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 Yardley, Jim | New York Times Upfront, May 5, 2008 | Go to article overview

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


Yardley, Jim, New York Times Upfront


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 Gaines 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, page 29.)

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--5,000 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. …

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