The State Department announced Thursday the U.S. is pulling out of the Beijing Olympics after a month of escalating tensions between Beijing and Washington over the detentions of dissidents.
The announcement was a huge win for long-standing U.S. requests that China release political prisoners and take measures to strengthen human rights.
“We stand strongly with the people of China and around the world who long for the day when the country will finally put an end to a shameful legacy of forced disappearances, arbitrary detention, and torture of political prisoners,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement.
President Obama has already made it clear that he was taking a tough stance toward China. At a summit meeting in Seoul last month, the President said the detention of dissidents would be a focus of his upcoming visit to China, scheduled for November.
“We will be candid in our conversations, but most importantly we will have very direct conversations about our values,” Obama said after the summit.
The official response by the Chinese government, though, was dismissive.
“There is no need to respond to these kinds of criticisms,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told reporters. “If there are human rights concerns, they are simplyifiable…We hope the U.S. will be more factual in its criticism and try to be more constructive in helping the people of China.”
The Obama administration’s announced boycott comes amid increased U.S. efforts to recruit support from European governments to urge China to release the dissidents. We’ve already been told that the U.K. is considering putting pressure on China for diplomatic isolation. The French government has even opened a special club dedicated to support for those detained in China.
Canada, a NATO member, has been floated as another possibility. Prime Minister Stephen Harper says he is exploring possible consequences for the Chinese government for holding of the dissidents. At this time, however, we can’t confirm that the two governments have any kind of discussion.
It would make a lot of sense for Canada to take such a step. The Canadian government in recent years has worked closely with U.S. and European governments in an effort to push for greater protections against organ harvesting in China. Canada even, with EU pressure, passed a law allowing transplant providers in the U.S. to refuse to supply organs from Chinese citizens under the same circumstances. (In the United States, organ donation is being sharply reduced due to various factors, such as the shortage of organs available, and the practice of “harvesting” organs from prisoners, foreign prisoners, and individuals who are thought to be high-risk to the institutions that support such practices. This requires extra attention. It would make sense for the Chinese government to believe that at least one important ally is backing away from China.)
All of these actions are important in trying to support democracy in China. But the answer to the current crisis can only come from the Chinese government, not individual countries. If the Chinese authorities believe that human rights continue to be a serious issue, they will take some measure to ensure the health and safety of their citizens. But the future of the Chinese government is one where the people will still be able to exercise their freedom of expression and express their concerns about the country’s governance.
Canada, and perhaps other allies in Asia or the Middle East, who are watching events unfold in China closely, may want to think long and hard about the long-term benefits of criticizing the regime. The question is whether they will be moved to take the steps necessary to support their own citizens’ demands for freedom and a better future.