An Olympic Amnesty
China's moment on the world stage is arriving in the wake of a devastating natural disaster. Last month's earthquake and the coming Olympic Games in Beijing should be seen as the most important events in modern China since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and the subsequent crackdown whose anniversary we mark today. The time has come for China's leaders to let go of old wounds and offer an Olympic amnesty to all political prisoners and those of us who were forced into exile for peacefully speaking our minds. Then the Chinese people can work together to build a new China out of the ruins of the tragedy in Chengdu and to engage the world as a nation that respects rights at home and abroad.
In 1993, I was one of 20 high-profile dissidents released from prison as part of China's first charm offensive to secure the Olympics. I was released one month before the International Olympic Committee came to Beijing for an inspection tour. Obviously I was glad to be free, but I recognized that I was being used as a bargaining chip. Many others remained in prison for having peacefully expressed their beliefs.
I publicly supported China's Olympic bids in 1993 and 2001 because I believe the Games can be a boost to my country and a chance for Chinese people to be in touch with the world. I am convinced that China must develop a strong civil society. One way to do that would be to have the international community go to China and engage with our people.
The Olympics provide a rare opportunity to secure the release of many dissidents. But after China's first Olympic bid failed, I was arrested again and sentenced to prison on charges of "subversion." The evidence against me included the fact that I had enrolled in a history correspondence course offered by the University of California.
In 1998, after nearly seven years in prison, I was exiled to the United States in another attempt to manipulate public opinion before President Bill Clinton attended a major summit in China. During both of China's Olympic bids, even after I was freed, my central hope was that the Games would have a catalytic effect on the country's paralyzed political environment.
The Chinese people are not their government. Since 1989, my country and its people have changed much. But the government has changed remarkably little. The many dissidents in prison represent a national tragedy as well as a political humiliation. During both of its attempts to host the Olympics, Beijing vowed before the world to improve China's human rights conditions. Yet the autocrats who control the Communist Party -- the only political force allowed to operate in the country since 1949 -- continue to crack down on any who seek even the most basic human rights.
To distract from this record of repression, the Chinese government is attempting to use the Games to once again propagate a new economic "leap forward" model, with narrow-minded nationalism as its flag. I fear that the generation that came of age during the Cultural Revolution has lost the ability to understand what it truly means to be patriotic and to love one's country. Nationalist fervor is no substitute for an open, transparent and democratic system of government.
Thousands of Chinese are serving long prison terms for activities that are normal political engagement in most of the world. The exact number of political prisoners is not known because the government will not provide official figures. An estimated 300,000 Chinese citizens have been sent to "re8education through labor" camps across the country, often for political activities.
But even in China's darkest corners, there are signs of light. The explosion of domestic Chinese media reporting of the earthquake's human tragedy -- despite initial efforts at government control -- could herald a seismic shift in the government's attitude toward the media.
Much as earthquake recovery will require rebuilding, public trust in the government must be rebuilt. The Summer Games could help. A key first step would be to release those Chinese citizens who were arrested but did not break any laws, and allowing those of us who have been forced into exile to return and enjoy the Olympics in our own country.
It's been 19 years since the Tiananmen bloodshed. There are just two months to go before the Beijing Games. This is the moment for the International Olympic Committee, corporate sponsors, world leaders, athletes and sports fans across the globe to ask China's government to free its political prisoners and to allow those of us in exile to at last return home.
Beijing must fulfill its human rights promises and potential if the Chinese people are to emerge the true winners of the 2008 Summer Games.
The writer, a leading student organizer of the 1989 Tiananmen democracy movement, was imprisoned for nearly seven years before being exiled to the United States in 1998. He recently completed a doctorate in East Asian studies at Harvard University.
© 2008 Tribune Media Services Inc.