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Prof. Peter Ho: ‘Calls to boycott the Olympic Games reveal lack of knowledge of the Chinese situation’

22 January 2008

Comedian Erik van Muiswinkel recently appealed to Dutch sportsmen and women not to travel to Beijing for the Olympic Games. In his opinion we can thus make clear to China that we do not approve of the way that China deals with human rights issues. In the meantime, the matter is being debated at a high political level, and the Chinese ambassador in the Netherlands has indicated that the feelings of the Chinese people have been hurt. Peter Ho, too, China expert and Professor of International Development Studies at the University of Groningen, is against Van Muiswinkel’s appeal. ‘I think his appeal illustrates his lack of knowledge about the situation in China.’

According to Ho there is more than one side to the story. ‘First, it is clear that Van Muiswinkel – and those who share his opinion – do not properly understand developments in China at the moment. It is no longer the authoritarian and dictatorial state that it was in the past. One fundamental development is the division of the three powers, something that has been going on for about twenty years. But no-one appears to have noticed this, probably because such fundamental processes are not very visible.’


The picture that most people have of China is still that of the Maoist state of decades ago, thinks Ho. They do not see what is happening at the moment or the way that the country has developed in the recent past. Ho: ‘If you only look at the surface then you still see dispossessed farmers and intimidated lawyers. I can imagine that you would then think that not all is well with human rights. Only when you look back at the 1970s, when the reforms began, can you see how much has changed and is changing.’

Country under the microscope

Ho also seriously questions how a boycott could possibly work to improve human rights. ‘It seems to me to be a completely pointless measure. Holding the Olympic Games in China will actually have a positive effect. What you are actually doing is putting the country under a microscope, with the result being that it has to watch much more carefully what it is doing in the field of human rights.’


One often-heard argument against the boycott is that sport and politics should be kept separate. According to Ho, however, that’s hardly possible. ‘Politics is always going to get involved – especially when it’s as big an event as the Olympic Games. I think that it’s actually important for China to be given the opportunity to organize something like this. That’s why there was so much enthusiasm when the Games were awarded to China; at last they were receiving some recognition from the international community.’


For a long time Ho was also personally involved in negotiations where human rights played a role. He noticed then that many things could be stated openly. ‘The point is how it is said’, thinks Ho. ‘There’s a lot of goodwill on China’s side to resolve difficult issues, even human rights issues. But it would be an illusion to think that such matters can be resolved in a single year.’ In addition, according to Ho it would be the Netherlands who would suffer in the long run. ‘The Netherlands is a pinprick on the world map, whereas China is emerging as a global power. The only country to suffer from such a boycott would be the Netherlands itself.’

Curriculum Vitae

Peter Ho is the director of the Centre for Development Studies and Professor of International Development Studies at the Faculty of Spatial Sciences of the University of Groningen. Between 1997 and 2002, Ho was the personal Chinese interpreter for Minister Van Aartsen.

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.11 p.m.

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