When the Summer Olympics take place in Beijing next year, I will not be there. The obvious reason for this is because I was a student leader in the protests of 1989 that resulted in what is now often referred to as the June 4 Tiananmen Massacre, and have been in exile ever since. But the less obvious corollary of this is that I will not be there because China is not ready to embrace the Olympic spirit.
I think it is safe to say that, if the Chinese government were ready to embrace the Olympic spirit of unity, inclusiveness and equality, all of us who are exiled from our homeland would like nothing else than to be in Beijing next year. After all, it would be an opportunity, not only to enjoy the Olympic festivities, but also to be reunited with out families. The fact that this will not be the case makes a mockery of China’s “One World One Dream” Olympics slogan, and its pretensions to being a mature member of the global community.
Mine is simply one of countless stories of exile from the world’s fastest growing economy, but I think, in view of Beijing’s triumphalism about hosting the world’s premier sporting event, my exile and what it means for me personally is worth mentioning. Not only will it not be possible for me attend the Beijing Olympics, but the Beijing government will continue to hold the family I have not seen in 18 years hostage, and will no doubt continue to refuse to issue them passports so that we can be reunited in a foreign country.
I am sure that many people who attend the Olympics next year will be aware to some degree or other that, despite the
newly sanitized streets of Beijing (involving the eviction of 1.5 million people, according to the Center on Housing Rights and Evictions), the awe-inspiring sporting facilities, and the grand panoply of the ceremonies, there is a dark side to the festivities. But, as the International Olympic Committee did when it awarded the event to Beijing, they will have decided that China has still made great strides towards becoming a better place than it was in the summer of 1989, and it deserves a chance.
I wish this were true. If it were, I would be joining family and friends in Beijing next year.
The 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics are regularly described as “China’s coming out party”. Nineteen years after the world watched the student occupation of Tiananmen Square, the subsequent decade-and-a-half of record-breaking economic growth is poised to culminate in a spectacle calculated to awe the world and marginalize the hecklers who point to China’s poor human rights record, its petrodollar complicity in genocide in Darfur, its occupation of Tibet and its aggressive stance on unification with Taiwan, as evidence that China is not yet mature enough to host the world’s most coveted sporting event.
Politics have been an issue at nearly every Olympics since the 1936 Berlin meet, when athletes were expected to shout “sieg heil” as they marched past Adolf Hitler’s chancellor’s box. Germany and Japan were not invited, and the USSR failed to show, at the 1948 London Olympics; 11 Israeli athletes died as a result of an attack by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics; and more than 60 nations boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But, it seems likely that the Beijing Olympics, despite the hecklers, will go ahead without any boycotts, and – if Beijing has its way – without incident in Beijing itself.
The reason for this, I believe, is related to the complexities of the West’s perceptions of and relations with China. A strong case can be made that the protests leading up to June 4 in 1989 were instrumental in opening up China,
forcing the government to acquiesce to the demands of an educated emergent middle class. But the suppression of the protests came at enormous cost to China on the world stage, and the government has been paying for it ever since in
terms of western scrutiny of its human rights record.
At the same time, however, when Deng Xiaoping toured southern China in 1992 and called on Chinese to go into business “even more boldly” and “more quickly” to create a socialist market economy with Chinese characteristics, the
West put its post-Tiananmen qualms behind it and poured into China with a flood of foreign investment. This is perfectly understandable. Since the Opium Wars, the West’s relationship with China has hinged on how to inveigle the world’s most populous nation into opening its doors to the global economy.
Fifteen years on, China has become an important motor of global economic growth. In this way there are two opposing western views of China: the one-party state that denies basic human rights and imprisons or exiles dissenters, and global powerhouse, home to 1.3 billion potential consumers.
When Beijing hosts the Olympics next year, it is the latter view it is looking to capitalize on. Despite the relentless trickle of negative press about China – the disparities of wealth and poverty, environmental degradation, suppression of human rights – over the past decade the world has beat a path to China’s door, and the government in Beijing sees the Olympics as an opportunity to put on a spectacle that will finally eclipse the world’s lingering images of bloodshed in the capital.
It is very possible that government will be successful in this endeavor, but as one of countless exiles from modern China who will not be able to be there in person, the summer of 2008 promises to be a major betrayal of the Olympic spirit.
For Pierre de Coubertin, who was responsible for the revival of the Olympic Games in 1900, one of the four principles of the games was to achieve a truce, “a four-yearly festival of the springtime of mankind." I find this idea of a “truce” interesting because the reality is that Beijing has no plans for a truce of any kind. The intention is for Beijing to parade itself to the rest of the world as the China everybody doing business with it and the government that rules by slogans and an iron fist would like to pretend it is: an open, harmonious and peaceful society that is taking its rightful place as a global leader.
The idea behind this four-yearly festival is that the world put its conflicts behind it and comes together in a spirit of unity. In Beijing, that will not happen because any Chinese national who has a grievance with the country’s one-party government will have no part to play in the celebrations. That list includes anyone who campaigns for greater autonomy in Tibet, my homeland of Xinjiang, my adopted home of Taiwan, anyone who has struggled to expand participatory politics in China or to have the right to worship as they choose, or anyone who has dissented publicly from whatever the current Party line happens to be.
There should be no mistake about this. China’s “coming out party” is nothing of the sort. The party in Beijing will be the Chinese Communist Party’s “coming out party”. This government has long seen participating in the Olympics as a legitimizing maneuver, not only on the world stage, but also in terms of winning glory for the Chinese nation, playing on nationalism and simultaneously conflating China with the one-party state that rules it – as the famous saying
goes, without the Communist Party, there would be no modern China.
The state has devoted enormous resources into transforming itself into an effective sporting nation. It was not until the Los Angeles games in 1984, that the PRC managed to win its first gold. But by the 2004 games in Athens, China was in third place behind the United States and Russia, sweeping up 32 golds.
Winning the right to host the Olympics, then, is the final act in this more than two-decade crusade by the CCP to achieve legitimacy through sporting prowess.
Of course, the Chinese government itself knows that its motives have little resonance with the Olympic spirit, and as a result it is cloaking the event in the familiar, fuzzy rhetoric of unity we see in the official slogan, “One World, One Dream”, which the official website helpfully explains, “conveys the lofty ideal of the people in Beijing as well as in China to share the global community and civilization and to create a bright future hand in hand with the people from the rest of the world.” Similar sentiments can be seen in the website’s explanation of the Beijing Olympics emblem – a calligraphic seal that features a wriggly human being who appears to be dancing, and which symbolizes a China
that is “opening its arms to welcome the rest of the world to join the Olympics, [in] a celebration of ‘peace, friendship and progress of mankind’."
If this is the message to world, at home the Chinese government is using the Olympics to repress dissidents and activists, while at the same time using the games to more firmly establish the legality and validity of its rule. The terrible pity of this is that the Party is exploiting national pride, and denying the Chinese people of the right to enjoy the true spirit of the Olympics. Meanwhile, the world’s participation in the event is an act of collusion with a political party that in recent years has presided over a remarkable period of economic growth, but has nevertheless throughout the past six decades since 1949 been responsible for far more setbacks than it has successes. It also continues to be as oppressive as it was when I was forced into exile in 1989, despite the foreign-invested veneer of westernization that can be seen in the major cities.
When China made its most recent Olympics bid, it promised the IOC and the international community that it was prepared to make substantial improvements in human rights. But, just four days after winning the bid, then deputy prime minister, Li Lanqing, announced that China should step up its efforts to counter the Falungong, a spiritual movement whose members are routinely imprisoned – at least 100 are thought to have died in detainment. The then vice-president, Hu Jintao, weighed in next, saying it was essential for China to counter separatist movements “orchestrated by the Dali Lama and the world’s anti-China forces.”
This should come as no surprise to anyone, least of all the OIC, which took the surprisingly naïve position that holding the Olympics in Beijing was likely to improve China’s human rights. The opposite was always bound to be the case. For Beijing to pull off the kind of Olympics it would like to, it is forced to repress anything of a political nature that might mar its moment of glory.
Amnesty International, for example, is calling for the immediate release of Ye Guozhu, who was arrested in December 2004, and is serving a four-year prison sentence for attempting to organize a demonstration against forced evictions in Beijing, after two restaurants he owned were demolished in 2001 to make way for Olympics sports facilities. His relatives say he has health problems after having been tortured in prison, and it is claimed he was beaten with electro-shock battens in Beijing’s Chaobai Prison.
An equally high-profile example is human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who was convicted of “subversion” in December 2006, and is now under house arrest. While under formal arrest, he claims to have been treated harshly by police. Meanwhile, in April this year, four pro-Tibetan independence protesters were arrested, after they hung up a
Free Tibet banner at Mount Everest base camp, protesting the government’s plans to relay the Olympic torch through the Tibetan Himalayas.
According to the Olympic Charter, sport must be “at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” But groups protesting against, or calling for boycotts of next year’s Olympics point to a host of CCP transgressions against both a peaceful society and human dignity.
A commitment to reform or abolish China’s “re-education through labor” policy appears stalled, possibly so as to clean up the streets of Beijing of vagrants and drug-users ahead of the Olympics. Meanwhile, Amnesty reports that the lead up to the Olympics has seen “moves to expand detention without trial and ‘house arrest’ of activists, and … a tightening of controls over domestic media and the Internet.”
For the most part, the foreign community seems to have found it relatively easy to ignore these domestic affronts to the spirit of the Olympics. The issue of Darfur is proving somewhat more problematic. Names such Bob Geldof and Mia Farrow have publicly criticized China for supporting the atrocities in Darfur through massive subsidies to oil-rich Sudan.
In March this year, Farrow wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal that popularized the term, “the Genocide
Olympics”. A Google search for the latter, five months later, produces close to 1.5 million hits.
For any Chinese – even those of us in exile – this background to China’s successful bid for the Olympics should be more a cause for self-examination than for celebration. Ideally, the Olympics I would like to attend next year would be the ultimate culmination of the kaifang – open – policy that was ushered in by Deng Xiaoping in 1979.
Deng’s “open door” policy was a revolutionary turning point in modern Chinese history, and for all the problems facing China at this juncture, it has been successful in raising the living standards for millions of Chinese people. Unfortunately, China’s new-found economic openness has never been matched by the openness that is needed to reform the country’s oppressive one-party state. And this being the case the games that will take place next year will belong to that state, not to the Chinese people, the vast majority of whom will not be allowed anywhere near the Olympics festivities in Beijing.
For my part, if I were permitted to return to China for the Olympics, I admit I would seize the opportunity – it would be my chance to see the ageing parents and the brother I have not seen in close on two decades. But, the long-awaited family reunion aside, I think it unlikely I would find much else in the way of cause for celebration.
——Published Far Eastern Economic Review, Cover date 2007.09.04.
This article has won the Hong Kong Human Rights Press Award, (Oped) 2007.