Beijing Olympics: Shadow Over a Coming-Out Party

China pursued its bid for the 2008 Olympics to burnish its image as a rising world power, also framing the games as an opportunity to improve human rights and integrate with the rest of the world. The approach of the Summer Games, however, has instead served to showcase China’s poor record on human rights. China has launched a new crackdown on domestic activists in an effort to prevent embarrassment during the games. Yet even as it stamps out dissent at home, criticism of China has intensified overseas because of China’s close ties with oppressive regimes. Public figures from Britain’s Prince Charles to Steven Spielberg decline to participate, expressing disappointment about perceived Chinese complicity in the bloodshed in Darfur. Six months before the opening ceremonies, China is discovering that the Olympics may prove more trouble than it had bargained for. – YaleGlobal

Beijing Olympics: Shadow Over a Coming-Out Party

China’s human-rights abuses and controversial foreign policy could overshadow the games
Paul Mooney
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Lighting a fire: Actress Mia Farrow outside the Chinese embassy in

Washington leads protest against Chinese inaction over killings in Darfur

BEIJING: When China’s Communist leadership decided to bid for the Olympics, the hope was that the games would be the great coming-out party, a chance to show the world the country’s remarkable economic achievements and offer final proof, if that was needed, that China is ready to take its place as a world power.

But with less than six months remaining until the opening ceremony on August 8, that goal appears distant. Instead the Olympics are becoming the magnet for unfavorable attention to China’s human-rights abuses at home and its unseemly collusion with other human-rights abusers in the world like Sudan.

In theory, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. In 2001, Beijing was keen to win the bid to host the Olympics and promised a doubting world that the games would be good for China. Beijing Olympics official Liu Jingmin won over the International Olympics Committee when he said the games would be "an opportunity to foster democracy, improve human rights, and integrate China with the rest of the world."

The opposite seems to be happening. “The preparations for the Games are proving to have a negative impact on human rights in China,” says Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher in Hong Kong with Human Rights Watch. “What we are seeing is a fairly comprehensive crackdown on activists designed to prevent news of human rights from getting abroad. The Chinese authorities are pulling out every stop to prevent what they consider embarrassing news from reaching an international audience.”

The latest victim of the Chinese campaign to silence activists is Hu Jia. The 34-year-old former AIDS activist was a one-man human-rights band, keeping in close contact with dissidents, farmers and human-rights defenders and their families, collecting information and putting it out on the web for the world to see.

His work ended the afternoon of December 27 when some 20 plainclothes police charged into Hu’s apartment and dragged him away. He was later formally charged with subverting state security. "The action taken against Hu Jia cannot escape being connected to the Olympics," the San Francisco–based Duihua Foundation announced in a statement.

Countless others have also been punished in connection with the Olympics. Ye Guozhu was sentenced to four years in prison for protesting forced evictions related to the Olympics; Yang Chunlin, a former factory worker, has been charged with subverting state security for launching an online petition called "We Want Human Rights, Not the Olympics"; and Liu Jie was sentenced to re-education through labor for protesting land issues. The list goes on.

Li Xiaorong, professor of political philosophy at the University of Maryland, says there’s been a systematic rounding up of undesirables – the homeless, vagabonds or petitioners – from the streets of the capital, adding that people were being forcibly sent back home, sentenced to re-education camps and detention centers, even confined to mental hospitals. "The government doesn't want these poor and downtrodden coming onto the streets of Beijing in the run-up to the Olympics," says Li. "It wouldn't look good for the image of China as a powerful and wealthy country."

So far, the government is impervious to criticisms.

“Generally speaking, they don’t worry too much about international pressure,” says Teng Biao, professor of law at the China University of Political Science and Law. “The Chinese government feels it’s very powerful and its position on the world stage is very strong.”

That was until February 12, when Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg rocked Beijing with his public resignation as an artistic adviser to the Olympics. Spielberg expressed disappointment that China had not done more to halt the violence in the western Sudanese region of Darfur. China provides weapons to Sudan and accounts for two-thirds of its oil exports, and critics expect it to exert influence over the Khartoum government. Spielberg may have hoped to change policy on Darfur by working within the system, but progress did not materialize.

When asked to comment on Spielberg’s announcement, US President George Bush told the BBC that he intended to attend the Olympics. “I have a little different platform than Steven Spielberg, so I get to talk to President Hu Jintao,” Bush boasted. “I do remind him that he can do more to relieve the suffering in Darfur."

Many human-rights activists argue, however, that quiet diplomacy has no impact on China.

Human Rights Watch’s Bequelin says that beginning in 2006, the government went after every major human-rights activist, ticking off a half dozen names. He blames the international community for remaining “passive, silent and complicit” in the face of this campaign.

“All they do is raise these issues privately,” he says. “But this is nonsense. At such a low level there is no impact. The only thing that has a strong impact is when you speak out.”

Human-rights workers say that attendance of world leaders at the Olympics undermines the possibility of effecting change in China. “The Games are going ahead, and these leaders have accepted invitations to come without making any conditions for improving human rights,” says Li.

Public world pressure is spiraling, however, and Communist Party leadership is no doubt beginning to worry.

In January, Prince Charles, an ardent supporter of the Dalai Lama, announced that he would not attend the Olympics.

Also on February 12, nine Nobel Peace laureates, including South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Elie Wiesel, joined other celebrities in sending a joint letter to Hu, urging him to do something to halt the bloodshed in Darfur.

Spielberg’s resignation sent a flurry of news reports focused on China’s role in Darfur and the human-rights situation at home.

Dream for Darfur, backed by actress Mia Farrow, announced on February 14 that it would pressure 19 companies associated with the games, including Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Visa, Panasonic and Adidas, to highlight their “moral obligation” regarding China’s role in Sudan. There’s also talk of a call for turning off TV sets while advertisers sell their products during the games. Billions of dollars of business ride on the global broadcast of the Olympics.

There’s speculation that music producer Quincy Jones, who is writing the theme song for the Olympics, could be the next high-profile figure to abandon the games. A spokesman told a British newspaper that the reports were “speculation,” but conceded that Jones was “keeping an eye on the situation.”

Celebrity pressures aside, the Communist Party can expect a wide range of interest groups to launch actions over the next few months: supporters of a free Tibet, house Christians, Falun Gong adherents, political dissidents, death-penalty opponents, anti-abortionists and environmentalists – just to name a few.

Teng says he doesn’t favor a boycott of the Olympics, arguing it might result in a severe government backlash against opponents. “But if foreign countries don’t give China pressure on human rights,” he says, “the Olympics will bring no good to China at all.”

The year 2008 promises to be the most politicized Olympics in recent memory and it’s taking place in the internet age where information zips around the globe with a push of a send button. The party machine will find itself hard-pressed to deal with the deluge of criticism that it can’t manipulate.

By seeking global acceptance of the wealth and power of the one-party state through the glitzy Olympics, China may be discovering the cost. Policy changes and liberalization required to win the world’s approval could weaken its iron grip on power. And that’s something China is not willing to negotiate.

Paul Mooney, a freelance journalist, has been reporting on China for more than 15 years.

© 2008 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.