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Original Issue

An Olympian Stand on China

In selecting a host for the 2000 Games, the IOC must not forget Tiananmen Square

Four years ago this week—on June 3 and 4, 1989—Chinese troops charged into Tiananmen Square in Beijing and massacred a thousand people who were demonstrating for democratic reform. The formal authorization for this bloody atrocity was a declaration of martial law by the mayor of Beijing, Chen Xitong. After the killings Chen continued to be a fierce advocate and eager enforcer of a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy activists, thousands of whom were slammed into jails, where torture was widely practiced.

Today, Chen has a new job: He is chairman of the Beijing 2000 Olympic Games Bid Committee (BOBICO). As such, he is the leading salesman and glad-hander in China's attempt to convince members of the International Olympic Committee that they should choose Beijing over live other cities (Berlin, Brasilia, Istanbul, Sydney and Manchester, England) to host the Games in 2000. Chen and his sales force burble on about how Beijing is expanding subways, building roads, renovating its airport, encouraging its 11 million citizens to use English and planning an Olympic composition to be called Symphony for a Happy Millennium.

The 93-member IOC is to vote on Sept. 23 on which city gets the prize, and Beijing is currently considered one of the two leading candidates (Sydney is the front-runner). But even as Beijing pursues its Olympic dream, a thunder of righteous outrage is sounding in the world. Members of Human Rights Watch, the largest U.S.-based human rights organization, are appalled that China should be in contention to host mankind's most ballyhooed spectacle of brotherhood and friendship.

The IOC has traditionally been anxious about demonstrations and other expressions of political dissent in host cities during the Gaines. Ironically, China has used that anxiety to bolster its pitch. As Robert Bernstein, chairman of Human Rights Watch, puts it, "In its formal application to the IOC, China even brags of its ability to suppress dissent, saying: 'Neither now or in the future will there emerge in Beijing organizations opposing Beijing's bid and the hosting of the 2000 Olympiad.' This is no idle boast. China maintains a vast and hidden Gulag, closed to all outside scrutiny, containing millions of prisoners who are tortured and abused."

Recently, the Chinese have made a show of releasing some prominent priests and political prisoners. They have also ostentatiously discontinued their practice of shadowing visiting journalists. Skeptics see these as transparent public relations acts meant to impress 1) the IOC and 2) President Clinton, who decided just last Friday to extend "most favored nation" trade status to China for one year while insisting that China make progress on human rights. Extending such trade status could change the future of China forever. The Games would do less, but they are not without reward. "The Olympics would be an enormous plum for the Chinese government," Bernstein says. "China would put people away and clean up the city like you wouldn't believe. And the government would be able to say it was well respected by the world while it was still torturing prisoners."

The IOC has not shown much interest in complaints from Human Rights Watch. When Bernstein wrote to Jean-Michel Gunz, an IOC administrator, asking that an analysis of rights practices be included in the evaluation of the six bids by the IOC's enquiry commission, Gunz replied, "Human rights issues are not investigated by the Enquiry Commission, whose primary function establish that the information contained in the bid document of each city, and the guarantees given, represent the actual state of affairs." IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch has sent mixed signals. Three weeks ago in Shanghai he said that the decision as to whether China would get the Games would not be based on its human rights record; two days later in Sydney he announced that "human rights are important."

Should the IOC demand some standard of human rights protection in a country before awarding it the Games? And if so, what is that standard? Anita DeFrantz, an IOC executive board member from the U.S., says, "The United States tends to be on top of many lists for human rights violations, too. It depends on a definition of human rights, and that's different in different countries. In the U.S. it's freedom to speak, to practice your religion, to be safe in your home. In other countries, it means the right to food, to shelter, to survive."

Dick Pound, an IOC executive board member from Canada, says, "If we waited until a country qualified for sainthood, no one would make it. My view is that the Olympics are a positive factor. In a closed, controlled place like China, the Olympics—with all its media attention, all the people moving uncontrolled—opens the place up. That has to lead away from totalitarian absolutism at least a little. That was how it worked in South Korea, and I'd say it had an effect in Moscow, too."

Possibly. But beyond whatever social, political or economic influence they may have, the Olympics are supposed to serve as a symbol of man's highest ideals. Awarding the 2000 Games to China would certainly not promote that purpose. As Bernstein says, "It may be necessary to work with human rights violators in economics and diplomacy, but there is no reason to hand China the giant bouquet of legitimacy that the 2000 Olympics would provide. If the IOC docs that, it risks repeating its error in Berlin in 1936, when the Games were used to pay tribute to the worst in the human spirit."