Games Behind Bars

Friday, August 22, 2008

WE HAVE tried hard, since the Olympic Games began 14 days ago, to maintain a positive Olympic spirit. We understand how important the Games are to many Chinese, and we've been rooting for the Games' success. We didn't dwell on the Chinese decision, made "in the national interest," to keep a little girl off camera and have her dub a singing performance for the opening ceremony while another girl lip-synced because the singer was deemed not cute enough to be presented. We didn't really care about the phony fireworks, and we passed over China's decision to have Han Chinese dress up in ethnic costumes rather than allow members of the actual minority groups to participate. We marveled at Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt and tried not to think about the fact that China had set aside three areas for political protest and then refused to grant anyone a permit to protest there.

Then came the news of Wu Dianyuan and Wang Xiuying, and to be honest, it has put our Olympic spirit to the test. The elderly women had been seeking permission from the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau to protest against officials' evicting them from their homes in 2001. The security bureau apparently became tired of their asking for permission to protest and this week informed the women that they had been sentenced to a year of "reeducation through labor." Whether the sentence is carried out apparently depends on how they behave from now on, and on the whims of the police. Ms. Wu is 79 years old. Ms. Wang is 77, blind in one eye and nearly blind in the other.

What should we make of a government that considers sending two frail old women to a labor camp for seeking permission to peacefully protest? Yes, we can hear the apologists chiming in: The Chinese people are freer today than they were during the lunatic days of the Cultural Revolution, different countries develop in different ways, America isn't perfect, and so forth and so on. All that is true, and, at some point, it also seems irrelevant. When they were seeking to host the Games, Chinese officials promised to use the Olympics to expand freedom of expression and "benefit the further development of our human rights cause," as Beijing's mayor said. Now we know the promise was a lie.

The International Olympic Committee consistently has enabled and excused Beijing as it has broken promises and moved backward on human rights. Recently, an IOC spokeswoman managed to acknowledge that "to date, what had been announced publicly doesn't appear in reality to be happening, and a number of questions are being asked." We hope that before IOC President Jacques Rogge shows up at the closing ceremony to proclaim the Games a great success, he insists on hearing some answers. At a minimum, he should skip the ceremony if Ms. Wang and Ms. Wu aren't permitted to protest and are not given a reprieve from their despicable one-year sentence.


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