The Moral Dilemma of Beijing Hosting the Summer Olympic Games

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The Beijing 2008 Summer Olympic Games will test more than the athleticism of the world's finest athletes. It will showcase China's dubious commitment to universal human rights and the international community's willingness to risk economic gain in their defense.

The human rights record of the People's Republic of China is deplorable: political dissidents are persecuted and even executed; religious freedom is stifled; factory conditions are inhumane; families in urban areas are prohibited from having more than one child; and the media is filtered and censored, to name just a few political abuses on a very long list.

But, the dilemma of what to do about the Beijing Olympics is complicated and deserves some reflection before we jump on one of the two bandwagons now racing in opposite directions. The first, now led by the United Kingdom, says we should be silent about China's human rights record in order to avoid any politicization of the Games. In an unprecedented move, the British Olympic Association will require all athletes to sign a pledge not to make pejorative political statements about the host nation.

The second bandwagon, now led by Hollywood stars including director Stephen Spielberg, says involvement in the games is tantamount to making a pact with the devil. Mr. Spielberg recently announced he is quitting his role as artistic consultant to the Beijing Games, citing China's refusal to involve itself more in ending the crisis in Darfur.

The ethical dilemma of what to do about Beijing could be framed in this way: are there any occasions in which we can or even should, for a good purpose and given certain circumstances, collaborate with countries, organizations, or individuals who are openly involved in unethical activity?

You may be surprised, but I believe the answer to this question is “yes,” and I don't think a universal boycott of the Beijing games is prudent.

In real life, we are always participating to some degree in the questionable dealings of others. When I buy a pair of my favorite tennis shoes, I know there is a chance the foreign factory worker was not paid a fair wage. When I pay my taxes, I am supporting all of my government's action, like them or not. When I use the Internet, I am sustaining a service provider that also propagates a pornographic industry that degrades human dignity. This is what we can call “material” participation in evil. As long as this material support is distant from the evil itself (in other words, the evil in question is not dependent on our participation) and there is good reason to tolerate it, the unwitting participant in that evil is not necessarily at fault.

A very different type of participation in evil, which is always reprehensible, is what we can call “formal” participation. This is when we share the evil intent (or freely share in the action itself) of the agent carrying out the evil.

I think an argument can be made that given the circumstances surrounding contemporary communist China and the nature of the Olympic Games, participating countries, sponsors, and athletes are not necessarily sharing in the intent, or freely sharing in the action, of the Chinese government's human rights abuses. Under this light, any participation in evil would be material not formal — and probably sufficiently remote.

In the case of the Beijing Olympics, a good reason to tolerate this “material and remote participation in evil,” is that the events have the potential of opening up the country to the universal value of freedom.

In fact, we can already see this happening. After losing the bid for the 2000 Olympics, primarily on account of political outcry against it, China was forced to rethink its strategy. In order to win the bid for host of the 2008 Olympics, communist officials made promises of greater respect for human rights. In April of 2001, Liu Jingmin, the Executive Vice President of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games Bid Committee, made this argument:

"By allowing Beijing to host the Games you will help the development of human rights. China and the outside world need to integrate. China's opening up is irreversible. The Olympic Games is a good opportunity to promote understanding."

As recently as September 27, 2006, Liu Qi, the President of the Beijing Olympics Organizing Committee and a member of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, confirmed China's past commitment:

"China will live up to its words and will turn its words into deeds ... The government will honor the promises and commitments made during our bid to host the Games."

I don't think anybody naïvely expects an immediate political conversion in China on account of the Olympic Games, but the opportunities these games provide for humanitarian development outweigh, in my opinion, the concerns of those in Hollywood and other places who are calling for a complete ban.

It will be up to governments, sponsors, and athletes to take advantage of these opportunities. This will involve everyone with a voice speaking out strongly in favor of universal human rights. Some instead will follow the British Olympics Association's very bad example and pretend silence is virtue, hiding behind the guise of not wanting to “politicize” the Olympics.

The 2008 Beijing Games official slogan is “One World, One Dream." Is it not fair for participants to ask what kind of dream China has for this one world? Will McDonald's, Coca-Cola, and Eastman Kodak, the three companies with marketing rights, have the moral courage to make sure the world knows that their “material” participation in the Olympics is not also “formal” participation in China's bad political dream?

I would go even further. The only way a participant can justify its involvement in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games is if it boldly and publicly proclaims that an individual's God-given rights can never be subjected to the political objectives of a man-made state … in their own words, of course.

If this happens en masse, China and the world will be better for the 2008 Beijing Games.

British athletes could get the ball rolling in the right direction by refusing to sign any contract with gag orders attached.

God bless, Father Jonathan

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