Targeting the Olympic "Sweatshops"

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Reinhard Krause / Reuters

A worker produces mascots for the Beijing 2008 Olympics at a toy factory in northern China.

The Beijing Olympics is supposed to celebrate China's entry onto the world stage, a major exclamation point in this so-called Chinese Century. With 14 months to go, however, the Chinese government is playing defense against charges of unsportsmanlike conduct off the playing field. From accusations of supporting genocide in Darfur to repressing political dissent at home, most of the attacks have come from longtime critics of China who see the Games as a chance to advance their interests after years of getting nowhere with communist officials. And with the slogan for the games being "One World, One Dream," it may be difficult for the Olympic hosts to ignore the clamor from the rest of the globe.

The latest protests are aimed at working conditions in the factories that make Olympics-related merchandise. Last Sunday, an international group of trade unions issued a report on Chinese sweatshops, citing four factories that have licenses to produce official Olympic goods. According to investigators, the companies employ children as young as 12 in double shifts and at low wages; the firms dock laborers a full day's pay for spending more than 15 minutes in the toilet; they also provide no gear to protect their employees against paint vapors, dust and cotton fibers in plants. The findings on the four Olympic licensees revealed an "appalling disregard for their workers health and for local labor laws," the report said.

For years, garment unions in the West have hemorrhaged jobs to China, with its cheap, non-unionized workers. After Beijing won the '08 games, the unions banded into an alliance, called Play Fair 2008, to spotlight conditions in plants where the right to organize is denied. The report concluded: "The Olympic games is both a symbolic and practical opportunity to ensure that these global sporting events live up to the ideals enshrined in the Olympic charter and that people who enjoy the games can also know that the souvenirs and garments they wear are produced in factories where basic human dignity and labor rights are respected."

It was the latest effort by China's political adversaries to leverage the games to their advantage. In April, four American advocates of Tibetan independence were detained by Chinese authorities after hoisting a banner on Mt. Everest that parodied the Olympic slogan, reading: "One World, One Dream, Free Tibet 2008." A few days after that, Amnesty International released a report charging that Beijing had rounded up political dissidents in the name of protecting Olympic guests from troublemakers. And Darfur activists got attention for labeling the games the "Genocide Olympics" because Beijing, a primary trading partner and supporter of the Sudan, has blocked U.N. Security Council sanctions against Khartoum for the killings in its Darfur region.

Underlying all of this activist rhetoric is the threat of an Olympic boycott, an idea that slipped into the political discussion in a Democratic Presidential debate June 3. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said China could use its influence to bring about a peaceful settlement in Darfur; or, the candidate said, "We say to them, maybe we won't go to the Olympics."

Beijing has been reacting calmly to the criticism. It has made some gestures to try to defuse the issue — for example, it has already sent an envoy to Sudan to encourage government acceptance of a U.N. peacekeeping force in Darfur. Furthermore, Beijing is counting on the excitement leading up to the opening ceremony, and China's legendary hospitality, to take attention away from the protests. In April, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman was quoted in The Washington Post saying that a boycott for "any excuse or political reasons" would flout "the goodwill of the people from all over the world."

It also is likely to backfire on activists, says Richard Bush, a China expert at the Brookings Institution, perhaps reaping retribution against local activists, ethnic minorities and relations with the U.S. Hosting the games is the source of "immense popular pride," he says, "a mark that the Chinese have arrived" after 150 years of humiliation. Beijing blames the U.S. for denying it the honor in 2000. "That we might be trying to do it again confirms the worst belief about the United States, that we are trying to hold them down," says Bush. "To the extent we're looking around for ways to leverage Chinese behavior in Sudan and other places, it's best to look for other kinds of levers."