China as host of the Olympics negates everything that the games are supposed to represent. Whose bright idea was it to award the event to Beijing?
Actually, if you know the background of the guy who headed the International Olympic Committee, the decision won't come as a surprise. Then-President Juan Antonio Samaranch was a leading figure in Spanish fascist leader Francisco Franco's regime. Samaranch gradually rose up the ranks to be eventually appointed government secretary for sports and the head of the Spanish National Olympic Committee by the caudillo.
He has never expressed contrition for being a Franco sycophant (and has, in fact, praised the dictator), explaining that "what happened in Spain was many years ago, and you have to be a Spaniard to understand it."
To get Samaranch's side of things, the bestowing of the Olympics to Beijing was not a solidarity gesture from the member of one authoritarian regime to another (in spite of their different ideological orientations). Rather, he says, it was an attempt to democratize China. Samaranch apparently hoped that China would be nudged along the road to liberty the same way that the 1988 Seoul Olympics supposedly helped South Korea along that path.
If so, he badly miscalculated, going by the Chinese government's record so far. Recent reports by two of the world's leading human-rights groups show that Beijing is continuing in its repressive ways a year before the event.
"The Chinese government's attempts to intimidate and detain foreign journalists for simply doing their jobs shows contempt for Olympic ideas of fair play," says Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch. "The ongoing harassment and detention of journalists makes Beijing's Olympic pledge on media freedoms seem more like a public relations ploy than a sincere policy initiative."
The report and a companion op-ed in The Wall Street Journal detail the harshness with which so many journalists are dealt with in China. For instance, Zhao Yan, a New York Times researcher (no less), is currently serving a three-year prison sentence as punishment for his unearthing of corruption and dissensions within the ruling Communist Party.
A recent Amnesty International report supplements that of Human Rights Watch.
"Several Beijing-based activists continue to face ‘house arrest' and tight police surveillance, while those in other parts of China are facing increased abuse," states the organization. "Award-winning housing rights activist Chen Xiaoming died in Shanghai on 1 July, shortly after his release from prison, where reports indicate he was tortured in detention. There is also an ongoing crackdown on the media; with continued imprisonment of journalists and writers, forced dismissal of media staff, publication closures and pervasive internet censorship."
In fact, as Amnesty International Secretary General Irene Khan points out, the games are providing an even further pretext for abuse, since prolonged detention without trial is being used to clean the streets of "delinquents."
In addition, there are the massive demolitions of older, often culturally important neighborhoods to make way for sports facilities. A staggering 1.5 million people will be displaced by the games, according to a recent study. Given the track record of the Chinese dictatorship, I wouldn't be too optimistic about them being given decent accommodations after relocation.
The breadth and scale of the repression in China is so vast that both the human rights reports were unable to touch on so many other facets of the regime's abuses: Tibet, Xinjiang, the Falun Gong and Chinese Christians, to name just a few.
When I went to Dharamsala, India, to interview the Dalai Lama a few years ago, I also met with Ngawang Woebar, a monk who was a political prisoner in China and headed the Tibetan ex-political prisoners' association.
"China tramples on its people," Woebar told me, in an impassioned plea for all Americans, including American athletes, to boycott the games. "An estimated 1.2 million Tibetans have died during the Chinese occupation. Plus, Tiananmen Square has happened. Since the Chinese government shows no respect for human rights, it is illogical for it to host the Olympics."
His words carry a lot of moral weight.