How many citizens of China will be rooting for foreign athletes — any foreign athletes — at the Olympics in Beijing this August? At the 1936 Games, held in Berlin under Adolf Hitler’s personal supervision, Peter Gay was a German teenager, yearning to see Germany beaten. Peter’s father had won the Iron Cross in the First World War and the Gays were patriots. But Hitler had declared them pariahs because they were Jews. They knew he would call any German victory a Nazi triumph.
For the Gays, there was at least one beautiful moment, in the women’s 400-metre relay. The Germans were favourites but one of them dropped the baton, letting the Americans win. Peter’s father jumped to his feet in ecstasy. Six decades later, Peter Gay, a distinguished American historian, wrote in his memoir, My German Question: Growing up in Nazi Berlin, that this was one of the real pleasures of his youth.
Hitler, like Chinese leaders today, promoted the Olympics as a way to establish the legitimacy of his regime. Did it work? Americans who write about 1936 enjoy pointing out that the four-gold-medal performance by Jesse Owens, a black American sprinter, ostensibly the member of an inferior race, so disgusted Hitler that he stormed out of the stadium.
Writers often make the Games sound like a defeat for the Nazis, but Germany won the most gold medals, 33 (the Americans were second, the Italians third). Hitler had several reasons to celebrate. He not only displayed the excellence of German sport, he also forced the democracies to accept the German Third Reich as a lawful state. And despite the opinions of foreign Jews, he accomplished this without permitting Jews to represent Germany in any sport. He turned down the International Olympic Committee’s timid “one Jew” request to allow a token Jew on the German team.
Across China this season, there must be millions of citizens with good reason to hope the Beijing Games fail. They know the government believes the Olympics will prove that China is a progressive country, ready to stand beside other great nations of the world. But in almost all its policies, including the criminal code, the treatment of minorities and freedom of speech, China remains a backwater.
To Tibetans, the government of China is a violent oppressor, as the response to recent demonstrations has shown once more. To members of the Falun Gong, it’s a brutal tyranny that doesn’t hesitate to use torture and arbitrary imprisonment.
To traditional religious Chinese, it’s everything from a nuisance to an agent of the devil. Buddhists, Christians and Muslims can practise their faith only under state supervision, in buildings the state has authorized, where police monitors can hear what’s said. Owning a picture of the Dalai Lama is punishable by imprisonment. Boys who want to become monks in Tibet must first sign a declaration against Tibetan independence and express loyalty to Beijing.
Intellectual claustrophobia has become part of Chinese life. China has more journalists in prison than any other country, and employs a small army of specialists to keep anything dangerous from appearing on the internet. According to a study by Freedom House, a filtering system automatically blocks taboo web pages and eliminates material containing banned words, such as “democracy” and “Tiananmen.” A sign saying “Beijing Internet Police” appears every 30 minutes on computer screens run by 13 major portals based in Beijing, to remind people they are being watched. Foreign internet companies have largely co-operated with the Chinese dictatorship.
Chinese law provides the death penalty for 65 different crimes, among them robbery, pimping, tax fraud and “undermining national unity.” The government acknowledges that in 2005, the last year for which there’s a total available, China executed 1,770 people; human rights organizations, on the other hand, believe the true number approaches 10,000. There are unnumbered Falun Gong adherents who vanish into concentration camps.
This summer, Canada and the other Olympic countries will help keep this system in power by honouring it with our presence in Beijing. China wants to persuade the world that it’s united, but everything we know suggests that millions of its people feel cheated by a history that has left them poor, isolated and without human rights.