Protesting through Olympics stirs debate

Should President Bush boycott the Olympic opening ceremonies? Andrea Sarvady, a left-leaning columnist, writes the commentary this week, and Shaunti Feldhahn, a right-leaning columnist, responds.

Andrea Sarvady

A big draw to my husband’s job transfer in 1995 was that we would be moving to a future Olympic city. Having the games in Atlanta was such an honor that I made sure to be a part of it, even though I had just given birth. It’s troublesome that such a potentially unifying event – this year in China – is so often tinged with politics.

Yet when Hillary Clinton, John McCain and others transcend partisan politics in wanting President Bush to boycott the opening ceremonies, I sit up and take notice. It looks like many Americans are doing the same, following continued abuses in Darfur and increasingly alarming events in Tibet. Less than a year ago, a Zogby International poll showed that 39 percent of Americans felt that the IOC shouldn’t have awarded the Olympics to China due to its poor human-rights record. A recent poll shows that 70 percent of respondents now feel that way.

One might argue that what’s done is done, and we should keep political friction off the field. I couldn’t agree more. Yet the opening ceremonies are not the games themselves. They’re a country’s shining hour, the glitzy A-list party with a spotlight on the unique achievements of a hosting nation. Olympic propaganda is a particularly effective way for closed societies to “prove” to their citizens that their actions must be right with the world. (Remember Hitler’s triumph in 1936?) So it’s telling that few outside the Chinese press still dub a protest-plagued torch run with the PR-manufactured tagline: “a journey of friendship, peace and harmony.”

Some have suggested that Bush should continue to state that he will attend the ceremony, while warning President Hu Jintao that growing political pressure is making it hard for him to stick to that plan.

For all we know, the president is doing that right now, giving China an opportunity to save face while forcing change behind the scenes. I certainly hope so.

More than 300 gold medals will be handed out in Beijing this summer. We look forward to watching the U.S. garner our share of those, yet a gold in the commitment to human rights would be even more exciting.

Sahunti Feldhahn

Anyone who argues that Bush should even consider boycotting the opening ceremonies doesn’t really understand China – and it is disturbing that everyone vying to be our next president seems to fall into that category. My father has worked in China for many years with the World Bank, and I’m the only one in my immediate family who hasn’t lived in China and doesn’t speak Chinese. But even with my indirect awareness, I reflexively winced when I first heard someone suggest that the U.S. skip out to “send a message.”

It is precisely because the opening ceremonies are a country’s shining hour that a boycott would be the gravest insult to the proud Chinese people. The Chinese feel honored by the approaching Olympics, and have been preparing for it for seven years. As national security adviser Stephen Hadley recently explained, it’s not just important to “deal with the Tibet issue,” but to recognize that “it’s also an issue of the Chinese people, who are very invested in the Olympics, who see it as a coming of age for China.”

People often forget that China is still a developing country; most Chinese are still agrarian, and the country doesn’t expect telephone service to reach every village for another 12 years. Yes, in preparation for the Olympics, the communist government has made many hard-line decisions with which I deeply disagree. Yes, China’s handling of Tibet is extremely troubling, as are its many human-rights abuses. I am especially angered by the persecution of millions in underground churches.

But it is also true that the country and its leaders have come a very long way in just a few decades – which is practically hasty for a civilization thousands of years old. Comparisons to Hitler and his systematic genocide are ludicrous. China’s leaders are at least trying to address issues that matter to its people and the world.

The whole point of the Olympics – from the moment the opening ceremonies start – is to set aside legitimate national differences and come together in a spirit of goodwill. Even the exiled Dalai Lama supports Beijing hosting the Olympics.

What we do about the opening ceremonies will indeed send a message to the people of China. Let’s hope it is the right one.

Andrea Sarvasdy (ASarvad@gmail.com) is a writer and educator specializing in counseling, and a married mother of three. Shaunti Feldhahn (scfeldhahn@yahoo.com) is a conservative Christian author and speaker, and married mother of two children. Write to them at 4520 Main St., Kansas City, MO. 64111.