The Chinese Grand Prix and human rights

This week the decision to hold this year’s Olympic games in Beijing has come under intense scrutiny. The Olympic torch relay has been disrupted by demonstrators protesting against China’s appalling human rights record. The fear is that holding the Olympics in Beijing will legitimise the authoritarian Chinese government. The flipside to that argument is that the Olympics will shine a light on human rights abuses in China and force the government to clean up its act.

The thing is, as we F1 fans know, the Olympics is not the first major worldwide sporting event to be held in China. The Chinese Grand Prix is almost certainly one of China’s biggest annual sporting events, providing worldwide exposure. I have to admit that I was disappointed that little was made of the human rights issue when Formula 1 first arrived in China in 2004.

There are a whole host of reasons you could use to protest against the Chinese regime. Its treatment of the people of Tibet is just the tip of the iceberg. The Chinese Government an undemocratic, totalitarian, Communist one. Corruption is rife. Indeed, one man who was instrumental in bringing F1 to Shangai, Yu Zhifei, has since been jailed for corruption. Political and religious freedom is severely restricted. Even the number of children people can have is restricted to one, leading to widespread infanticide, particularly of young girls.

Yet Formula 1 is all too happy to race there. I can’t help feeling that there is some hypocrisy in the F1 community here. Currently Max Mosley finds himself under intense pressure for simulating torture. Meanwhile, nothing is said about a government that actively engages in torture.

It could be argued that F1 and politics shouldn’t mix. Maybe it is not the role of the F1 community to make value judgements on these issues. A frequent argument put forward by governments like China’s is that its critics judge on the basis of western values and should be more tolerant of local traditions. Can Formula 1 legitimately call itself a World Championship if it insists on western values?

Even then, you can even turn many of the criticisms of China’s regime back on western governments. Even the most liberal western governments engage in freedom-restricting behaviour.

You could even say that the Olympics is a special case because it is an inherently politicised event. For all the platitudes about the “Olympic spirit” and how the Olympics can bring the world together, the fact is that several times in the past century the event has been one of the world’s prime platforms for political willy-waving and Cold War posturing. The Olympics go hand-in-hand with politics and international relations.

Yet Formula 1 has not been immune to the influences of international relations. The South African Grand Prix was taken off the calendar for several years from the mid-1980s as international boycotts of the country intensified due to its policy of apartheid.

In a sense, Formula 1’s reaction to China is simply a reflection of the wider world’s Janus-like approach towards human rights. Cynics say that western governments keep quiet about the Chinese regime because it is such an important trading partner which has helped keep inflation low for the past few decades.

Still, I am surprised that there is never much fuss made about the fact that Formula 1 is happy to race in China. I wonder if the extra publicity being generated for the cause of human rights in China this year will lead the spotlight to be turned on Formula 1 just as it has been turned on the Olympics.

This could be a developing issue for F1. From next year, a grand prix will be held in another totalitarian country. The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix will be held in the United Arab Emirates, a country which does not hold democratic elections and has a poor human rights record.

What do you think? Is it acceptable for F1 to turn a blind eye to despotic regimes? Am I making too much of an issue of this?


  1. There was an interesting debate on this subject at F1 Fanatic a couple of months ago. It is somewhat difficult for me to answer the questions you pose in this entry completely objectively because China’s laws prevent me from even spectating “live” at the Chinese Grand Prix due to having Asperger’s Syndrome (it is classified as a mental disorder and people with mental disorders are banned from entering China).

    There’s a simple reason why not much fuss was made when F1 announced it was going to China. F1 is not considered to be any kind of statement on a country’s ethics. At most, it is considered a statement on a country’s economy. China’s economy is strong, therefore Bernie wants to go there. I would argue that China’s extreme focus on the economy is part of the reason why it runs roughshod over its people’s freedoms (note that Chinese has no direct equivalent of human rights in its language, the cause of much frustration). You make an excellent point about the reason why the corporations keep quiet about China. As long as F1 is so dependent on corporate money, it will be bound to corporate ethics. This is why so few complaints have been aired about ethics of any kind (even the Mosley case, when no direct loss of income could be foreseen from a complaint, was such that F1 feared to have the air of anything that opposed the corporate ethics of those pouring money in – Mallya’s comments about his sponsors demonstrate that perfectly).

    As it happens, the main point of the Chinese GP is most likely to bring in foreign capital. Due to the way TV contracts work (money going to Bernie and not to the countries whose races are screened), if China cannot get foreigners to visit its race, then it will lose the main purpose of holding its race, even if all those people watched it on TV instead.

    The Olympics, unlike F1, is supposed to be apolitical due to its own creed. As such, when it goes to places where concepts like freedom of speech are regarded with suspicion (at best) from the local authorities, it is considered to have broken the unspoken covenant it has with its spectators. That’s why the protests are happening now and not when the Chinese Grand Prix were announced. However, F1 lives in the same world as the Beijing Olympics, so is likely to get hit by some of the shrapnel of the Games – especially if the anti-China movement gathers enough inertia to outlast the Beijing Games.

    Every country has breaches of human rights (ask any psychiatric support organisation), so it is difficult for me to suggest boycotting an event simply on those grounds. However, I believe sports should consider the ethical implications of their decisions like every other endeavour and behave accordingly. If that means boycotting certain countries, then so be it. If it means staying in them while helping the progression to the countries involved being more ethical, then that’s fine too. Ignoring ethics entirely, however, is not compatible with the 21st-century world.

  2. Like it or not, the F1 world is about excess. I think it’s a crucial and fundamental part of its nature. I always enjoyed that crazy and elitist essence. I guess that enormous waste that in many ways F1 racing means can make us feel weird or even bad about it, when considering social or political that are really important. But this show it’s a different world. In a smaller scale, it’s like those efforts to make F1 look like a ecologist activity: KERS (racing is anything but sustainable) or trimming minutes in Q3 (they said the reason wasting less fuel, but the fact is that those minutes were just boring). Maybe it’s a good idea trying to use F1 to solve some real problems, and the intentions are good too, no doubt. But changing those things that are inherent to F1 will bring a different show.

  3. Thanks for the great comment Alianora! I had forgotten about Keith’s post. I did read it at the time, but I didn’t have the time to cover it because I was busy with my dissertation. I think subconsciously I’ve rehashed a lot of Keith’s arguments here though. I’ll have to have a closer look at the comments there when I get the chance.

    Another thought occurs to me. It surprises me not just that the F1 community has ignored this elephant in the room, but also that the various human rights / pro-Tibet / etc pressure groups also seem to have turned a blind eye to F1’s foray into China. Maybe they think F1 is a lost cause, or maybe they think F1 is not important enough. They might be right.

    Can, interesting thoughts. I happen to believe that F1 can be a force for good. I will leave out my views on this until another time though because I think the points you raise will make a great post for the front page. So keep an eye out for that over the next couple of days. 😉

  4. Duncan, just to thank you for putting up with my horrible english, I am always struggling with it! Be sure I will be over this site frequently, is great having an english open perspective on F1, difficult to find in Spain too.

  5. It’s my pleasure Can. Your English was excellent. I didn’t even realise it was a secondary language for you. In fact, the English skills of all the foreign contributors here amazes me. It’s certainly a lot better than my Spanish, which is non-existent!

  6. I went to all Chinese GPs since they started in 2004, simply because it is closest one for me to go to. Also I spent way too much time in China because of my work. The more time I spend there, the more I hate the place. But unfortunately China is now exactly what the rest of the world raised it to be … Overconfident, arrogant, irreplacable, powerfull ($$) …

    I still remember the debate on F1Fanatic. When I was reading guess where I was at that time, in Shanghai. I think there were several good points raised there, but many comments were very naive … Obviously opinions from people who never set foot in that country.

    The mentatility of Mainland Chinese people drives me crazy every day, that’s how often I have to deal with them. You think the governemnt there does not make sense ? That is only the tip of the iceberg. You will be lucky if you find someone who makes sense … I have found about 5 people who make sense there over past 10 years….

    Reacting to problems in bad way, like they did in Tibet now or Beijing 20 years earlier ? Try to run into problems in a daily business, reaction will be same from people who have no connection to the government…. That’s the way they deal with problems …

    The brain behind F1 track in jail for corruption ? Well he is not there because he is corrupt, he is there because he made enemy with someone else who has more power and did not get enough $$ him/herself … Corrpution is the national sport, more people are involved than in any other sport …

    The country is simply like that, unless the people change, the system will not… And to change billion plus people will take time. But I am afraid they will change us all before first …

    Now back to F1 – Hard to compare F1 and Olympics. Both are about money these days, but Olympics still try to pretend it is about something else. If the Olympics were not about $$$ China would never get them.

    F1 is money, so F1 has to be in China, whether we like it or not. If you think manufacturers are upset about not having US GP this year, wait to hear what would happen if China was to go …

    I wish the whole “China issue” was black and white, but unfortunately it is not. And while big bucks rule, all we can do about that is getting carried away in debates … Unfortunately.

    Sorry for this rant …

  7. I think the best thing that was said in reaction to the post I wrote was that not going to China would be a bit of a “this is our ball and you can’t play with it” approach. The various problems people have with China have never been as highly publicised as they have in the build-up to this year’s Olympics.

    What’s disappointing as a motor racing fan is that neither F1’s race there since 2004, not other international motor races (like the A1GP one I just watched) have inspired the same level of discussion.

    And F1 has had occasions in the past where there’s been controversy over it visiting certain countries, such as Argentina during the Falklands War, or South Africa. Africa under Apartheid

  8. I know where your coming from & I agree….BUT. How far do we take this? India is about to get a GP; horrific use of child labour & a corrupt legal system. Where is Bahrain on women’s rights & it’s penal code. Dr Mahtir in Malaysia is hardly a paragon of democracy. Where do you draw the line, although China’s human rights record is appalling.

    If you were to draw a long bow, has not the U.S invaded & occupied Iraq? Should we block a return to Indy?

    Sounds like a cop out on my part but I’m kind of burying my head in the sand. Further, if some Russian oil tycoon was prepared to hand over some ill gotten dollars, Bernie would be street racing in Moscow in a heartbeat. Now where exactly is Putin on the open & honest democracy front, are journalist free to write critical stories of Putin’s administration?

    F1 seems to occupy a commercially “grey area”, nothing to be proud of but it is the reality.