Why China should not get the 2008 Olympics

Written by AC Grayling.

When the International Olympic Committee (IoC) meets in Moscow this weekend to choose a host city for the 2008 Games, the front-runner will be China's capital Beijing. Its main rivals are Toronto and Paris, but Canada and France have twice hosted winter or summer Games. In addition, the IoC's retiring President, Juan Antonio Samaranch, is a keen supporter of China's bid, and was disappointed when Sydney beat Beijing for the 2000 Games by just two votes. As his last presidential act he wants to be able to declare Beijing the IoC's choice.

China is obsessively keen to be awarded the Games. No other country is as eager to appear as a leader on the world stage. It strained every sinew to get the 2000 Games, and suffered terrible disappointment at failing. This time it feels it has even more face to lose, and if the Games go elsewhere, its chagrin will be boundless. But China should not be awarded the Games; and if it is, those Games should be boycotted. The reason is China's appalling human rights record. It is a country run by an arbitrary, repressive, undemocratic tyranny, in which dissent is brutally suppressed, and every civilised norm of constitutional and legal behaviour flouted. Its Communist Party rules by force, and it brooks no opposition, as witness its current response to the Falun Gong religious sect, and the health and exercise movement called Zhong Gong, the crime of both of which is that they have too many adherents.

Two concerns about China's human rights failings should be enough to make it an international pariah. One is its gulag of forced labour camps in which scores of thousands are imprisoned without trial for "re-education through labour" – meaning re-education into the Party's ways of thinking. These camps contribute substantially to China's economy; many exported commodities are wholly or partly manufactured by slave labourers, a fact which the WTO needs to take into account when it decides on China's membership later this year. Getting into the camps is easy; annoying a policeman can be enough. Getting out can prove exceedingly difficult, and many ex-inmates find themselves exiled to the town neighbouring the camp they have just left.

The other concern is China's widespread and arbitrary use of cruel and inhuman punishments, most notably the death penalty. There are 68 capital offences in China, including fraud, tax evasion, smuggling, accepting bribes, "separatism" (which means desire for independence on the part of people in territories occupied by China, such as Tibet and Xinjiang), and many besides. The list of capital offence grows and changes unpredictably, depending in the current mood of the Party leadership and how it wishes to nudge economic activity. For example, the Party tolerated smuggling as a way of undercutting import costs and getting technology from abroad which it could illegally copy (China's People's Liberation Army was itself a major smuggling organisation until recently). But when it wished to increase excise revenue, it started shooting smugglers instead of encouraging them.

Trials are a mockery, with no proper defence; often they last just a few minutes, with condemned prisoners being taken out and shot in the head in public directly afterwards. In many cases corneas are removed from prisoners' eyes before execution, and kidneys and other organs afterwards, for use in transplant surgery. Such organs are not infrequently sold for use abroad.

As Amnesty International's just-published report reveals, China's own official figures show that it executes more people every year than the whole of the rest of the world put together. But these official figures represent only the tip of the iceberg.

China's government orders periodic "Strike Hard" campaigns, arresting thousands in police sweeps, and holding mass public executions to intimidate the populace. The choice of misdemeanours targeted in such campaigns is unpredictable; a certain practice (as with smuggling) is long winked at, then suddenly and savagely punished. The effect is an arbitrary reign of terror consciously used as an instrument of political control.

Some members of the IoC say that they are irritated by the pressure put on them by human rights lobbies, which makes them more inclined to favour China's bid. If they choose Beijing the IoC will provide an even better chance for the international community to express its condemnation of the Chinese government's human rights record, by the simple but powerful expedient of boycotting the Games. This indeed might be a more forceful way of bring about the South Africa Effect, for it will persuade the Chinese government that until it observes civilised norms of acceptable behaviour on the human rights front – which means observing the United Nations Covenants to which it is a signatory, though a persistently and severely in-breach one – it deserves to remain an outcast among nations.

China and the IoC can be sure that if Beijing is chosen, it will mark the beginning of a massive boycott campaign by human rights organisations, which will make a shambles of the Games and prove a bigger embarrassment for China than if it had lost the bid outright.