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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

A Torch Job To Liberty

April 22, 2008

By Sally Jenkins
The Washington Post
Friday, April 18, 2008; E01

To the Chinese government, the word "harmony" is apparently synonymous
with suppression. The Olympic torch is in danger of being extinguished
for good, but not by demonstrators. Every day it's put out by Chinese
officials and their exported paramilitary force, who seem to think the
Olympic spirit is not about accommodating the world, but about forcing
the world to accommodate them.

Why shouldn't they think that, given the feeble responses of the
International Olympic Committee and virtually every government (except
Australia's) to their bullying? The awarding of the Summer Games to
Beijing was supposed to change the behavior of Chinese officials on
human rights. Instead, Chinese officials are changing the behavior of
others -- even the U.S. president. Excuse me, but where in the Olympic
Charter does it say we're all supposed to make compulsory appearances in
a giant Leni Riefenstahl-styled propaganda film? The Beijing Games
haven't yet begun, but their legacy is already clear: They'll be
remembered as the occasion when censorship became an official Olympic value.

Everyone is curbing their tongues to placate tantrum-prone Chinese
officials. Earlier this week American athletes at a pre-Games news
summit expressed a near-unanimous determination to say exactly nothing
while in Beijing, for fear of the reaction. Gymnast Alicia Sacramone and
her teammates agreed not to discuss anything because "we don't really
like controversy. If I said something wrong -- even by accident, not
intentionally -- we just don't need that extra drama." This complicit
silence is exactly what China officialdom counts on with its
calculatedly indignant screams that the Olympics should not be "political."

By far the creepiest evidence of how Beijing officials have influenced
speech is the robotic uniformity of phrasing employed by the IOC and its
top corporate sponsors. Clearly, someone has circulated China-favorable
talking points and reminded them the government controls 1.3 billion
consumers. A few weeks ago, the IOC was asked if it was concerned human
rights abuses were actually increasing with the approach of the Games.
IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies said, "We believe the Olympics are a
force for good."

Next, General Electric chief executive Jeffrey Immelt was asked if he
has qualms about being a close business partner with a government that
is a world leader in executions, live organ harvesting and brutal
censorship. GE is especially associated with the Beijing Games as a
sponsor and owner of NBC, which holds the broadcast rights. Immelt
declined to be interviewed for this column, but spokeswoman Deirdre
Latour called back. "We believe the Olympics are a force for good," she
said.

Sam Nunn, a former senator who is on the board of not one but two
Olympic sponsors, Coca-Cola and GE, also declined to be interviewed. But
during last week's tumultuous torch relay through Paris and San
Francisco, Coke spokeswoman Kerry Kerr issued the following statement:

"We firmly believe the Olympics are a force for good."

In fact, the Beijing Olympics are a force of direct, demonstrable
malignity. The government has not softened its stance on human rights,
as promised, but hardened it in the run-up to the Games. Censorship has
increased, not decreased. Some of the poorest communities have suffered
-- razed to make room for stadiums, and forced migrant labor used to
build them -- not prospered. Peaceful dissidents such as Hu Jia and Yang
Chunlin, who merely protested on the Internet, and ethnic minorities in
Tibet have been treated more harshly, not less.

Why such a coordinated silence on these issues? There is one American
athlete with something other than farina in his spine: Joey Cheek. He
identified the real constraint on athletes: funding for their efforts
comes from those toadying corporate sponsors. "The USOC has great
incentive not to upset these global companies -- athletes as well," he
said. "This is what pays for our training. And that brings great
pressure not to rock the boat too much."

It's one thing to be considerate of the host -- the Chinese people are
different from their government, and are surely entitled to
consideration. But it's another to willfully blind and gag oneself to
the obvious circumstances in China for the sake of a mass commercial
circus. To say that the dissidents behind bars should not distract from
the performances on the parallel bars, to divorce athletic performance
from the fraught circumstances in which stadiums were built, is to
perpetrate a lie. No event held in China can be apolitical. A Beijing
Olympics begs the question: How does a totalitarian government with a
capitalist economy intend to behave as an international partner?

The answer is obvious in the absurdly choreographed, foreshortened,
censored, route-altered torch run: Chinese paramilitary groups and
massive security enforce a "journey of harmony" by pushing and shoving
through demonstrators.

One person who refuses to play his assigned role is Australian Prime
Minister Kevin Rudd. He declined to let the track-suited torch enforcers
run roughshod over his country and in a recent speech called for Chinese
officials to be more accommodating on human rights. (To read about it,
go to John Pomfret's terrific Washington Post blog, "Pomfret's China,"
at newsweek.washingtonpost.com/postglobal.) Australian journalist
Geremie Barmé analyzed the speech as a rejection of Chinese official
demands that their international "friends" stick to the script.

"To be a friend of China, the foreigner is often expected to stomach
unpalatable situations, and keep silent in the face of egregious
behavior. A friend of China might enjoy the privilege of offering the
occasional word of caution in private; in the public arena he or she is
expected to have the good sense and courtesy to be 'objective.' That is
to toe the line, whatever that happens to be. The concept of
'friendship' thus degenerates into little more than an effective tool
for emotional blackmail and enforced complicity."

The way to deal with blackmail is to call it out publicly. If Chinese
officials don't want mouthy outsiders to go off script and address the
uncomfortable questions raised by a Beijing Games, they shouldn't have
invited us. It's the deal they made. And on which they are now trying to
renege. They shouldn't be allowed to.
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