Olympic Shame

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

AS CHINA'S COMMUNIST leadership conceived it, this year's Olympic Games were to mark the country's debut as a global power, with a booming economy and rapidly modernizing society. Instead, it's beginning to look as though the Games could become a showcase for violent repression, censorship and political persecution by a regime that has failed to rise above the level of police state. Though they present themselves as worldly and reformist, President Hu Jintao and his leadership group seem unable to grasp how the policies they have pursued in recent months have undermined the honor of staging the Olympics and risk destroying China's international prestige.

Even before the upheaval in Tibet this month, Mr. Hu's government was tightening its grip: shutting down publications, imprisoning dissidents and harassing lawyers in the name of pre-Olympic harmony. Officials have reneged on pledges to loosen media controls, not only in Tibet -- where the foreign press has been denied access to the carnage -- but in Beijing itself; as of this week, authorities won't allow live broadcasts from Tiananmen Square, site of the deadly crackdown on pro-democracy students two decades ago.

If foreign media have trouble, domestic dissidents have it far worse. They are being imprisoned just for criticizing the country's handling of the Olympics, even though China's constitution protects free speech. On Monday, land-rights activist Yang Chunlin was sentenced to five years in prison for starting a petition with the slogan, "We want human rights, not the Olympics." Last week, another dissident, Hu Jia, was put on trial on charges of subversion; he was arrested after testifying to the European Parliament via the Internet and publishing a letter urging the world to focus on human rights concerns in connection with the Olympics.

In foreign policy, there has been no discernible change in Beijing's support for some of the world's most criminal regimes, from genocide-sponsoring Sudan to Burma's brutal junta. China continues to prop up the Stalinist dictatorship of North Korea, even as that regime fails to comply with a commitment to disclose and dismantle its nuclear weapons. It is helping to block international sanctions against Iran, even as it rapidly increases trade with a regime that is flouting U.N. orders that it freeze its nuclear program.

Unfortunately, the Chinese leadership may have been encouraged by Western leaders -- including President Bush -- to believe it could maintain these policies and still hold a successful Olympics. Though French President Nicolas Sarkozy has now said publicly that he would not rule out boycotting the opening ceremony in Beijing in response to the repression in Tibet, Mr. Bush has not altered his ill-considered statement that he would attend the games as "a sports fan." Yesterday, the White House reiterated that the president plans to attend the opening ceremony, gratuitously signaling to Mr. Hu that he need not fear that imprisoning dissidents or beating Tibetan monks will affect even that most political of Olympic events.

In fact, whether or not Mr. Bush attends, it looks increasingly likely that the Olympics will serve to remind the world not of China's emerging greatness but of its continuing denial of freedom to its citizens, its repression of minorities and its amoral alliances with rogue states. Mr. Bush apparently prides himself on his ability to talk with Mr. Hu. If so, he should tell the Chinese president that his policies are turning these games politically toxic.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company