A Torch Job To Liberty

By Sally Jenkins
Friday, April 18, 2008

To the Chinese government, the word "harmony" is apparently synonymous with suppression. The Olympic torch is in danger of being extinguished for good, but not by demonstrators. Every day it's put out by Chinese officials and their exported paramilitary force, who seem to think the Olympic spirit is not about accommodating the world, but about forcing the world to accommodate them.

Why shouldn't they think that, given the feeble responses of the International Olympic Committee and virtually every government (except Australia's) to their bullying? The awarding of the Summer Games to Beijing was supposed to change the behavior of Chinese officials on human rights. Instead, Chinese officials are changing the behavior of others -- even the U.S. president. Excuse me, but where in the Olympic Charter does it say we're all supposed to make compulsory appearances in a giant Leni Riefenstahl-styled propaganda film? The Beijing Games haven't yet begun, but their legacy is already clear: They'll be remembered as the occasion when censorship became an official Olympic value.

Everyone is curbing their tongues to placate tantrum-prone Chinese officials. Earlier this week American athletes at a pre-Games news summit expressed a near-unanimous determination to say exactly nothing while in Beijing, for fear of the reaction. Gymnast Alicia Sacramone and her teammates agreed not to discuss anything because "we don't really like controversy. If I said something wrong -- even by accident, not intentionally -- we just don't need that extra drama." This complicit silence is exactly what China officialdom counts on with its calculatedly indignant screams that the Olympics should not be "political."

By far the creepiest evidence of how Beijing officials have influenced speech is the robotic uniformity of phrasing employed by the IOC and its top corporate sponsors. Clearly, someone has circulated China-favorable talking points and reminded them the government controls 1.3 billion consumers. A few weeks ago, the IOC was asked if it was concerned human rights abuses were actually increasing with the approach of the Games. IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies said, "We believe the Olympics are a force for good."

Next, General Electric chief executive Jeffrey Immelt was asked if he has qualms about being a close business partner with a government that is a world leader in executions, live organ harvesting and brutal censorship. GE is especially associated with the Beijing Games as a sponsor and owner of NBC, which holds the broadcast rights. Immelt declined to be interviewed for this column, but spokeswoman Deirdre Latour called back. "We believe the Olympics are a force for good," she said.

Sam Nunn, a former senator who is on the board of not one but two Olympic sponsors, Coca-Cola and GE, also declined to be interviewed. But during last week's tumultuous torch relay through Paris and San Francisco, Coke spokeswoman Kerry Kerr issued the following statement:

"We firmly believe the Olympics are a force for good."

In fact, the Beijing Olympics are a force of direct, demonstrable malignity. The government has not softened its stance on human rights, as promised, but hardened it in the run-up to the Games. Censorship has increased, not decreased. Some of the poorest communities have suffered -- razed to make room for stadiums, and forced migrant labor used to build them -- not prospered. Peaceful dissidents such as Hu Jia and Yang Chunlin, who merely protested on the Internet, and ethnic minorities in Tibet have been treated more harshly, not less.

Why such a coordinated silence on these issues? There is one American athlete with something other than farina in his spine: Joey Cheek. He identified the real constraint on athletes: funding for their efforts comes from those toadying corporate sponsors. "The USOC has great incentive not to upset these global companies -- athletes as well," he said. "This is what pays for our training. And that brings great pressure not to rock the boat too much."

It's one thing to be considerate of the host -- the Chinese people are different from their government, and are surely entitled to consideration. But it's another to willfully blind and gag oneself to the obvious circumstances in China for the sake of a mass commercial circus. To say that the dissidents behind bars should not distract from the performances on the parallel bars, to divorce athletic performance from the fraught circumstances in which stadiums were built, is to perpetrate a lie. No event held in China can be apolitical. A Beijing Olympics begs the question: How does a totalitarian government with a capitalist economy intend to behave as an international partner?

The answer is obvious in the absurdly choreographed, foreshortened, censored, route-altered torch run: Chinese paramilitary groups and massive security enforce a "journey of harmony" by pushing and shoving through demonstrators.

One person who refuses to play his assigned role is Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. He declined to let the track-suited torch enforcers run roughshod over his country and in a recent speech called for Chinese officials to be more accommodating on human rights. (To read about it, go to John Pomfret's terrific Washington Post blog, "Pomfret's China," at newsweek.washingtonpost.com/postglobal.) Australian journalist Geremie Barmé analyzed the speech as a rejection of Chinese official demands that their international "friends" stick to the script.

"To be a friend of China, the foreigner is often expected to stomach unpalatable situations, and keep silent in the face of egregious behavior. A friend of China might enjoy the privilege of offering the occasional word of caution in private; in the public arena he or she is expected to have the good sense and courtesy to be 'objective.' That is to toe the line, whatever that happens to be. The concept of 'friendship' thus degenerates into little more than an effective tool for emotional blackmail and enforced complicity."

The way to deal with blackmail is to call it out publicly. If Chinese officials don't want mouthy outsiders to go off script and address the uncomfortable questions raised by a Beijing Games, they shouldn't have invited us. It's the deal they made. And on which they are now trying to renege. They shouldn't be allowed to.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company