Monday, August 04, 2008

The Political Hurdles

Perhaps no other Olympics has been so intensely anticipated" as the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, China, observed Jere Longman in Sunday's New York Times. The upcoming Olympics will be a test of the "inherent power of the games," Longman wrote. China is a rising economic and cultural force in the world, but the regime's behavior, both domestically and internationally, continues to be problematic. Will focusing the world's attention on China serve to positively change the behavior of an oppressive regime, as some claim was an effect of the 1988 summer games in Seoul, South Korea? Or will the 2008 Summer Olympics serve only to further empower, entrench, and legitimize that regime, as many believe happened with the 1936 "Nazi" Olympics in Berlin?

HUMAN RIGHTS IN CHINA: Even though there has been progress in economic rights in China, "rights to free speech and assembly remain sharply restricted, ethnic minorities are repressed, [and] the Communist Party dominates," Longman noted. In a report released in late July, Amnesty International said progress on human rights in China had been limited. Foreign journalists covering the Olympics are also confronting many restrictions. Chinese authorities "had told the International Olympic Committee that reporters would be allowed to cover the Games as they would any other Olympics," but media advocates say that has not been the case. "Chinese censors use increasingly sophisticated filtering software to block access to Web sites and conduct surveillance of online bulletin boards and chat rooms." Television crews from South America and Germany "have complained publicly about being harassed and followed by plainclothes police or about public security police who have cut off live shots even though the reporters had permission to film." Fearful of being spied on, White House staffers who are traveling to Beijing have been told to leave their Blackberries at home.

INTERNATIONAL ISSUES: The Beijing Olympics suffered a public relations hit in February when director Steven Spielberg withdrew from his role as artistic adviser to the games in protest of China's backing for Sudan's policy in Darfur. China has been severely criticized for blocking tougher sanctions against the Sudanese government, as well as for its support for Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe. In March, there was an international outcry over China's violent crackdown on Tibetan demonstrators, in which 140 people were killed, according to the Tibetan government-in-exile. China has criticized the use of sanctions against Iran to bring Iran into compliance with nuclear inspections, though it is currently a party to the incentives package being offered to Tehran. There are also serious concerns with China's environmental policies. China's fast-growing economy "requires energy, and coal provides more than three-quarters of China's needs." According to the World Bank, 20 of the globe's 30 most polluted cities are in China. In preparation for the Olympics, "China has taken drastic anti-pollution steps, such as closing factories surrounding Beijing and ordering half of 3.3 million cars in Beijing off the roads." China has also pledged to keep many of its anti-pollution measures in force after the Olympics.

CAN OLYMPICS CHANGE ANY OF THIS?: Some observers insist that the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul played an important part in moving that country's government toward internal democratic reform. Expressing this view, Fran├žois Carrard, the International Olympic Committee's then-director general, said in 2001: "We are totally aware there is one issue on the table, and that is human rights. Either you say because of some serious human rights issues, we close the door, deliver a vote that is regarded as a sanction and hope things evolve better. The other way is to bet on openness. We are taking the bet that we will see many changes" as a result of holding the games in China. There are other issues on the table, such as China's support for authoritarian regimes and its growing environmental footprint. It remains to be seen whether the Olympics will help make China a more productive international partner for the United States in dealing with these important issues.

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