December 27, 1979. 700 Soviet troops dressed in Afghan military uniforms occupy government, military and media buildings in Kabul. In response, United States president Jimmy Carter issued an ultimatum that the U.S. would boycott the upcoming 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow if the USSR. did not withdraw its troops by just after midnight on Feb. 20, 1980. The USSR didn't, and over 50 countries, including Canada, joined the U.S. in boycotting the summer games. Almost ten years later, the Soviet Union started withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in May 1988. The last of the troops left in 1989.
Fast forward nearly 20 years. Many countries, upset at host country China's horrible human rights record and its brutal crackdown on protests in the occupied territory of Tibet, are discussing a boycott of the upcoming 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing. Beyond damaging China's already-poor worldwide reputation, a boycott is an ineffective way to affect any change in policy or practice in China.
Ignoring that any Olympic boycotts hurt the athletes more than any of the political entities involved, the arguments for a boycott lack weight. Somehow, by slightly embarrassing the Chinese government by not participating in their prized Olympic games, the boycotting countries will cause a marked improvement in the treatment of Tibetans and political prisoners and allow greater media freedom in the communist country. When the U.S. rallied countries to boycott the 1980 games, they assumed that by boycotting the Olympics, the Soviets would leave Afghanistan. Instead, it took nearly 10 years and a build up of internal pressure, generated by heavy casualties, economic issues and a lack of support for the war, for the Red Army to march home. To believe that it will be any different with China and Tibet is folly.
In 2006, Canada imported nearly $34.5 billion-worth of goods from China. To use two well-worn phrases, talk is cheap and, instead, put your money where your mouth is. An Olympic games boycott is hardly more than talk. If countries really wanted to get serious on punishing China for its poor human rights record, they would start exerting real economic pressure and put their money where their mouth is. For Canada, our import total represents less than one hundredth of one per cent of China's total trade, but combined with China's top trading partners--the United States, Japan, South Korea and Germany are all in the top five--the government could damage China's economy and put real pressure for change.
China's economy has grown at an incredible pace recently--largely driven by the locked Yuan causing cheap manufacture exports. Boycotting Chinese goods would cause both China and the boycotting countries pain, but any other step will not likely cause the change that countries and torch-relay protestors want. Our world is capitalist and capitalist pressures can affect even countries like China. The United Nations are quick to levy economic penalties against countries like Iran for protection of the world's best interest, but have yet to consider it in this specific situation--likely because it will hurt consumers in the boycotting countries. A complete economic boycott is unfeasible and is a drastic move. But partial or gradually stronger boycotts should be considered if countries want to do more than talk about how bad China's human rights record is.
On December 25, 1991. President Mikhail Gorbachev resigns as president of the USSR and declares the office extinct. All official Soviet Union institutions ceased operations by Dec. 31. The USSR was dead, 11 years after the Moscow summer Olympics. The death of the Soviet Union and the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the chief reason for the boycott originally, were not even slightly caused by the Olympic boycott. Both the collapse of the USSR and the eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan were caused much more by economics than any petty boycott. Current nations and boycott supporters should take heed of history.