Opinion: Can the Olympics Change China? | Sports| German football and major international sports news | DW | 08.08.2008
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Opinion: Can the Olympics Change China?

The International Olympic Committee awarded the Games to Beijing in an attempt to improve human rights and freedom of expression in China. Those goals have not been met, but hope remains, says DW's Matthias von Hein.


China would have preferred to host the Olympic Games in the year 2000. But after the bloody suppression of the democratic movement in 1989, the International Olympic Committee decided in favor of rival applicant Sydney in 1993. In 2001, however, China's perseverance proved successful -- not least because hosting the Games was associated with necessary progress regarding human rights.

Matthias von Hein

Matthias von Hein

For the Communist Party, the choice of Beijing as the center for hosting the Games was a stroke of genius. Ideologically exhausted, the party could then use the Olympics as a new focus for the enthusiastic population for the next seven years. It would be a collective goal that would merit all the hard work put towards achieving it. Thus, the sworn divide between sports and politics was pure hypocrisy right from the start.

These Olympic Games are inwardly concerned with how to best convey the rise of China to the outside world in powerful images. Some 80 heads of state will sit beside the Chinese president at the opening ceremony. Chinese television will broadcast images of Hu Jintao chatting away with Nicholas Sarkozy, George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin to the furtherst corners of the country. The message is clear: We belong up there with them, shoulder to shoulder. The media has not even mentioned how Bush has criticized the human rights situation in China before. They're simply not told.

Scope for change?

In the past few years people have happily referred back to how positively the Olympics Games transformed South Korea 20 years ago. But it is not a fair comparison. South Korea is a small country whose national security is dependent on the USA. China is, on the other hand, an enormous country that functions according to its own rules.

Contrary to all agreements Beijing has intensified pressure on dissidents in the last few months. Just one of the most recent examples is the trial begun less than a week ago against former attorney, Ni Yulan. For years she spoke up for the rights of forced expropriates. In April she became one herself. Then her house was torn down. That area of the city needed to be "cleaned up" for the Olympics. When she stood up against this act, she was arrested and possibly tortured. Not even her husband has seen her since.

Whether the Olympic Games still stand a chance will be seen in the next few days. The international outcry due to the Internet censorship in the Olympic Media Center has led to some relaxations of suppressive policies. The formerly censored Deutsche Welle site has since become accessible again. And not only in the press center but across the country. Yet, the fact that sites remain blocked, that around 80 journalists and Internet-writers still remain in prison is unacceptable.

China's leadership does not deserve these Olympic Games -- but the population does. And there is still hope. The deciding glimmer would be if this exhibition of architectural and organizational achievement leaves behind a more relaxed party. If the Communist Party can hold out without falling into the reflex reactions of control-mania and paranoia, then maybe these Games can even change China.

Matthias von Hein is the director of DW-RADIO's Chinese program (ah)

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