skip the opening ceremony as an act of protest.
The third debate revolves around the Olympic torch relay and focuses on individuals skipping their turns to carry the flame to protest the crackdown in Tibet, as two South Koreans scheduled to participate did when the flame passed through Seoul.
Last but not least, there is a lively debate within China centering on Chinese citizen boycotts of certain Western companies’ products. Here, the primary focus is Carrefour, the French supermarket chain that is second only to Wal-Mart in global sales.
Carrefour is being attacked for three reasons: the rough treatment a Chinese torch carrier received in Paris, critical comments Sarkozy has made about the games and rumors that Carrefour executives or investors have been offering financial support to the Dalai Lama, whom some Chinese insist was the mastermind behind the Lhasa riots that cost some Han Chinese and Hui Muslim their lives.
CNN, which has been singled out as having been particularly unfair to China in its coverage of the recent unrest in Tibet, is also being targeted for boycotts. The fact that CNN anchor Jack Cafferty recently said China was full of “goons and thugs” probably didn’t help either.
But how exactly does one boycott CNN? The network doesn’t sell a specific product and isn’t available to most Chinese citizens. It is usually blocked except in high-end hotels.
However in Carrefour’s case, crowds have already gathered outside some of the more than 100 stores the chain owns in China to discourage customers from entering. Calls have gone out on the Internet for all Chinese to refuse to shop at Carrefour either on a single day (May 1) or during the first four days of May.
There are connections between all of the boycott debates currently in play. But it is a mistake to treat the boycott of Carrefour and the criticism of CNN as simply a tit-for-tat phenomenon, a case of angry Chinese taking a purely reactive “if you take aim at our games, we’ll take aim at your profits” attitude. China has a long tradition of using anti-foreign boycotts to counter everything from invasions to perceived insults to the nation’s honor.