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.
Chinese youths fired up by what they consider patriotism (but critics brand nationalism or xenophobia) have historically launched boycotts of foreign goods, sometimes on their own, sometimes in tandem with their elders. In 1905, it was cigarettes and other American products that Chinese citizens of all different ages boycotted in order to put pressure on the United States to change immigration policies that discriminated against Asians.
Between the 1910s and 1930s, several foreign powers found themselves the target of Chinese student-led boycotts. In the majority of cases, Japanese products were the ones that were shunned, in protest of Japan’s encroachments into North China. One of the biggest of these took place during the May Fourth Movement of 1919, one of the many Chinese patriotic struggles that have taken place around this time of year.
In more recent years, boycotts have remained a regular part of Chinese society. In May 1999, when I happened to be in Beijing, I saw “Don’t Buy KFC” and “Don’t Drink Coke” posters go up on local campuses soon after American bombs hit the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. In spring 2005, a series of rowdy demonstrations against Japan broke out.
These protests were triggered by talk of Tokyo getting a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and complaints about how certain Japanese textbooks treated the history of World War II. Yet again there was a call for a boycott.
So while the dueling boycotts of 2008 are linked, calls to pull out of the games and calls to refuse to shop at Carrefour have very different historical echoes and fit into different historical traditions. They also summon up some very different historical moments.
Nineteen thirty-six and 1980 have been common touchstone years in Western debates on Olympic boycotts. Those calling for action against Beijing say it is time to do what the world should have done when the Nazis played host to the games in 1936–refuse to grant legitimacy to a brutal regime. Those opposing a full or partial boycott of the Olympics like to counter by pointing out how little good it did when the US pulled out of the 1980 Moscow games.
Another year brought into play, in this case by Chinese who oppose the boycott of Carrefour, is 1900, the time of the Boxer Rebellion. Some have cited this historical moment as an illustration of how, when nationalist fervor gets out of hand and turns “irrational,” China ends up being harmed rather than helped–in that case via the invasion by a group of foreign powers that crushed the insurrection. To boycott foreign goods at this particular moment, the argument goes, is “irrational,” given how important investment from abroad is to China’s economic surge.
There is an irony here. Boycotts were defended in China early in the 1900s as a far more “rational” way to register anger at foreign powers than committing acts of violence again Christians, as the Boxers had done. But it is true that early in the twentieth century, rallies organized to attack foreign goods sometimes spilled over into physical assaults on foreign individuals or Chinese seen as insufficiently patriotic. The same thing sometimes happens these days.
Why is it important for Westerners to appreciate how the anti-French boycott fits into China’s past? Because to overlook historical precedents and resonances, and think of the debate over shopping at Carrefour as simply a “derivative discourse” (to borrow a phrase from post-colonial theorist Partha Chatterjee), makes it impossible to understand fully what is going on in Chinese cities and in the minds of Beijing’s leaders.
When rowdy demonstrations have taken place outside of Carrefour stores, China’s leaders have found themselves confronted by what is in many ways a familiar dilemma. They are torn between a desire to use popular nationalist sentiment for their own purposes (as a diversion from other kinds of discontent, such as worries about inflation) and a fear of losing control once crowds take to the streets.
China’s leaders, who have gone on record as opposing the Carrefour boycott, know that while they can fan or dampen the flames of popular nationalism, it has never been something they can totally control. Such protests are fueled by genuine outrage, as well as by a generational desire on the part of youths bent on proving their patriotism to express themselves in public. China’s leaders also know that in the past targets of protests have shifted quickly from foreigners accused of humiliating the Chinese people to domestic officials accused of being corrupt or otherwise unfit to run the country. Still, many average Chinese citizens want the Olympics to go smoothly and stand as a symbol of China’s return to global prominence.
Yet as we approach two symbolically charged dates–International Labor Day on May 1 and the anniversary of the 1919 cultural awakening of the May Fourth Movement three days later–calls for a boycott are sure to make any Chinese leader with a sense of history jittery.