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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Poem follows Olympic torch in freedom call

April 22, 2008

Arnold Zable
The Age
Melbourne
Monday April 21 2008

AS THE Olympic torch makes its way through Canberra on Thursday, another
relay will shadow it, as it has since the torch began its journey in
Greece on March 24. An initiative of writers' organisation International
PEN, and the brainchild of Sydney writer Chip Rolley, the PEN Poem Relay
is a web-based campaign calling for freedom of expression in China.

Writers worldwide have translated and recorded the poem June by
imprisoned journalist and poet Shi Tao into, at last count, more than 90
languages. The poem is a moving meditation on the 1989 Tiananmen Square
protests and massacre, written on June 9, 2004, to coincide with the
event's 15th anniversary.

It has moved via website, from PEN centre to centre, along a route
similar to the Olympic torch itinerary, adding new translations as it
goes. So far the poem has been to 70 locations throughout Europe, the
Americas, Africa and the Middle East, and it will continue its journey
up to the opening of the Olympics in August. The Australian leg will
include translations into Aboriginal and other languages that reflect
our extraordinary linguistic diversity.

Shi Tao's imprisonment was the result of an incident in April 2004.
Using a Yahoo account, he emailed an overseas website his notes on a
document issued by the Chinese Communist Party, with instructions to the
media in regard to the coming anniversary of the crackdown on the
Tiananmen Square protests.

The media had been directed to keep an eye on any dissident activity in
accordance with party policy, and not to allow the expression of
critical opinions. To its shame, Yahoo provided the Chinese authorities
with Shi Tao's identity, and he was arrested in November 2004. He is
serving a 10-year prison sentence for "revealing state secrets abroad".

Shi Tao's sentence reflects a disturbing trend. International PEN is
monitoring the cases of 38 writers and journalists currently imprisoned
in China. They include Han Chinese, Uyghurs and Tibetans, and activists
such as independent publisher Yang Maodong, who was sentenced to five
years in prison on November 14, 2007, for exposing government corruption
in Shenyang.

According to International PEN, he has been repeatedly tortured in
detention, a charge that can be extended to the treatment of other
imprisoned activists and writers.

An indication that the Chinese authorities are continuing their
crackdown on free expression is the 3½ year jail sentence given to
dissident Hu Jia on April 8, on the charge of "inciting subversion of
state power".

Hu Jia has been critical of the Government on a range of social issues.
In 2000, he was one of the founders of AIDS support group Loving Source,
which has helped people suffering from the illness, and he has been
critical of the Government's treatment of AIDS victims. In more recent
times he has campaigned in support of human rights, and against
arbitrary arrest and detention. He supported peasant leaders in their
recent campaign for land rights on behalf of farmers whose property has
been confiscated for development.

While testifying to a European parliamentary hearing on human rights in
Brussels, in November 2007, Hu Jia said: "It is ironic that one of the
people in charge of organising the Olympic Games is the head of the
Bureau of Public Security, which is responsible for human rights
violations."

Exposing human rights abuses in China before the Olympics poses a
dilemma. In 1984-85 I worked as a teacher of English at an agricultural
college in south-west China. I was treated with great warmth, generosity
and openness by my students, and by the rural community in which I
worked. I was impressed by the courage and spirit with which they had
endured the challenges of the recent past, and by their humour and goodwill.

It was the beginning of a new era in which China was emerging from the
collective trauma and isolationism of the Cultural Revolution, and
moving towards closer ties with the international community.

Some friendships I formed at that time have endured and I am acutely
aware of my friends' sensitivities, their pride in the Olympics, and
their desire to show the world that China can be a warm and generous
host. They see the Games as an opportunity to show the world that China
is now a modernised and sophisticated nation in tune with the
aspirations of a global community.

This sentiment is shared even among some of those who were previously
involved in the Tiananmen Square protests.

However, when it comes to the harassment, torture, imprisonment and
cruel treatment of courageous activists such as Hu Jia and Yang Maodong,
there is no alternative but to publicise their suffering and campaign
for their release.

At the heart of initiatives such as the PEN poem relay is the basic
understanding that when state authorities can get away with human rights
abuses and the exercise of arbitrary power unhindered, then these abuses
will increase, and the repressive net cast by the state will only widen.

Arnold Zable is president of the Melbourne Centre of International PEN.
His new novel Sea of Many Returns will be published in June. The relay
website is www.penpoemrelay.org
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