Columns 2008

Don’t punish the Chinese people for their government’s actions

Here’s the thing we should never do. We should never confuse the government of China with the people of China. That’s why calling for a boycott of the Olympics, as much as I want to show China they can’t just destroy a whole culture without any repercussions, is wrong.  I’ve been to China more than once. I’ve been to Tibet. And the people I met, whether Tibetan or Chinese, were not out to hurt each other. They were just trying to get through the day like you and me, worrying about the kids and what was for dinner.

The first time I went to China was1983. Western tourists were still a rare phenomenon. As much as we had been taught in the fifties to fear the Red Chinese hoard that would unleash godless communism on us, it quickly became apparent that the people of China had been fed a version of the same story by their government. They were as fearful of westerners given access to their country as we were of allowing Communist Chinese anywhere near our shores.

I remember young people coming up to us as we walked in the limited areas of towns and cities their government allowed us to access. They’d speak to us in quiet voices. It would take a while to realize they were trying to speak English that, up till then, they’d only ever seen as a written language. No one teaching them actually spoke fluent English so the words came out of their mouths with distinctly different sounds than expected. But they so wanted to practice their English. They were young and not as afraid of us as their elders. Conversely, my sister and I found ourselves responding to these young people because, despite the hours spent in hallways with our hands over our heads to protect us from a nuclear strike by the Chinese or Russians, it was clear that these people were not monsters, just ordinary people curious about a world their government forbade them to enter. They had the same curiosity about us as we had about them.

Not that it was all peaches and cream.  The older people definitely viewed us with suspicion and the people who waited on us in hotels and restaurants sometimes had an attitude that made you want to ask for an official taster before biting into dinner.  Public toilets, which consisted of stalls with half walls and no fronts, soon became the show of the week for women when we used them. After a while, you got accustomed to the fact that you would have an audience while attempting to correctly use the infamous Eastern toilet. Women would stand in front of you, pointing, giggling and speaking rapidly. When we went back about eight years later, we were blown away by how rapidly the economy opened up once a little old fashioned western competition and profit was introduced. Cities that, on our first visit, had been filled with people in blue Mao outfits on old bicycles riding down gray city streets had been replaced with more neon than Vegas, more cars than had probably existed in the whole country on our first visit, and an eagerness to please since pleasing us would now produce a very tangible result in the form of a tip.

Bottom line is that the Chinese people are not demons trying to destroy Tibet anymore than American people are demons trying to destroy Iraq.  While we may be a bit more responsible for the government we empowered to carry out the war in Iraq, the reality is that governments do things that not all their people agree with all the time. In America we get to let them know if we disagree every four years when we have elections. In China, they don’t have that option.

So the idea of boycotting the Olympics in China to make a point about Tibet doesn’t really make sense because the people most hurt by it would be the Chinese people, who have no say into their government’s Tibetan policies.  If we claim it is right to punish the Chinese people for the actions of their government in Tibet, I shudder to think of the punishment the world would have in store for us based on our government’s actions in Iraq.