Freddy draws attention to an important consideration for anyone who wants to urge an Olympic boycott, which is the potential radicalizing effect it will have on a Chinese population that is steeped in nationalism and an historical narrative that stresses victimization by foreigners. This is one of the larger problems with striking symbolic moral poses against other states’ internal policies. The pose will change nothing, except that it could cause an anti-Western or anti-American backlash, possibly worsen the internal situation by causing much of the population to rally to the regime and encourage the most paranoid elements of the regime to see the pose as evidence of a larger effort to subvert the regime, which might then lead the regime to adopt more confrontational positions in other areas. Further, we would be striking the pose mostly as a way of feeling good about ourselves; the condition of people in Tibet would not improve, and might get worse. The problem in the case of China this year is compounded by some other factors. First, very few seriously threatened a boycott over the Chinese-allied military junta’s crackdown in Burma, and few have advanced a boycott argument on account of Darfur, which makes the protests about Chinese actions inside China seem a bit strained.
The 1980 boycott, whatever its flaws, was a response to an act of international aggression. Boycotting the Beijing Games on account of the Chinese government’s brutal suppression of Tibetan anti-Chinese rioting is a much murkier proposition, as a boycott would probably be widely received in China as evidence of outside support for anti-Chinese violence. None of this is to defend Chinese policy in Tibet or even the Chinese occupation of Tibet, but to agree that ritual ostracism will probably do more harm than good. If the boycott were a protest against Chinese actions abroad, that could be less counterproductive, but now that Tibet has become the center of the debate it is much more politically explosive. Every nation is concerned with its reputation and its appearance to the rest of the world, so it seems that there is very little to be gained and a good deal to be lost in delivering a rebuke and an insult to the Chinese for smashing protests in what they regard as their own country.