World coverage of the Beijing Olympics has exposed some uncomfortable truths about China.
When China won the right to host the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, the regime saw the event as a milestone in China’s emergence as a global political and economic force, challenging the United States as the world’s single superpower.
To secure the Games, China’s national organising committee promised that the regime would give journalists unfettered access to the country, human rights for China’s long-suffering people would be improved, and the atmosphere which poisons the city’s people would be improved to acceptable international standards – at least for the duration of the Games.
For the Chinese people, the sense of national pride as their athletes blitzed the best in the world was obvious, despite the disruption for years as Olympic venues were constructed, the forced relocation of many thousands of people to make way for the prodigious construction program, the sacking of the Olympic construction workforce which has been estimated at 100,000 people, and the closure of many heavy industries for a couple of months during the conduct of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Despite the extraordinary successes of the Chinese athletes, the balance sheet for the Games is far more nuanced.
The presence of tens of thousands of journalists in China has inevitably turned a spotlight not only on China’s rich cultural heritage and impressive economic development of the past 30 years, but equally on the absence of freedom there, and the Communist Party’s utter determination to do anything to hold on to its monopoly of power.
Even before the Olympic Games began, press articles and TV programs had documented the regime’s persecution of human rights activists, Falun Gong practitioners, Christians, Muslim Uigurs and the Tibetans.
Additionally, Chinese authorities suppressed the voices of inhabitants of the province of Sichuan protesting against the huge earthquake toll, and of Beijing residents protesting about the confiscation of their homes for the construction of Olympic venues.
Other reports referred to Beijing’s support for some of the world’s most barbarous regimes, including the Sudanese government, responsible for genocide in Darfur, and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, and for its attempts to buy influence in developing countries, including Papua New Guinea and East Timor, while blocking international sanctions against North Korea, Myanmar (Burma), Iran and other dictatorships.
Once the journalists arrived in Beijing, they were confronted by China’s pervasive censorship of the internet, and the constant presence of Chinese security officials who followed them around the city, interfering with attempts to speak to anyone not “vetted” by the regime.
In unprecedented scenes, attempts by Tibetan supporters in Beijing to stage small protests against China’s occupation were suppressed and those involved deported, with journalists and photographers who attempted to cover the event harassed and assaulted. These events were widely reported in the West.
The Chinese regime also attracted criticism for its refusal to allow ordinary Chinese to interact with the Olympians. Without passes, people were not allowed anywhere near key Olympic venues, creating a sterile climate around the Bird’s Nest stadium and the Water Cube. For example, many were prevented from lining the streets for the long-distance cycling events, and many Olympic venues were only partly filled even for the finals, despite the fact that all venues and events were supposed to have been sold out many months ago.
The International Olympic Committee also attracted criticism when it became clear that its leaders had turned a blind eye to China’s blatant breaches of the conditions on which it had been awarded the Olympics, and when the IOC refused to condemn the mistreatment of journalists by Beijing police.
All this has been reported in the West, and turned the Olympic Games into a real opportunity to look behind the bamboo curtain which the Beijing regime has ruthlessly imposed over the past 60 years.
It is to be hoped that the communist regime will learn some of the lessons which should emerge from their administration of the Games. Among these are the benefits to the community of clean water and air, and the futility of curbing freedom of the press.
Of more importance is the need to keep up the pressure on the regime over the continued violations of human rights of the Chinese people.
Of course, national governments, such as those of Australia, the United States and others, should be taking the lead in this process; but their dependence on access to Chinese markets and capital has muted their consciences.
As China aspires to leadership in the international community, true friends of the Chinese people must continue to denounce the policies which have led to the persecution and killing of religious believers, the demonisation of highly principled Falun Gong practitioners who are being systematically executed for their organs, and the arbitrary detention of Chinese journalists, lawyers and ordinary people protesting against abuses of power by government agencies.
If, as a result of the Olympic Games, these issues come to the fore, the decision to permit Beijing to host the 2008 Olympic Games may prove to have been justified.
– Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.