When the Olympics Fostered Democratic Progress in Asia

Chalmers Johnson is the author of "Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire" (Holt "Owl" Books, 2001)

When it was announced last week that the 2008 Olympic Games would be held in Beijing, many U.S. commentators sourly compared them to the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany. Or they invoked the 1980 Moscow Olympics that were boycotted by the United States because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. A more accurate and hopeful comparison would be the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.

In May 1980, at precisely the same time that the Soviets were coming to the aid of their puppet regime in Afghanistan, the United States was propping up the dictator of its satellite, South Korea. As thousands protested the military dictatorship of Gen. Chun Doo Hwan, the United States, which was in overall command of all military forces in South Korea, released the troops that Chun used to bayonet and machine-gun civilians at Kwangju. It is likely that more people were killed at Kwangju under a U.S.-sponsored dictatorship than at Tiananmen Square nine years later under a communist dictatorship.

Backed by the United States, Chun thought he could do anything. In order to give his brutal rule some greater degree of popular support, he sought and won the 1988 Olympics for Seoul. But the 24th Olympiad actually proved to be his undoing. During 1987, student demonstrators fought repeatedly with Chun’s police, demanding a constitutional government. South Korea’s increasingly affluent middle class backed the students. During April and June, Chun stonewalled on political change and proposed his fellow coup plotter, Gen. Roh Tae Woo, as his successor.


The country erupted in violent demonstrations, and this time the protesters knew that the government dared not use the armed forces because that would have caused the cancellation of the Olympics. After his police tortured to death one protesting student, Chun was forced to retire.

In order to go ahead with the games, his successor, Roh, on June 19, 1987, accepted the people’s demands for constitutional reform and a stop to police surveillance of civilian politicians. Elections on April 26, 1988, ended the authoritarian regime in South Korea and inaugurated parliamentary democracy. This was the most important case in East Asia of democracy being established from below by the people. The September ’88 Seoul Olympics were a glorious success.

Similarly, the Beijing 2008 Olympics probably will guarantee peace and stability in East Asia for at least another decade. It might even promote a democratization of China comparable to that which occurred in Korea in 1987. China has agreed that the Olympic torch will proceed from Mount Olympus in Greece through Taiwan en route to Beijing, so war across the Taiwan Strait becomes highly unlikely.

However, peace achieved by the Asians themselves is viewed by many in the Bush administration as a serious obstacle to the so-called national missile defense proposal. The situations in North Korea and in the Taiwan Strait are the Pentagon’s main pretexts for its “Star Wars” plans. Continuing to move toward deployment in a peaceful and stable Asia would show the world that the administration’s true goal is to maintain global hegemony based on a supposed invulnerability to nuclear deterrence.

It was a hopeful day for mankind when the International Olympic Committee assigned the 2008 Games to China. It could contribute to the liberalization of China and just might help the world survive the Bush administration’s warmongering.