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The Silent Partner

As China quashes critics, IOC continues to look away

Posted: Wednesday February 13, 2008 11:56AM; Updated: Wednesday February 13, 2008 11:56AM
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Hu Jia
Chinese AIDS activist Hu Jia, 34, is currently detained and facing charges of "inciting subversion of state power." China has jailed more dissident journalists than any other country.

On Feb. 5 a court in Hangzhou sentenced dissident journalist Lu Gengsong to four years in prison for "inciting subversion of state power" with his critical essays about the ruling Communist Party. Lu responded by yelling, "Long live democracy!" Then he was taken away.

It is six months before the start of the Beijing Games -- China's coming-out party -- and though they knew that Olympic officials and the world's media would be watching, the Chinese authorities railroaded Lu anyway. Maybe I shouldn't be shocked, but I am. China's pledges to respect and, as one Beijing bid executive put it, "enhance" human rights gave the International Olympic Committee moral cover in July 2001, when it chose Beijing over Toronto. That was the deal: For its five-ringed prize, the Chinese government would show that it had a conscience.

Two years ago at the Turin Winter Games, I sat in an office with IOC president Jacques Rogge, a former surgeon and Olympic yachtsman refreshingly lacking in his predecessor's oily self-importance. Beijing's bid had been approved three days before Rogge took office, but he was fully on board, believing that the Games would transform China. He told me what he said to Beijing: "The values of the IOC are full respect [for] human rights. We ask you to do the best efforts so that leading up to the Games, during the Games and after the Games, you would have the best possible human rights record." Rogge stared at me across the table. "They received the message," he said.

Clearly not. In what Amnesty International USA and Human Rights Watch describe as a growing crackdown on critics due largely to the government's heightened sensitivity as the Games approach, another prominent dissident, Hu Jia, was jailed in December. China has more journalists (25, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists) and cyber-dissidents (49, according to Reporters Without Borders) in prison than any other nation in the world. As part of its bid the regime made a big show of promising foreign media "complete freedom to report" throughout the country, but watchdog groups cite continued harassment; last month stone-throwing goons reportedly hired by local authorities barred a German camera crew from meeting with the wife of an imprisoned human rights activist in Shandong.

The IOC, meanwhile, has been conspicuously silent. Asked last week by e-mail if Rogge had rethought what he told me in Turin, he responded with a bloodless, nine-sentence statement emphasizing "quiet diplomacy" and the belief that "history will tell that more good than bad has resulted from hosting the Olympic Games in Beijing." The words human rights were not mentioned.

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