Olympics and politics

I can’t help but observe the contrast between how Britain and China deals with protestors. In Britain – the police’s response to protests during the passage of the Olympic Torch through London was to pop the torch on a bus for a bit. How very English! And then in China we have the dark side of the contrast – the violence, gunshots and even deaths that are the frequent response to protests.

Standing in Bloomsbury Square last Sunday chanting ‘China Out’ in reply to a young Tibetan shouting out through a megaphone ‘Free Tibet’ reminded me not only of the issue in question but also of the feeling you get when you go out onto the streets to claim your democratic right to peaceful protest. It is active. And it makes you feel that you are not taking it lying down; not abjectly rolling over, tut-tutting at the pictures on the news whilst saying there is nothing I can do.

Indeed, in a world of global, near-instant media, protests in one part of the world can garner coverage all over the globe – including, directly or indirectly, in China itself. (I know how well the internet reaches all sorts in China from when I was on the London Assembly – and got a three page marriage proposal from a fisherman in a remote part of China!)

As you may have guessed – I don’t buy the argument that Olympics = sports = you mustn’t say anything about anything other than sport. The Chinese Government has been repeatedly and politicising the Olympics for its own ends – so simply mouthing that formula means conceding it is ok to politicise the Olympics to promote thuggish authoritarianism but not ok to speak out against such behaviour. Where is the morality in that approach of self-censorship and unnecessary deference?

It’s a question of morality that, I hope, our Prime Minister will consider more carefully as the Olympics approach. So far, Gordon Brown seems too timid to show any real displeasure at China’s repeated abuse of basic human rights. Numerous other government heads have spoken and acted – but not our own. What is the point of having the privilege of holding a post such as Prime Minister if you’re not willing to use it to speak out when needed? Will Gordon Brown continue to jump through every hoop the Chinese present to him, or will he find the moral voice to speak up for the rest of us?

I am luckier than most people in that as an MP I can raise issues in a way most people cannot, including in Parliament where I have also criticised China for failing to fully use her influence with the Khartoum government to stop the genocide in Darfur. But there is nothing like physically making a public statement the way you can in a protest.

It was inevitable the second China was awarded the Olympics that there was going to be a need to use the opportunity both to engage with China – and also to clearly state the sort of behaviour we find acceptable – and that certainly does not include what we have seen directly in Tiananmen Square, what we are seeing in Tibet or what we are seeing via China’s failure to act in Darfur.

On Sunday we saw people in London coming out to show China our disapproval of her behaviour. Who would rather it any other way? Would the silence and compliance of Gordon Brown’s meek appearance in Downing Street really have been preferable?

But events do not stop with last weekend, nor with the Olympics this summer. I am part of a group of British MPs who take part in a forum to build and strengthen Chinese/Anglo relationships. The Chinese Ambassador to Great Britain, who is a delightful and disarming and extremely personable woman, said at one of these sessions that we in the West have a responsibility to help China understand what being a responsible world power means. That is a challenge and offer I am happy to take up.

It has to be carrot and stick. The Olympics are a significant carrot. Our protest – a small but necessary stick. I have no doubt that in the long term all our interests will be best served by engagement and the formation of sustainable bonds – set alongside clear and unequivocal speaking out on human rights abuses and similar issues.

Photo credit: Flickr user http2007

(c) Lynne Featherstone, 2008