Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Beijing's broken promises

National Post Published: Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A Tibetan demonstrator is seen near a flag representing the Beijing Olympics during a protest in Siliguri on March 18, 2008. Tibet remained largely cut off from the outside world after a crackdown by China, which said violence there was backed by the Dalai Lama and aimed at undermining the Olympic Games in Beijing.

When the Olympic bid committee came calling on Beijing in 2001 --before the Chinese capital was awarded the 2008 games -- government workers were sent in advance to cover up the damage pollution had done to the city's parks by spraying thousands of litres of green food colouring on the smog-stained grass. That should have been a warning: Nothing about China hosting the Olympics was going to be as sanguine as it appeared.

Over the weekend, 80 or more Tibetans died protesting China's six decades of occupation and repression of their country. In scenes reminiscent of the brutal crackdown against pro-democracy protestors in 1989 in Tiananmen Square, Chinese soldiers surged into crowds of unarmed Tibetans, killing scores as they went.

If it was not obvious before that China was unfit to host this summer's Olympics, then it should be crystal clear now. The communist nation has failed to live up to its key promises to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that were preconditions to it being awarded the event -- namely, that it cease its violent repression of dissent and clean up its water and air. In a perfect world, the IOC would take the games away from Beijing. But since that is an unlikely move for the organization-- indeed, it doesn't even appear as if the IOC will acknowledge that China is in violation of its hosting agreement -- then national teams and individual athletes must seriously consider boycotting.

After news of China's atrocities in Tibet filtered out, IOC president Jacques Rogge told reporters a boycott would be counterproductive. The only people hurt would be "innocent athletes." Really? It is hard to see how the athletes' punishment would come close to that suffered by the Tibetans who died seeking more autonomy for their nation, or the others who will surely be arbitrarily arrested and imprisoned by the Chinese government.

Reporters Without Borders calls China "the world's biggest prison for journalists and cyber-dissidents." Journalists have been denied access to protest sites, including last weekend's. Dissidents are kept under close surveillance and forbidden contact with reporters. Members of the spiritual movement Falun Gong are still routinely rounded up and charged with crimes against the state, tortured and executed. Indeed, China executes three times more prisoners annually than the rest of the world combined.

Since the weekend crackdown, the Chinese government has moved to ban YouTube from the nation's computers. Domestic newspapers, newscasts and internet sites have carried only official government accounts of the protests, while international networks such as CNN and the BBC have been blocked by censors.

The IOC is willing to turn a blind eye to all this, and so too, it seems, is the United Nations. On Monday, the UN Security Council let it be known it would not be meeting to discuss Tibet.

But already, several principled individuals have announced they will boycott the Beijing games. Prince Charles announced in February that he would stay away in sympathy with Tibet. Two weeks ago, Hollywood producer Steven Spielberg resigned his post as special advisor to the hosting committee over China's support of Sudan's government, which is perpetrating ethnic cleansing in Darfur. And just last week, Haile Gebrselassie, the world's best marathoner despite being asthmatic, pulled out because China has done little or nothing to improve its air quality. Mr. Gebrselassie fears the strain of competing in the August heat and a smog haze could ruin his health and career.

At this point, Ottawa need not announce a formal withdrawal by our national teams. But it should let it be known publicly that Canadian athletes are free to exercise their consciences. No athlete should be denied a spot on future teams nor have his or her training funding cut if he or she chooses not to go to Beijing.

In a month or two, if China has done nothing to improve its rights record, then our government can take the next step: pull out, or even suggest to the IOC that it disperse this summer's events around the world to existing venues that can accommodate them.

In the face of such blatant human rights violations, China's right to remain as the '08 Olympic host should not be guaranteed, even at this late date.

OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008

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