Human Rights, and Wrongs

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By Sally Jenkins
Friday, February 22, 2008

International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge spoke yesterday, and, as usual, he didn't say anything. Which is just how the Chinese government likes it. The idea of awarding the Olympics to Beijing was that it would help change the behavior of the Chinese government. Instead, the Chinese government is changing the behavior of everyone else.

They should start a new Olympic event for Rogge in Beijing: the Apolitical Head Duck, which should take place at the conclusion of the Dissident Roundup. Every week, another Olympic suit from a supposedly free society issues an edict that the athletes who go to the Beijing Olympics must watch their tongues about the host country. Let's think about that for a moment: Competitors should refrain from speaking their minds about the actions of the Chinese government, for fear of offending their hosts, who are known to flog with truncheons those who speak their minds.

But the Olympics are apolitical. Right?

Last week, Chinese officials had a public fit when Steven Spielberg dropped out as artistic director of the Opening and Closing Ceremonies because he couldn't stomach their dealings in Darfur. They ridiculed him as a naive Hollywood guy. Actually, what's naive is to think that any sports event held in Beijing could possibly be apolitical. Spielberg quite smartly recognized something that the IOC, along with corporate sponsors such as McDonald's and Visa, will have to reckon with before these Games are done: Silence is not neutral. It's complicit.

Less than six months before the Opening Ceremonies, the notion that the Beijing Games will be the occasion of mere polite sport is proving to be nonsense. Human Rights Watch has documented a systematic crackdown on dissent in China. Critics of the government and their family members have been jailed or placed under house arrest, charged with "subversion" to silence them. Censorship of the Internet has been heightened. Serious human rights violations linked to the preparation of the Games include millions of forced evictions, land seizures and suppression of petitioners.

"The IOC is a catalyst for change in China but it is not a panacea," Rogge told the Associated Press yesterday.

This is the exact opposite of what Chinese officials promised when they pleaded for the Games in 2001. In his final presentation before the IOC vote, Beijing Mayor and Bidding Committee president Liu Qi proclaimed, "I want to say that the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games will have the following special features: They will help promote our economic and social progress and will also benefit the further development of our human rights cause."

Vice Mayor Liu Jingmin, another key Olympic official, told The Washington Post in 2001, "By applying for the Olympics, we want to promote not just the city's development, but the development of society, including democracy and human rights."

Liu was full of promises for what wonderful change would be wrought in China if it got the Olympics: "If people have a target like the Olympics to strive for, it will help us establish a more just and harmonious society, a more democratic society, and help integrate China into the world."

The IOC bought the pitch. One person who fell for it was Dick Pound, who back then was an IOC official helping to "franchise" the Olympics by selling them to networks and corporate sponsors. "Part of its presentation to the IOC members was an acknowledgment of the concerns expressed in many parts of the world regarding its record on human rights, coupled with a pre-emptive suggestion that the IOC could help increase progress on such matters by awarding the Games to China," Pound said.

So there it is. The IOC explicitly awarded the Games to Beijing on the basis of political promises regarding human rights. Now contrast those promises and expectations to China's performance the past seven years. And then listen to Rogge's apologia on behalf of the IOC, so flat and cautious. "We believe the Olympic Games are a force for good, but don't expect from the Games what they cannot deliver," he said.

In fairness to the IOC and the participants, the Beijing Games present an ethical morass. It's tempting to see the Games as a chance for a stunning cultural exchange, a gateway to better understanding of a gorgeous continent and culture, and we should be respectful while we're there. We should also respect the Olympic Charter, which says, "No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues, or other areas."

But the Olympic Charter was never intended as a curb to basic free speech. Nor was it intended to be diplomatic cover for offenses against humanity. Yet, that's exactly what the IOC is in danger of offering, along with, oh, roughly $2 billion in advertising and sponsorship, when it doesn't press Chinese officials to fulfill their basic human rights promises.

There may be only so much Rogge can do. But American corporate executives will find it less easy to cop Rogge's plea of ineffectuality, and they certainly can't plead that they are "apolitical." Seven of the top 12 Beijing Games sponsors are American, and they have poured money into the event in return for Olympic-sized access to the Chinese market. You should know who they are: Visa, Kodak, Johnson & Johnson, McDonald's, General Electric, John Hancock and Coca-Cola.

Silence from these entities isn't good enough. Their presence in China isn't neutral. McDonald's, GE and Johnson & Johnson and the other sponsors are full partners with the Chinese government in this Olympics, and they should have to justify their participation in the face of China's inaction on human rights.

We've passed from a state of optimistic dreaminess about what they might accomplish, to an uncomfortable intermediate stage of denial, in which we try tell ourselves that the Games are mere games. Pretty soon, we're going to have to come fully awake to the notion when the Olympics were awarded to Beijing, they plunged us all into the politics of China.

If the IOC wanted to remain apolitical, it never should have gone there.

"All we're asking anyone to do is encourage the Chinese government to uphold their own voluntary commitments on human rights," said Human Rights Watch spokeswoman Minky Worden. "Can you imagine a more modest request? It shouldn't be any type of hardship for any country, sponsor, government, or Olympic body to remind the Chinese government that they made these commitments, and it's expected that they will be upheld."


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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