In The Nation, University of California, Irvine Professor Jeffrey Wasserstrom writes on some recent and not-so-recent history of anti-foreign boycotts in China:
Between the 1910s and 1930s, several foreign powers found themselves the target of Chinese student-led boycotts. In the majority of cases, Japanese products were the ones that were shunned, in protest of Japan’s encroachments into North China. One of the biggest of these took place during the May Fourth Movement of 1919, one of the many Chinese patriotic struggles that have taken place around this time of year.
In more recent years, boycotts have remained a regular part of Chinese society. In May 1999, when I happened to be in Beijing, I saw “Don’t Buy KFC” and “Don’t Drink Coke” posters go up on local campuses soon after American bombs hit the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. In spring 2005, a series of rowdy demonstrations against Japan broke out.
These protests were triggered by talk of Tokyo getting a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and complaints about how certain Japanese textbooks treated the history of World War II. Yet again there was a call for a boycott.
So while the dueling boycotts of 2008 are linked, calls to pull out of the games and calls to refuse to shop at Carrefour have very different historical echoes and fit into different historical traditions. They also summon up some very different historical moments.
Nineteen thirty-six and 1980 have been common touchstone years in Western debates on Olympic boycotts. Those calling for action against Beijing say it is time to do what the world should have done when the Nazis played host to the games in 1936–refuse to grant legitimacy to a brutal regime. Those opposing a full or partial boycott of the Olympics like to counter by pointing out how little good it did when the US pulled out of the 1980 Moscow games.
Though Wasserstrom doesn’t mention it, probably because it’s not part of his point, the differences between the Nazis of 1936, the Soviet Union of 1980, and the People’s Republic of China in 2008 are nearly too obvious to state.