/ 22 February 2008

The Olympic prisoners

Also read Steve Cram’s Counterpoint to this article, ”Politicising sport doesn’t work

The Olympic Games have their anthem, their rings, their heroes and their sponsors. And now, with the Beijing 2008 Games, they have their prisoners.

The Chinese government is not just building fine stadiums, it is also arresting those who dare to condemn the countless human rights violations taking place in China. The political police are getting ready for the Olympics in their own way, bringing charges of subversion against those who remind people of the promises the government made in 2001 to improve respect for basic freedoms. And so it was that a few days before New Year’s Eve, 30 police officers arrested leading human rights activist Hu Jia at his Beijing home.

Before arriving, they cut his phone lines and internet connection so that he would be unable to alert his friends in China and abroad. And before leaving, they threatened his young wife, Zeng Jinyan, with reprisals. A well-known blogger who was named by Time magazine as one of the world’s 100 heroes in 2007, Zeng is now alone with their two-month-old daughter, cut off from the world.

Hu is a ”prisoner of the Olympic Games”. On his website he had been keeping a countdown of the days left to the inauguration of the Games on August 8, as well as a count of the days he spent under house arrest. Hu is opposed to a boycott of the Olympics.

He was enthusiastic about the idea of thousands of foreign journalists coming to China because he thought they would talk about its destitute and its oppressed dissidents. He is also opposed to a boycott because he is a patriot.

Although only 34, Hu has been campaigning for 10 years for the environment, people living with HIV/Aids and political prisoners. Top of his year at engineering school, it was his support for Friends of Nature that drew him into activism. Then he founded one of the first organisations offering care and comfort to those with HIV/Aids who, despite their large numbers, are neglected by the authorities in China.

Recently nominated for the European Parliament’s Sakharov prize, Hu and Zeng embody the courageous and tenacious defence of free expression in China. They are so well known by foreign diplomats and the international media that it was assumed their high profile rendered them untouchable.

One would expect an outcry in response to such a level of repression. All those looking forward to the 2008 Beijing Games should speak out, as it is impossible to imagine that this great sports event will not be marred by the detention of people such as Hu. But the International Olympic Committee is saying nothing and is rejecting all appeals for help. The Olympic sponsors are not saying anything either.

And foreign diplomats rarely speak out in defence of China’s political prisoners because they are too scared of upsetting Beijing. As with many others, we had long thought that the government would ease the pressure and allow human rights activists a chance, albeit a limited one, of expressing themselves before and during the Games.

But the political police have been given their orders — to arrest dissidents, keep files on foreign journalists and compile a blacklist of foreign human rights activists. Such repression will only radicalise the protesters.

The Tibetans, the defenders of religious freedom and all those who feel betrayed are already planning to demonstrate during the Games. They might spoil the party. And who is to blame? The Chinese government, and only the Chinese government. — IPS

Robert Menard is the secretary general of Reporters sans Frontières International