In 1938 Sammy Luftspring, once a poor boy from Kensington market, became Canada’s welterweight boxing champion. In 1985 he was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame. Those who take interest in the pugilistic arts remember him fondly, as did my late uncle, who was an amateur boxer during the 1920s and ’30s and travelled in Sammy’s social circle.
But that is not all that Luftspring is famous for. Sammy was raised in the Jewish ghetto in Toronto during the early ’20s. In an age before the Internet he had figured out what was going on in Germany, and he had a clear vision of the shape of things to come there.
In 1936 he refused to represent Canada at the Olympic Games in Germany that were hosted by Adolph Hitler. Years later he said, “No one had really listened to me when I said the Nazis were bad guys. Now they were going to spend the next five-and-a-half years fighting them.” He was one of the first Canadians to challenge Hitler’s “big lie” that all of Germany’s problems were of other people’s making.
Despite the embrace of capitalism that has recently transformed China, its government does not tolerate internal dissent or external criticism. Anyone who finds fault with the government can be labelled an “enemy of the state,” and those citizens who dare cross the line end up in prison. Like the Nazis did in 1936, the Chinese Communists are hosting the Olympic Games in Beijing to demonstrate the strength of their regime.
Yet Canadians are celebrating. In the press we read about Canada’s young tennis marvel Frank Dancevic who proclaims, “It’s an honour to compete for Canada at the Olympics … this will be an experience of a lifetime. I look forward to representing our country with the rest of the Canadian Olympians.”
Is it really an honour, or are Canadian athletes, their trainers and supporters fooling themselves and unwittingly giving credibility to one of the world’s most cruel and powerful regimes, as was the case during the 1936 Olympics? If they had asked Harry Wu, they might have thought twice.
Harry Wu is the founder of the Laogai Research Foundation. Harry was a political prisoner in a Chinese work camp (laogai) for more than two decades. He was never given a free and fair trial; in prison he was starved, tortured, beaten and “re-educated” and witnessed countless concentration-camp style atrocities during his years of illegal detainment.
When he finally reached the United States and regained his freedom for the first time since 1949, he began to speak about his experiences and collect documentation on China’s 1,200 known forced labour camps, which have imprisoned up to 7 million inmates. Conditions in these camps resemble those in German slave labour camps during the 1930s and ’40s and in the Soviet gulags of the post-war period, except for the fact that these Chinese camps are still in existence — their prisoners making many of the items that we buy in our supermarkets.
In a recent address to the President of the United States, Harry Wu pointed out some basic facts about China: China is still a regime where the basic rights of citizens are violated daily. The government probably executes between 8,000 and 10,000 prisoners each year, and these men and women are not given fair trials.
The latest and perhaps most grisly aspect of this modern form of slavery (apart from arbitrary execution and beatings once in jail) is the harvesting of organs for profit from both living and executed prisoners. Wu and his colleagues estimate that 95% of the organ trade comes from executed prisoners and that China’s one child policy of birth control includes forced abortion and sterilization sponsored by state authorities on a massive scale.
Wu emphasizes that there is no freedom of religion in China and that the government has infiltrated all denominations by sponsoring “patriotic committees” whose job it is to spy on the faithful and subvert their independence. This is paralleled by over a quarter of a million government-employed Internet monitors who censor any criticism of the government. Ironically, a “concern” for the security of Olympic athletes has allowed the Chinese government to increase their surveillance of both “hosts” and visitors.
You may have now realized why the products in those dollar stores in downtown Toronto are so cheap. No doubt some of the material is produced by slave labour in China. Laogai factories provide Western consumers with everything from tools and foodstuffs to bracelets, Christmas tree lights and Christmas trees.
In the year 2003 the word “Laogai” officially entered the Oxford Dictionary. Although the Chinese government routinely accuses its critics of lying in order to besmirch the good name of China and the Chinese people, the government’s denial of the conditions in their slave labour camps is identical to the tactics of Hitler and Stalin. They also denied their critics and blamed the inventions of malicious “enemies.” It is the usual strategy of a totalitarian state that enslaves its own people, claims that its critics are liars and simultaneously hosts mass spectacles such as this summer’s Olympics where Canada’s best athletes are now competing for medals. It is the latest version of the “big lie.”
The Canadian sports establishment is full of praise for our athletes who are competing in Beijing. No major Canadian sports organization has suggested that our athletes should not take part in the Games. There is no ban on their participation. Clearly they have forgotten what one of their own heroes, Sammy Luftspring, taught them in the 1930s. Sammy would have agreed with the late Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, who once wrote that in countries like the former Soviet Union and contemporary China, “the lie has become not just a moral category, but a pillar of state.” Unfortunately Sammy Luftspring died in 2000. He is no longer around to remind us of this simple truth.
[Photo: Children in minority costumes carry China's national flag during the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games at the National Stadium on August 8. Organizers of the Games acknowledged on Friday that the children dressed in ethnic costumes from around China who carried the Chinese flag at the ceremony were not actually from those ethnic groups, some of which have tense relations with the government. Mike Blake/Reuters.]