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Abusing the Olympic spirit
On Line Opinion[Sunday, July 27, 2008 23:39]
By Sev Ozdowski

On August 8, 2008, the Beijing Olympics will commence. The recent controversy about the Olympic torch relay is an indication of things to come. Despite the Chinese security forces guarding the torch and local officials trying their best to manage any dissent, we witnessed numerous disruptions. This happened because the torch and the Olympics became a magnet to those who wanted to protest against the lack of civil liberties and freedoms in contemporary China.

Olympics and the politics

Beijing has complained persistently over the past few months that human rights critics have politicised the Olympics and are trying to use the games for their own propaganda purposes.

But the undeniable fact is that China is itself using the Olympics for political purposes. Recently the IOC had to rebuke China for political remarks made by a CCP (Chinese Communist Party) official as the torch passed through Lhasa who said: “The sky above Tibet will never change. The red five-star flag will always fly above this land. We can definitely smash the separatist plot of the Dalai Lama clique completely.”

The Chinese are using the Olympics to showcase China’s economic achievements and to consolidate China’s status as a world super power.

Looking back through history, Nazi authorities held the same hopes for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. In 1936 Nazi dictatorship was already well established and the racist Nuremberg Laws of September 1935 took away all civil liberties from Jews.

The 2008 Olympics and human rights

Can we legitimately discuss the human rights issues in the context of Beijing Olympics, and if so, why? I would like to offer a three-prong answer.

First, China, in lobbying the IOC to host the 2008 Olympic Games, promised that it would use the Beijing Olympics to advance the human rights of its people.

Second, for centuries the Olympic spirit has been linked to human rights, civility and peace. In ancient Greece, a truce was announced before and during each Olympic festival. This linkage of the Olympic movement with human rights has been incorporated into the Olympic Charter which defines sport as a human right and specifically prohibits any form of discrimination in Principle 5 of the Fundamental Principles of Olympism.

And third, China has definite obligations under the international human rights law. As early as 1947 China was a member of a Drafting Committee developing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since the late 1970’s China has ratified most of the principal international human rights treaties including the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment.

By ratifying these conventions China has ceded part of its sovereignty and its human rights performance has became a legitimate subject of international scrutiny.

The current human rights situation in China

After examination of evidence I regret to conclude that since China was granted the right to host the 2008 Olympics, its civil and political rights record has not improved, but has, instead, grown progressively worse.

The on-going brutal occupation and colonisation of Tibet by Communist China started 60 years ago continues to this day. The destruction of Tibetan culture, spirituality and environment is well documented. The recently opened railway link appears to be the Beijing’s final solution for Tibet: it helps the domination of Tibetans by Han Chinese and further reduces them to second class citizens in their own country.

Chinese citizens are denied their basic civil and political liberties. For example:

• Chinese citizens cannot elect their own government;
• there is no freedom of speech and rampant censorship. In the Reporters without Borders' Annual World Press Freedom Index of 2005, the PRC ranked 159 out of 167 places;
• citizens are arrested and sent to jail simply because of the content of their private emails;
• more than 1.4 million Chinese citizens were forcibly removed out of Beijing to make room for the Olympics;
• according to the 2006 report by UN special reporter, torture is regularly used in Chinese prisons; and
• there is significant evidence pointing to continuance of religious persecution of Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, and others.

The oppression of the Falun Gong spiritual movement is extremely brutal and has the hallmarks of genocide. Falun Gong practitioners are denied basic civil rights - they are arrested, routinely tortured and send to prisons and forced labour and re-education camps bypassing any court proceedings. Others are used as slave labour to produce cheap goods for export. A recent report alleges that Falun Gong practitioners are locked up, medically tested and murdered so their corneas, heart, lungs, livers and kidneys can be stolen for sale to commercial customers.

To sum up, the Chinese authorities are clearly breaching international human rights standards. Furthermore, the exclusion of Falun Gong practitioners, independence for Tibet supporters and other categories of people by Chinese authorities from participation in the Olympics is in clear breach of the non-discrimination clause of the Olympic Charter.

Chinese international human rights practices

The Chinese government exports its human rights abuses to other countries such as Zimbabwe, Burma and Dafur.

There is also emerging evidence that Chinese authorities are using their influence to intimidate human rights activists. For example in late May 2008 the New York Chinese Consulate organised Chinese crowds, numbering several hundred, to physically and verbally attack Falun Gong practitioners over a number of days.

The mass mobilisation of pro-China activists to “defend” the torch relay in Canberra from protesting Tibetans and other human rights activists suggested the involvement of Chinese officials there too.

Public concern about China’s human rights abuses

The controversy associated with the Olympic torch relay was an expression of the fact that there is growing worldwide concern about continuing human rights abuse in China.

The protest movement also indicates that China has come of age. China is no longer romanticised by Westerners as Mao’s country of perpetual revolution, high on equality, low on economic wealth and of no local relevance. Contemporary China is starting to be seen for what it really is - a world power with global economic and military interests run by an autocratic government with all the human rights consequences resulting from such status.

Thus, today, different rules are starting to apply to the new China. The new rules apply not only because of its emerging world power status, but also because its power is starting to impact on people living in liberal democracies of the West.

Emergence of people’s power

This public awareness has resulted in the emergence of worldwide peoples’ movements which are able to articulate their demands and have an impact on public opinion. For example, the contemporary unrest in Tibet has mobilised many people of good will to focus not only on the Tibet situation, but also more broadly on the human rights situation in China. The World Organisation to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong Practitioners has emerged as an effective grass roots movement. Many other non-government organisations were created around the world to address particular human issues.

The Western governments, being democratically elected, will have to reflect changing public opinion about China. This will lead to changes in government attitudes towards the Chinese authorities.

At the moment there was no serious attempt by the Western public to boycott the goods that are made in China and that dominate our stores. However, one could imagine a significant change in consumer sentiment in the future if China does not address our current human rights concerns.

People’s power in China

People power is starting to develop in China itself. The official Chinese statistics indicate enormous growth in citizens’ protests since 1999: there were 10,000 public protests (some with violence) in 1999; according to unofficial calculations the number was closer to 130,000 protests in 2007

Falun Gong appears to be a particularly important element in this struggle. On the one hand, members of the movement are the most victimised citizens group in China. On the other hand, they are an important element of China’s growing people’s power movement. Falun Gong has some similarities with the Solidarity movement of Poland. It is popular, well organised, has high moral standards and is no longer afraid of government.

The way forward

The Olympics has firmly placed the human rights situation in China on the world human rights agenda. It is now our responsibility to ensure that the focus on human rights situation in China does not fade after the Beijing Olympics.

Considering China’s growing interest in projecting its power into Asia Pacific region and United States’ formidable presence in the same region it is inevitable that this competition will lead to increased international tension in our backyard. Such tension would be much better handled if China is a democratic nation.

It is obvious that democratic change would need to be initiated and delivered from within China. But for the democratisation of China to happen, it needs to be also ushered in and supported from the outside.

There is a school of thought that suggests that the Chinese government responds only to polite diplomacy and that any political pressure has no impact. Such a view is pure nonsense. China, like any former communist authority, is interested in its good image world wide, because of its ideological and commercial interests. To adopt Neville Chamberlain’s attitude from Munich would lead to a disaster. The policy of appeasement rarely works with aspiring world powers with global aspirations.

Despite of my earlier comments about the emergence of people’s power in China, at the moment the Chinese regime seems to be stable. Since the 1989 Tiananmen protests, it seems to have regained the support of its intellectuals and educated classes. It seems that one party rule is not being challenged. The CCP controls the lion’s share of economic resources and dispenses the most valued economic, professional and intellectual opportunities and rewards. Patriotism and nationalism resulting from the current economic success also plays an important role.

The question is how long the Party will be able to maintain China’s economic growth. And its current ability to co-opt its educated elites is yet to be answered. The question is also about actual strength and sustainability of the emerging people’s power.

Not that long ago Soviet block looked equally stable. But if one takes Moscow Olympics as a guide, it did not add to the long term standing the Soviet Union. On the contrary, it delivered the first important step on the way to the collapse of the Soviet Union ten years later in 1990. The Nazi regime only lasted nine years following the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Also, remember not that long ago peoples’ power crumbled the Berlin wall and brought an end to the Soviet empire. People’s power abolished apartheid in South Africa.

China after the Olympics will certainly be a different nation. My hope remains that China, sooner rather then later, will emerge as a nation where civil liberties are valued and respected and Chinese governments are elected by the people and for the people.

This article is an edited version of an address given by the author to The Activating Human Rights and Peace International Conference in Byron Bay on July 1-4, 2008. The full text is available here.

Dr Sev Ozdowski OAM is Adjunct Professor at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, The University of Sydney and was Australian Human Rights Commissioner and Disability Discrimination Commissioner (2000-05).
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