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China's Olympic Challenge

China wanted this summer's Games to be a showcase for its economic achievements, but its critics had another idea: focusing the world's attention on the regime's human-rights abuses, both at home and abroad.

By Jim Yardley in Beijing


The images were exactly what the Chinese government was hoping to avoid in the months leading up to the Summer Olympics: Red-robed monks in Tibet clashing with Chinese police in a crackdown that killed at least 20 people; and a few weeks later, thousands of protesters turning the Olympic torch relay in London, Paris, and San Francisco into chaotic melees.

China and its critics have very different agendas for the Games—and the intense international media attention that will be focused on China for the next few months. The government sees the Olympic Games, which run from August 8 to 24 in Beijing, as a showcase for the country's meteoric economic rise and emergence as a world power. For critics of the Communist regime, both in China and abroad, the Games are a chance to focus the world's attention on their concerns: China's human-rights abuses and its relationship with the government of Sudan, where years of violence in Darfur have left millions dead or homeless.

Caught in the middle are the athletes, who have spent years training for the world's most important sporting event. Some say they are struggling with how to balance speaking out about issues they care about without violating the spirit of the Olympics—or offending corporate sponsors.

"All of these voices are going to become stronger and stronger, not weaker and weaker, as the Games approach," says John MacAloon, an Olympic historian. "All Olympic Games are, of course, highly politically charged and sensitive in some regions of the world. How could they not be?"

In the last 30 years, the U.S. has seen China emerge as a major world power—economically, and now diplomatically and militarily—ever since the Communist Party opened up its moribund economy with a dose of free-market capitalism in 1978.

China is now America's second-largest trading partner, after Canada, and the inexpensive goods it produces fly off store shelves nationwide. (About 80 percent of the goods sold at Wal-Mart are made in China.) But many Americans believe China doesn't play by the rules when it comes to international trade, and with the U.S. economy slowing, they fear that thousands more American jobs will be "outsourced" to China. (See Opinion.)

At the same time, China's economic achievements have not translated into significantly more political freedom in China, which is still a one-party authoritarian state.

Three key issues concern China's critics: Darfur, Tibet, and human-rights abuses within China—which include restrictions on the religious sect Falun Gong, the arrest of dissidents, and the treatment of various ethnic minorities, including Muslims in China's western provinces.

'Genocide Olympics'?

The connection between China and the crisis in Darfur׫,000 thousand miles away in Africa—involves the close relationship between the governments of China and Sudan.

To supply its booming industries, China buys a lot of oil from Sudan, which then uses the oil revenue to buy Chinese weapons. Critics say this gives China the clout to pressure the Sudanese government to stop the violence in Darfur.

Last year, actress Mia Farrow wrote an Op-Ed piece in the Wall Street Journal attacking China on Darfur and popularizing the phrase "Genocide Olympics." In February, director Steven Spielberg resigned as an artistic adviser to the opening ceremonies, saying he had been unsuccessful in prodding China's leaders to do more to stop the attacks in Darfur.

"The Olympics is a unique lever with the Chinese, and we're not going to get another," says Jill Savitt, executive director of Dream for Darfur, a coalition of groups working to pressure the Chinese to end its support for the Sudanese government.

Of course, eliminating politics from the Olympics is about as likely as eliminating medals. For as long as the modern Games have existed, they have served as a stage for politics as much as sport. At the 1936 Games in Berlin, black track star Jesse Owens won four gold medals for the U.S.—and challenged Hitler's theories of "Aryan superiority." At the 1968 Games in Mexico City, two black medal-winners for the U.S. raised their fists in a "black power" salute as "The Star-Spangled Banner" played during the awards ceremony.

Four years later, during the Munich Olympics—the first in Germany since World War II and the Holocaust—Palestinian terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes. To protest the Soviet Union's 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter ordered a U.S. boycott of the 1980 Games in Moscow, shattering the dreams of hundreds of American athletes. Four years later, the Soviets reciprocated by boycotting the Los Angeles Games.

Even before China was selected in 2001 to host the Games, international opinion was divided between those who thought the Games could help open up and reform the world's largest authoritarian state, and those who thought they would simply validate a repressive Communist regime.

Both China and its critics have closely studied the 1988 Games in Seoul. There, the Olympics reshaped history when the South Korean public's anticipation of the Games fed demonstrations that ended up toppling a military dictatorship and ushering in democracy.

No one thinks the Communist Party in China will lose power as a result of the Games. Still, the Seoul example leads some to hope that Beijing, feeling the heat of international scrutiny and eager for validation, might loosen its grip and allow its people at least somewhat more freedom.

Will Bush Attend?

While boycotts of the Games themselves are unlikely, some world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, may stay away from the opening ceremony.

President Bush says he plans to go, drawing fire from human-rights advocates. Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch says that the President will be giving "an enormous propaganda opportunity to an abusive government."

But Michael Green, a former administration official, says Bush's attendance will place "subtle pressure" on China to improve its record on human rights. "The President has credibility on Chinese-U.S. relations, and he uses that," says Green. "He can do things like go to the Olympics and criticize human-rights abuses, and the Chinese will listen."

In the last few months, while putting the finishing touches on Olympic venues, the Chinese government has also been cracking down on dissent. It has jailed a number of prominent Chinese dissidents and tightened controls over information, blocking access to thousands of Web sites. In March, when protests erupted in Tibet, Chinese forces moved quickly to quell the disturbances.

"This is a coordinated cleansing campaign," says Teng Biao, a legal expert in Beijing. "All the troublemakers, including potential troublemakers, are being silenced before the Olympic Games."

And there is concern about the installation of advanced surveillance technology across Beijing—for Olympic security, the government says—which critics fear could be used to crack down further on dissent.

Dissidents in China say that the real barometer of success will be whether the Olympics force the Communist Party to allow political reform. Hu Jia, a prominent Beijing dissident, says so far the approach of the Games has led the government to tighten its monitoring of dissidents.

"With Beijing, the issue has always been whether the Games, in the end, will be seen to further the process of reform and opening," says MacAloon, the Olympic historian, "or will the leadership become too worried and clamp down in ways that set back political and human-rights progress."