Olympic irony

2008-08-01 00:00

When the Beijing Olympic Games open next week, there will be speeches about international peace and fellowship in sport. Yet the stage for this event is a largely unreformed communist state whose human rights record, highlighted this week by Amnesty International (AI), is one of the world’s poorest.

The awarding of the games was accompanied by an expectation from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that this gesture of acceptance would persuade China to lift restrictions on basic freedoms. Indeed, China promised to uphold principles of human dignity in keeping with the Olympic Charter. But, according to AI, the situation has deteriorated and the Chinese government, true to form, has cracked down on dissident voices.

That of Hu Jia has been silenced by three years in prison. He was convicted for participating in a European Union parliamentary hearing and talking to the foreign media. His wife is now under close surveillance. Journalists have been imprisoned for attempting to exercise normal media rights, while this year’s protest in Tibet and earthquake in Sichuan have revealed widespread censorship.

Even worse has been the treatment of residents who protested against evictions related to stadium development. They have been held in secret detention centres and labour camps that have no basis in Chinese law and there is evidence of torture. Furthermore, a high proportion of the world’s capital punishment cases are found in China, which also denies basic freedoms of information and religion.

The IOC’s silence sends a clear message: it is acceptable to hold the games in a highly developed police state routinely practising repression and persecution. In spite of professed concern about human rights, the commercial objectives that now underlie all international sport have clearly triumphed. This emphasises the point that events like the Olympics are simply the sports department of globalisation.

Some heads of state — those of Germany and Canada — are boycotting the games, while the British prime minister is attending only the closing ceremony. The exact legacy of the Beijing Olympics remains to be seen. It can only be positive if cases like that of political prisoner Hu Jia gain greater publicity.

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