Calling China’s Human Rights Bluff

By Jim Hoagland (THE WASHINGTON POST, 03/08/08):

Every aspect of life under totalitarian governments is political, from sports to culture to business. President Bush and other world leaders attending the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics this week should stop pretending otherwise, especially to the Chinese people.

“I made a decision not to politicize the Games,” Bush grandly told Asian journalists last week, according to the People’s Daily newspaper in Beijing. “This is for athletics.”

Bush, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and their peers will be at the games precisely because they are ruling politicians, not javelin throwers or sprinters. Their protestations that politics and sports should not mix on this occasion are exercises in denying their own identities.

They should instead make their visits openly political occasions. They should publicly focus on China’s human rights record and its promises to permit greater personal freedoms during the Olympics. Those promises have been bent and broken as Chinese internal security forces have used the Games as a reason to jail dissidents and keep them away from the world media.

These Olympics are all about politics — Chinese politics. As I wrote last year from Beijing, the government intends to bring the world onto the Chinese stage, not vice versa. The governing Central Committee wants to show the nation its competence in managing a prestige event and the global acceptance it has gained in the 19 years since the Tiananmen Square massacre briefly made China a pariah state.

Sarkozy and Bush have each received lists of prominent political prisoners and requests that their cases be raised directly with President Hu Jintao in Beijing and with the Chinese media. Doing this would go a long way toward justifying the two leaders’ decisions to go to Beijing.

Bush took an initial step toward that goal last week by welcoming to the White House a small but symbolically important group of Chinese dissidents, including Wei Jingsheng, a pioneer of the pro-democracy movement; Harry Wu, who has publicized China’s gulag system; and representatives of the country’s underground Christian movement, the Uighur minority and Tibet’s exile community.

This is, in Chinese terms, an eye-popping list, similar to the red flag that Hu would wave in front of Bush if he were to host Osama bin Laden, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in the official Zhongnanhai compound in Beijing just before visiting Washington. While Bush’s meeting received relatively little notice in the United States, it triggered sharp propaganda attacks from Beijing.

The White House made no attempt to inhibit the president’s guests from circulating a full e-mail account of the meeting, complete with quotes from Bush promising to “talk about human rights” with Hu “face to face.”

This was a calculated move and not an oversight by the White House, which similarly did not object two years ago when Chinese Christian activists met with Bush and then provided me with their notes for a column shortly after the encounter.

The activists at that time invited Bush to worship with “underground” Christians — who meet in private, without official sanction — on his next trip to China, and the president seemed open to the idea. He should follow through this week, as part of a broader international effort to impress on his official hosts the importance of freedom of religion, speech and access to information.

Amnesty International, which estimates that half a million people are being held without charges in China, issued a report last week accusing the Beijing government of using the Olympics as a pretext to “intensify” political repression.

In France, Sarkozy’s decision to go to the Olympics has been particularly controversial. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, at one time a political rebel but today a senior European parliamentarian, asked the French leader to plead for the freedom of seven political prisoners, including Huang Qi, arrested in Chengdu in June for trying to organize the victims of the Sichuan earthquake to demand help.

The International Olympic Committee has shown that it will not forcefully demand that China live up to the promises it made in winning the right to host the games. This is hardly surprising for an organization that too often has allowed its approval to be bought by unrealistic promises or corrupt favors to its members. That leaves it to the national leaders who go to Beijing to rescue the political reputation of the 2008 Olympics.

Such a rescue will require commitment and coordination among like-minded leaders such as Bush and Sarkozy. They should take their cue from the Czech Vaclav Havel and the South African Desmond Tutu, who have issued an appeal for human rights to share the spotlight with the medal count at this global celebration of human perfectibility.