As the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing approach, many worldwide Olympic Committees are advising and often mandating their athletes not to comment on controversial topics. Reports of another restrictive policy regarding free speech in China may be detrimental to the nation’s Olympic image, but it is also an opportunity for global political discourse and consciousness-raising.
The Chicago Tribune reported Monday that athletes from various countries are being told not to discuss Chinese policy or address any international issues in “Olympic areas,” including sports venues and conversations with the press.
These counsels for censorship come amid assertions that China is failing to uphold its promise of reforming its human rights practices if granted the Olympic bid. Historically, China’s government has been harsh on political dissidents, the media and certain religious groups.
In April 2001, Liu Jingman, vice president of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games Bid Committee, said, “By allowing Beijing to host the Games, you will help the development of human rights.”
The mayor of Beijing echoed this promise and said that social progress and human rights improvements would ensue as a result of China being chosen to host in 2008.
However, the worldwide human rights advocacy group Amnesty International reported that the Chinese government’s policies on human rights remain poor and have even deteriorated in some areas.
“Gleaming stadiums and spectacular parades will be worthless if journalists and human rights activists still cannot speak out freely, if people are still being tortured in prison, or if the government continues its secrecy about the thousands of people executed,” Catherine Baber, deputy Asia Pacific director for Amnesty International, said in a press release.
“The current state of affairs runs counter to the most basic interpretation of the ‘Olympic spirit’ with the ‘preservation of human dignity’ at its heart,” said Baber.
In January, a Chinese human rights activist, Hu Jia, was charged with inciting subversion. The New York Times reported that before being formally charged, Hu was dragged from his home by police, where his wife and infant child remain under house arrest with their Internet and telephone connections severed.
Tuesday, Hollywood mega-director Steven Spielberg withdrew from his position as artistic adviser for the Summer Games because of China’s involvement in “the unspeakable crimes against humanity that continue to be committed” in the Sudanese region of Darfur.
China is the predominant consumer of oil and supplier of weapons to Sudan, and the Chinese government is accused of providing diplomatic coverage for the forces in Darfur that resist the integration of outside peacekeepers, Reuters reported.
The mounting media focus on the Beijing Olympics will undoubtedly draw the attention of people around the world that may not have had knowledge of China’s controversial policies and practices.
The combination of a mass audience tuning in for Olympics coverage with the fiery political debate and heightened news coverage of human rights issues amid that coverage creates an intersection ripe for global awareness and discussion.
Although the decision by many Olympic Committees around the globe to squelch athletes’ political rights while in China is another in a series of disappointing limitations on free speech, perhaps it came at a perfect time.
This intersection may provide a platform for mass discourse not only about human rights, but also the state of one of the world’s most populous and influential powers.
I can only hope that the inquiry and interest generated regarding China’s policies and the state of human rights everywhere does not end when the Olympians’ free speech is renewed.
Renee Sessions is a senior majoring in creative writing.