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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

Repression Games?

August 10, 2007

by Dermod Travis

In less than a year, athletes from around the world will gather to compete at the Beijing Olympics. And whether it’s the athletic grace of Nadia Comaneci at the Montreal Games, the civil rights statements of U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Mexico City Games, or the human triumph of Jesse Owens in Berlin, the Beijing Games promise their own defining moment.

But sadly for the athletes that moment may never take place on a track field, in a pool or an arena. The Beijing Games are rapidly being defined not by the promise of athletic excellence, but by China’s record of human rights atrocities. The Beijing Games may well be remembered as the Repression Olympics.

Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern games, would be hard-pressed to see his Olympic ideals embodied today in China. De Coubertin would see a country brutally stitched together through military force, its citizens threatened with imprisonment for religious practices not sanctioned by and registered with the state, a government willing to slaughter students peacefully seeking the right to free speech.

China’s record flies in the face of de Coubertin’s legacy. Ideals that find their essence in Article three of the Olympic Charter: “the Olympic Movement engages, alone or in cooperation with other organizations and within the limits of its means, in action to promote peace.”

The modern games were not founded by broadcast consortiums or multinational sponsors, but by peace activists. Individuals who believed that sport could encourage the “establishment of a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” Five of those founders went on to win Nobel Peace prizes. Were the Beijing Games what these men had in mind in 1894?

Games hosted by a regime that routinely represses its ethnic minorities including Tibetans and Uighurs, a government that unashamedly props up repressive regimes in Darfur and Burma, and a government that callously represses free speech, freedom of religion and assembly through the fear of summary execution.

Five years ago, after awarding Beijing the 29th Olympic Games, IOC President Jacques Rogge said "we are convinced that the Olympic Games will improve human rights in China". It’s a promise that Canadians have heard all too often when it comes to China.

Engagement with China was sold to skeptical Canadians as a means to achieve a greater end – a more open and free China. China’s seat at the United Nations was meant to foster a more democratic China, as was its membership in the WTO, as was its right to host an Olympic Games.

But China has consistently reciprocated with domestic crackdowns and toothless treaties. China may sign international agreements as it did in 1998 with the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights, but rarely does it ratify these treaties and even more rarely honour them. Yet, China still has an opportunity. The Chinese government can deliver on Jacques Rogge’s promise.

This past week, international Tibet support groups took to the streets, baseball stadiums and soccer pitches around the world to remind China and the world of Rogge’s promise. These groups and others will continue to do so until the closing ceremonies next August, because the over two hundred Tibetans arrested last week at a peaceful assembly in Lithang, Tibet deserve no less. Canadian citizen Huseyin Celil recently imprisoned in China for life deserves no less.

Ye Guozhu, who owned two restaurants and a home in Beijing that were demolished in 2001 to make way for Olympic facilities, deserves no less. Mr. Ye who sought permission to demonstrate against this expropriation was arrested and sentenced to four years in prison. His family has had no contact with him since.

China sought the Olympic Games as a way to showcase itself to the world. And in a way that undoubtedly was never its intent, China will get what it sought. But it won’t be a showcase of a modern, dynamic democracy. It will be a showcase of a country’s brutal record, its suppression of basic rights and human dignity, and its repression of individual freedom.

Today, the only outstanding question is whether China will seize its rapidly diminishing chance to honour Jacques Rogge’s promise. In just under one year the world will be watching and will see for itself if engagement with China is a policy worth pursuing or simply a tactic by the Chinese government to tarnish Pierre de Coubertin’s life-long dream “of a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”

Dermod Travis is the Executive Director of the Canada Tibet Committee,
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