Monday, September 1, 2008

Beijing's Olympic Reward Remains A Big Mistake

I’ll never understand how the 2008 Olympics wound up in Beijing. I guess I’m from the generation that knew China as Red China, the nuclear-armed Communist haunt of Mao Tse-Tung that backed North Vietnam against American soldiers. Instead of conquering us militarily, they’ve taken over our country economically.

After the Communists took power in 1949, their failed Great Leap Forward agricultural policies in the 1950s and the oppression of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s led to political and economic turmoil and the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese.

When Mao’s adversary, Deng Xiaoping, became premier after Mao’s death in 1976, relations with the West improved dramatically. Deng modernized the Chinese economy, phased out agricultural collectives and encouraged industrialization and trade with the West. They promoted what they called “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” which encouraged the development of market economies while keeping the state involved in ownership of large enterprises.

Local communities became free to develop their own businesses with few restrictions. As a result, China’s cheap labor sucked industrial output from the United States through joint ventures with Western corporations. By encouraging growth from the bottom up, China embraced capitalism without the trauma endured in the Soviet Union’s centrally planned perestroika a decade later. At least the Russians got a new flag out of the deal.

The change has been more dramatic than the economic growth of the United States in the 1950s. Life expectancy in China soared from 35 years in 1949 to 73 today, with a literacy rate of 91 percent. The Chinese poverty rate has dropped from 64 percent in 1981 to 8 percent today, meaning an amazing 500 million people were lifted out of poverty in a generation. They’ve become the second greatest economic force on earth, consuming half the world’s concrete and steel and more coal than the next three largest countries combined. The environmental devastation is unprecedented. With more than 1.3 billion citizens, nothing is done in a small way in China.

While making the transition to a modern industrialized society, China’s human rights policies remain repressive. Freedom of opinion and expression are severely limited by the one-party government, as student protesters at Tiananmen Square learned in 1989. Many of the forgotten survivors remain in prison today. By some accounts, 90 percent of the state-sponsored executions in the world are held in China, for crimes ranging from murder to tax evasion and even attempted theft. Freedoms of speech, expression, association, religion, the press and labor remain heavily restricted.

China’s “Re-education Through Labor” program involves forced-labor detention designed to reform bad conduct through torture and abuse. There are no charges, no trials, no access to family or legal counsel and no appeals. RTL is intended for what one official newspaper once described as “actions between crime and error.” The practice is used against anyone who steps out of line. Conformity and compliance, after all, are the only acceptable behaviors.

China’s reputation for civil rights abuses is not just domestic. They get much of their oil from Sudan, funding the Sudanese government as it prosecutes the genocide in the Darfur region. The Chinese government also is relentless in suppressing dissent as it asserts sovereignty over Nepal, and they jail people who happen to practice religion.

Some would say politics should be kept out of the Olympics, and in an ideal world that sounds good. But the Olympic Charter requires countries to reject “any form of discrimination … on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise” as a condition of participation, and seeks to promote “respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.” When China bid for the 2008 Olympics, they promised to improve upon their human rights record. So far that promise has rung hollow, with no change in sight. Meanwhile, the Olympic Committee looks the other way.

Economic prosperity alone isn’t the bellwether of a great nation. A few fellows on this continent once declared that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That message hasn’t spread to China yet, but it’s a lesson we should seriously value and never abandon.

The Olympic Committee gambled with another rising star in the 1936 Olympics when they allowed Hitler a world stage. The good name of the Olympic movement doesn’t need another black eye like that, but now the deed is done. Put simply, rewarding Beijing with the Olympics was a mistake that may haunt the Olympic movement for decades to come.

- Edmond (OK) Sun, July 31, 2008

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