With the Olympic flame that brightly shined over the Athens Olympics for 17 glorious days just extinguished, the focus now turns to Beijing, host of the next Games in 2008.
Beijing — selected over Istanbul, Osaka, Montreal and Paris — badly needed the Games to refurbish its world image and prove itself the rising new economic powerhouse. But the ghosts of Tiananmen Square have never entirely disappeared.
Just a few hours after Beijing’s Mayor Wang Qishan accepted the Olympic flag in Athens, China refused to allow Jiang Yanyong, the 72-year-old military doctor who blew the whistle on the SARS cover-up, to travel to the Philippines, where he was to receive Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize.
Instead, Chinese authorities said Mr. Jiang’s brother would represent him at the Ramon Magsaysay International Award Foundation, named after the Philippines’ most popular president, who died in a plane crash in 1957.
The foundation said “in 2003, as the virus swept undetected into Beijing, Jiang broke China’s habit of silence and forced the truth of SARS into the open.”
Although Jiang was already retired, he learned of the frightening number of SARS cases and deaths in the capital while the threat of an epidemic mounted. Doctors in Beijing had been warned to remain silent. In an unusual move for a Chinese official, Mr. Jiang alerted the media, disclosing the reality behind the SARS epidemic. Showing great courage and taking great risk, Mr. Jiang signed his name to his release.
“A small dose of truth can sometimes make all the difference, especially in societies where speaking out is not the norm,” stated a release from the award foundation. Jiang’s actions saved countless lives.
But China’s communist rulers, who hired Western public relations specialists to polish their image, hold different views, especially where human rights are concerned.
China offered Tiananmen Square — site of the repression against the June 1989 pro-democracy student movement — as a beach volleyball venue.
Estimates of the number of people killed in Tiananmen Square, when Chinese police and troops supported by tanks entered the square and evicted the students’ peaceful demonstration, vary greatly. Official figures put the deaths at 300. Democracy movement supporters say it is likelier closer to 3,000. Mr. Jiang personally treated about 50 injured students in Tiananmen.
Thankfully, the IOC politely declined the offer, diplomatically saying Tiananmen Square would be “inappropriate.” Still, Beijing gets to host the next Games.
Some Chinese leaders argue “hosting the 2008 Games will help improve people’s rights and the quality of life for the people of Beijing.” Maybe the IOC should look back at history.
The 1936 Berlin Games did not prevent Adolf Hilter from starting World War II, and going on to commit the most hideous crimes of the past century. In fact, the Berlin Games had the contrary effect; they offered Hitler a stage for his National Socialist propaganda. Hitler had intended the games to be the showcase of his “master race.”
China — which came in second in the Athens Olympics with a total of 32 gold, 17 silver and 14 bronze medals — has promised it would perform better in Beijing. (The United States led with 35, 39, and 29.)
Some China-watchers support Beijing hosting the Games, advancing arguments the Games will help democratize China. Among China’s supporters are such eminent personalities as tenor Luciano Pavarotti and the exiled Dalai Lama.
Instead of Berlin in 1936, they point to Seoul in 1988, when the Games acted as the catalyst forcing South Korea to move to greater democracy. Other analysts insist that scenario is unlikely to repeat itself in China. “Well over thousands of political prisoners continue to be executed every year,” says T. Kumar, Amnesty International’s advocacy director for Asia.
“China executes more people than all the other countries in the world all together. They are the champions of execution,” said Mr. Kumar. According to one Amnesty report based on a public statement from a senior southwest China legislative official, about 10,000 people are executed every year in China.
According to Amnesty International, most Chinese executions occur after sentencing rallies in front of massive crowds. Until recently, the executions were carried out in sports stadiums and public squares — the same stadiums where some of the Olympic events are likely to occur.
Amnesty believes the stadium executions have been suspended as a result of the Olympics. However, that does not mean fewer people are being executed in China; it simply means the execution sites have been moved.
One school of thought believes giving China the Games will only support its ruling establishment and continuing human-rights abuses. Had China really changed, it would have not prevented Mr. Jiang from flying to Manila for his award — certainly worth more than Olympic gold — as his actions saved many lives.
The Games have now moved from Athens — the cradle of civilization and democracy, to Beijing, where democracy continues to be trodden upon.
Claude Salhani is international editor of United Press International.