Games Over Truth

Saturday, April 5, 2008

PITY THE POOR Chinese propagandist. The more frantically he works to justify his government's behavior, the more unjustifiable the behavior becomes. This week, the sentencing of a peaceful human rights activist, Hu Jia, to 3 1/2 years in prison made the task that much more difficult.

On one level, you might argue that the charge on which Mr. Hu, 34, was convicted was absolutely merited. Mr. Hu's crime was to speak some truths about repression in Tibet, the squelching of human rights and so on. He was convicted of "inciting subversion of state power." That may be strictly accurate, given that the Chinese state and the Communist Party that controls it depend for their power on the maintenance of many untruths, such as the fictions that they guarantee autonomy to the Tibetan and Uighur regions, and that China's people enjoy freedom of speech and other rights supposedly guaranteed in China's constitution. The peaceful expression of truth may indeed be subversive to such a system. But that's not a terribly winning argument for the propagandist.

Mr. Hu was arrested after he testified to the European Parliament and published a letter urging a focus on human rights as the Summer Olympics approach. So that our readers can judge for themselves the subversiveness or criminality of Mr. Hu's work, we publish that letter on the opposite page today. No doubt its authors would have liked to update their information, particularly regarding Tibet, but they are no longer free to express themselves.

In pushing back against the letter's suggestion of a relationship between the Olympics and the nature of China's political system, Chinese officials are receiving a great deal of assistance from Olympic officials. The latter love to declaim when convenient on the Games' greater significance to humankind; the Olympic Charter, after all, promotes "a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity." But now that China is going back on the promises that it made in order to win the Games for Beijing -- to improve its human rights policies, to provide unfettered access to foreign media -- squirming Olympic officials are insisting that the Games are about nothing but time trials and winning scores.

China sought to host the Olympics to showcase its new confidence as it emerges into the 21st century as a great power and an engaged global actor. But in its refusal to talk with the Dalai Lama and in its hounding of powerless young men such as Hu Jia, the Chinese regime looks anything but confident. The louder its propaganda machine seeks to trumpet manufactured evidence against Buddhist monks or to convince the world that Hu Jia is a dangerous criminal, the less confident it looks.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company