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.
Part of this, perhaps, stems from a fading hope that the IOC can still influence China the way it did South Korea, when giving the 1988 Summer Games to Seoul spurred the country toward democracy. But the difference is huge: Tiny South Korea yearned to become a free-market player and faced intense international pressure to reform; five months before the '88 Olympics, the nation staged the most successful free election in its history.
China? In the seven years since being awarded the Games it has emerged as an economic superpower—potent enough to welcome the Olympics even as it freely flouts the Olympic spirit. Why should China keep its vow on human rights? No country will boycott the Games, and no sponsor will pull out of them, if it means losing a foothold in the market of the future. That may sound too cynical by half, except that on Sunday the British Olympic committee announced the insertion of a clause in its athletes' contract that prevents "comment on any politically sensitive issues," only to remove it a day later under worldwide media pressure. Olympic committees in New Zealand and Rogge's native Belgium have already forbidden their athletes from giving political opinions during the Games.
Maybe each nation chose on its own to truckle. Or perhaps there's been a truckle-down effect from the IOC: Since 2002 it has formally assessed the progress of Beijing's preparations without once assessing the "enhancing" of human rights in China. Has the IOC gone beyond enabling? If Chinese dissidents and journalists keep going to jail, "and the International Olympic Committee is keeping their mouth shut and looking the other way? They are the ones responsible," says T. Kumar of Amnesty International USA. "Both are on trial. Not only China: The IOC's credibility is on the line."
That's why Rogge must speak out. These Olympics are massively popular in China, and its leaders fear any loss of face. All he needs to do is say two sentences in public: This is not acceptable. Live up to your pledge. With that, the IOC stops legitimizing a nightmare. With that, the shame is China's alone.
Full disclosure: SI has licensing agreements with SI China and with the IOC for the Beijing Olympics.