Will the Diplomatic Boycott of the Olympics Have any Effect on China?Roundup
tags: sports, China, human rights, international relations, Olympic Games
Meghan Herwig is a PhD candidate in History and the Brian Layton Blades Jefferson fellow at the University of Virginia, broadly interested in global political economy and US foreign relations. Her dissertation examines the global turn toward an open trading system in the late-1980s and early-1990s.
The Winter Olympics begin Friday in Beijing, and the event has brought China’s human rights practices back into the public spotlight. Several countries, the United States among them, have announced that their governments will boycott the games to signal their disapproval of recent Chinese actions, especially how the country has treated its Uyghur minority.
This is not the first time other countries have decried China’s treatment of its own population. In fact, 30 years ago, the United States was horrified by China’s human rights abuses during and after student-led protests at Tiananmen Square. American outrage spurred hotly contested debates over whether to impose economic sanctions during both the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations. The latter went furthest, threatening to impose severe sanctions on China unless it improved its treatment of human rights.
But in the end the threat rang hollow, and the reason for that matters today.
Many say Clinton, whose presidential campaign famously, and irreverently, made clear its top political priority — “It’s the economy, stupid!” — was unwilling to cross American business leaders seeking to safeguard their commercial interests in China. But in fact, history shows us that the administration ran up against a different constraint: fear of the collateral damage such sanctions might cause to other East Asian economies and to America’s alliances in the region. Today, when China’s relations with its neighbors are already strained, U.S. efforts to punish China for its human rights practices may be more enduring, as Washington finds a confrontation with Beijing poses less of a threat to U.S. relations with other partners in the Asia.
After Tiananmen Square, the Democratic-led Congress regularly proposed sanctions on China. But President Bush promptly vetoed those bills that passed, arguing that preserving the stability of the U.S.-China relationship was more important than taking a stand on human rights.
But when Clinton upset Bush in the 1992 presidential election, giving Democrats unified control of government, economic sanctions on China became a real possibility. During his presidential campaign, Clinton had famously lambasted Bush for propping up “‘the butchers of Beijing.’”