WITH THREE weeks remaining until the opening of the Olympic Games, China's Communist leadership is relentlessly pursuing a strategy doomed to failure. Through censorship, visa restrictions, intimidation and brute repression, China's leadership is trying to prevent any public expression by Chinese citizens or foreign visitors that conflicts with the image it wishes to project to the world -- that of a "harmonious" society. In pursuit of this goal, China is blatantly violating the promises it made when it was awarded the Games, including that it would allow unrestricted media coverage. And it is setting itself up for a political and public relations disaster when -- as seems inevitable -- a dissident message evades its censors and security thugs.
To fulfill its pledge to the International Olympic Committee, the government of Hu Jintao lifted some restrictions on foreign journalists in January last year. Last week, under pressure from the IOC, it agreed to allow live satellite uplinks from Beijing. But as the Games approach, intimidation of both the international and domestic media has intensified. Many visas for journalists seeking to travel to China before the Games have been withheld; correspondents based in China have been warned that negative coverage may cause their news organizations to lose accreditation for the Olympics. According to Human Rights Watch, 10 foreign correspondents, including representatives of the Associated Press, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal, have received death threats because of their reporting on the recent violence in Tibet. Travel to Tibet remains severely restricted.
Chinese who question the official Olympic narrative have been treated far more harshly. Two prominent critics, Hu Jia and Yang Chunlin, were sentenced to prison this year after they tried to link the Beijing Olympics with China's human rights record. Dozens of other writers and dissidents have been jailed, placed under de facto house arrest or ordered to leave Beijing before Aug. 8, when the Games begin. When Republican Reps. Frank R. Wolf (Va.) and Christopher H. Smith (N.J.) traveled there this month with a list of 734 political prisoners, civil rights lawyers with whom they tried to meet were detained or prevented from leaving their homes.
Beijing has heavily pressured the IOC and many Western governments to prevent athletes from criticizing China or its foreign policies during the Games. But the regime itself has not sworn off political statements. When the Olympic torch passed through the Tibetan capital of Lhasa last month, the local Communist Party leader delivered a speech excoriating the Dalai Lama and proclaiming that "China's red flag . . . will forever flutter" above Tibet.
Too many foreign leaders, including President Bush, have chosen to tolerate this behavior without protest. Mr. Bush has confirmed that he will join Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and Cuba's Raúl Castro in attending the Opening Ceremonies because he wishes "to cheer on our athletes" and because to do otherwise "would be an affront to the Chinese people." In fact, Mr. Bush is affronting those Chinese who have bravely tried to resist the regime's steamrolling of all dissent. And what if an intrepid protester manages to raise his or her voice for Tibet or religious freedom or an end to China's sponsorship of genocide in Darfur and is swarmed by the regime's thugs? What if Western media seeking to cover such an event are censored? We can only hope that in that event, Mr. Bush will stop cheering.