'One World, One Dream'

Friday, August 10, 2007

ON WEDNESDAY, China celebrated the beginning of its one-year countdown to the Beijing Olympics. Festivities and fireworks animated Tiananmen Square, a gathering place known also for its bloody memories. A band onstage guided the crowd through the proud new Beijing pop anthem "We Are Ready."

Human rights activists, with less pomp but considerable courage, also observed the Olympics pre-anniversary.

On Tuesday, 40 well-known scholars, lawyers and writers released an open letter to Chinese and world leaders. The letter expressed, respectfully, deep concerns over China's human rights policies, particularly in light of the Beijing Olympic Committee's stated objectives of hosting an open, green, and humane Olympics.

Such high-profile open letters are relatively rare; a similar letter, released in 2002 by a larger but less well-known group of activists, landed quite a few in prison. The new letter, much like those in the past, advocated amnesty for political prisoners, the return of exiles, greater press freedom and protection of residents evicted from their homes to make way for Olympics construction. These recommendations, like most other requests in the letter, are consistent with not only the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, which China signed, but China's own constitution.

They are not, however, consistent with government practice. The one-year countdown to the Olympics also elicited new international reports about the worsening human rights situation in China. This week, at least three human rights organizations -- Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists -- released studies detailing destruction of life and liberty. They all noted that, despite promises from the Chinese government that giving China the Olympics would promote human rights, the upcoming Olympics have been used as an excuse, or in many cases an incentive, to squash political dissidents and quash embarrassing news.

In cracking down on journalists, activists, petitioners and Internet users, China is tarnishing the Olympics. It could begin to salvage the reputation of the sporting event, and of itself, by responding to these brave letter writers not with punishment but with a change in policy. A good first step might be changing the 2008 Olympics motto, as the signatories suggested, from "One World, One Dream" to "One World, One Dream, Universal Human Rights."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company