Olympics in Chains China Loses Control of the Games

China had been hoping to show itself as a worldly and tolerant host of the Olympic Games. But the sporting festival has already become a PR disaster for the country. Repression in Tibet and ongoing crackdowns have revealed the extent to which the country remains a police state.

By SPIEGEL Staff


The image of four-month-old Qianci in the arms of her mother, Zeng Jingyan, is hard to dispel. The little girl is screaming at the top of her lungs, her crumpled face a picture of fear. Of course, she doesn't know why camera teams are bending over her, blinding her with their lights and terrifying her with their microphone booms suspended terrifyingly close to her face. All she can hear is her mother, cursing and crying at the same time, bitterly condemning the government and bravely wiping the tears from her face. The mother eventually removes her child from the commotion and takes her home to the gated community where they live, a luxurious example of pre-Olympic urban renewal in Tongzhou, a suburb of Beijing. The community is called "Bo Bo Freedom City."

The name is the height of cynicism. Qianci will spend at least part of her childhood in this Freedom City without her father, 34-year-old Hu Jia. A court in Beijing has just sentenced the dissident Hu to a three-and-a-half-year prison term for what it called "inciting subversion of state power," an act that consisted of Hu allegedly publishing five articles critical of the Chinese government on the Internet.

In reality, the judges convicted Hu, a computer expert, because he issued the sort of welcome message to China's guests for the XXIXth Olympic Games that Beijing's rulers cannot tolerate. In their eyes, what Hu wrote jeopardizes their entire system of government. Come to Beijing, Hu wrote in an open letter to visitors last September, but don't forget that this huge celebration, the vast oceans of flowers, the smiles of the hostesses and the orgies of fireworks, that this spic-and-span city with its avant-garde sports arenas and avenues lined with the flags of every country imaginable, that this enormous evocation of harmony under a motto dictated by the party -- "One Word, One Dream" -- has a bitter dark side.

'Torture and Oppression'

In fact, for many Chinese it is more of a nightmare than a dream, and sometimes a bloody one at that. It oppresses a country that, according to Hu, "has no elections, no religious freedom, no independent courts and no independent trade unions." China is a country, Hu writes, "in which an effective secret police maintains torture and oppression, and one in which the government even engages in the violation of human rights and is not prepared to comply with international obligations."

The path of the torch.
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The path of the torch.

Of course, these words are those of an obstructionist whose image of China is that of a man who has spent years campaigning on behalf of AIDS patients and petitioners who have lost their apartments as a result of Beijing's Olympic building frenzy. That his vision is true is something that he will now experience first hand. These are dark days for China, for the Olympics and for the rest of the world.

After the Chinese government's suppression of a rebellion in the Tibetan capital Lhasa and in the huge country's western provinces, the West is suffering the shock of realization. Many thought that China, as it emerges to become a modern economic power benefiting from Western-style globalization, was moving beyond a past littered with human rights violations. Now, it is suddenly being revealed once again as a depressingly ordinary old-style dictatorship -- and as a perfectly functioning police state in which raising one's head in protest is a dangerous undertaking.

Almost every day brings new, bitter disillusionment for foreigners who have been only too willing to admire China, and to marvel at the Shanghai skyline, at the frenzy of modernization that has gripped the Chinese economy and at the late-night traffic jams created by the proud owners of new cars in China's mega-cities. Now, however, Chinese authorities are busy dashing hopes that China's ascent to affluence and global power might automatically lead to political liberalization. Or that Starbucks coffee shops would inevitably encourage democratic discussion. Or that Audi sedans could guarantee unlimited freedom. Any such aspirations are now clearly a thing of the past.

Crackdown on Activists

Ironically, it is the Olympic Games -- viewed as something of a reward for China's successful economic boom -- which are now revealing that China has changed but little since tanks rolled onto Tiananmen Square in 1989 and mowed down a nascent democracy movement. "It is increasingly clear that much of the current wave of repression is occurring not in spite of the Olympics but actually because of the Olympics," Amnesty International writes in an early February report on China's crackdown on activists.

It appears that in China, which many in the West tended to regard as something of a benevolent, affluent dictatorship, not that much has changed after all. On the day the Olympic flame was lit in Greece, a Chinese court sentenced Yang Chun Lin, an unemployed worker, to five years in prison for demanding "human rights instead of Olympic Games."

The Amnesty report charges that Beijing, in the run-up to the games, has ramped up its crackdowns on human rights activists, as well as on beggars and vagrants. The Chinese police have compiled lists of foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and known activists designed to help the authorities intervene more quickly if and when there are demonstrations. In recent months, more and more people have been locked away in re-education camps. In January, the Beijing media reported on a new cleansing campaign "to ferret out illegal activities that damage the city's image and threaten the social order."

In the police-run re-education camps, prisoners are at the mercy of their overseers' moods. Witnesses frequently report that drunken police officers amuse themselves at night by ordering inmates "to quarrel with their fellow prisoners," thereby encouraging them to fight each other. Other victims of the re-education camps complain about the lack of medical care and wretched food.

The 'Dalai clique'

Authorities have been especially diligent when it comes to discouraging China's 210 million Internet users from voicing any criticism. Since last fall, police symbols have begun popping up every 30 seconds on some users' screens -- an unmistakable warning from China's cyber cops of the dangers of imprudent opposition. The government is even investigating mobile phone users who allegedly use text messaging to "endanger public safety."

But government repression is at its most brutal in the regions of Tibet and western China plagued by rebellion, where protests continue three weeks after the uprisings began. Eight Tibetans were allegedly killed when government forces cracked down on a demonstration in Tibet as recently as last Friday. To finally pacify the rebellious provinces, Beijing announced government plans to put more than 1,000 Tibetans on trial this month. The defendants include people arrested after the unrest and those who turned themselves in, hoping for a mild sentence.

The charges against them were revealed in a lengthy account of events that China's ambassadors sent to members of the world press last week. The government insists that the rebels were "incited to rebellion" by the "Dalai clique" in an effort to forcefully achieve a "separation" from China. Under Chinese law, this is regarded as "inciting rebellion" and "endangering national unity." Both are crimes that carry severe penalties. But even if this rebellion is quickly dealt with in the courts, will it be forgotten four months later, when the Olympic flame reaches Beijing once again?

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