Jeffrey Wasserstrom: The Boycotts of ’08 Revisited





[Mr. Wasserstrom teaches at the University of California, Irvine, and is author of “China’s Brave New World: And Other Tales for Global Times” (Indiana University Press, 2007) and “Global Shanghai, 1850-2010," forthcoming from Routledge in the autumn. He is a regular contributor to The China Beat (www.thechinabeat.blogspot.com), a blog on China media coverage.]

It was springtime in the eighth year of a young century and the Olympics would begin soon in an old capital. No medals would be awarded until the summer, but the ’08 Games were already shrouded in controversy due to talk of a boycott linked to the host country’s policies in a territory it controlled. Meanwhile, a different sort of boycott call had gone out several weeks earlier when Chinese people grew angry at a foreign power.

This sounds like a recap of the China events that were making headlines before the tragic earthquake hit Sichuan. But the paragraph applies equally well to the situation exactly a century ago, when the start of the first London Olympics neared, some Irish athletes threatened not to compete, and Chinese were boycotting Japanese goods.

And there would soon be another 1908 occurrence, a gesture of defiance during the Opening Ceremonies, which could have a 2008 counterpart. When the American team paraded, they refused to bow before the King.

Reading newspaper accounts from 1908 can cause déjà vu. Though it also reveals many contrasts between those days and ours.
It shows, for example, that the Olympics were not then what they are now in terms of the attention generated and the sports involved. Only a fraction of the teams and journalists converging on Beijing went to London in 1908, and the athletic competition that generated the most controversy that summer was a “Tug of War” contest.

There’s also much that differentiates Ireland’s history from Tibet’s. To cite just one example, many Irish nationalists demanded complete independence in 1908, while in 2008 the Dalai Lama is simply asking for more cultural autonomy for Tibetans.
The recent call by some Chinese for a boycott of French Carrefour stores—partly to demonstrate displeasure with France because a Chinese torch carrier was roughed up by protesters in Paris—is also different from the 1908 struggle against Japan. That earlier boycott, for example, was much bigger and had nothing to do with the Olympics....


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