You probably haven't heard of Yang Chunlin, and, until recently, neither had we. Yang is a 52-year-old Chinese land-rights activist who put together a petition questioning his country's decision to host the Olympics next year. In the United States--as in Italy, Greece, or any of the other countries that have recently hosted the Olympics--if you circulate a petition criticizing the government, any number of things can happen. In the worst-case scenario, you get ignored. In the best-case scenario, you get attention and, eventually, your way. In China, you get chained to the corners of a prison bed for days in a manner that stretches your arms and legs--and causes considerable pain. According to a group called China Human Rights Defenders, "The victim has to eat, drink and defecate in the same position." You are required to clean up the excrement produced by other inmates. You are denied access to a lawyer. You are charged with the ominous-sounding crime of subverting state power.
That, at least, is what happened to Yang after he was detained in July, as reported by the Associated Press. We are relaying his story now because, with less than a year to go before the start of the Beijing Olympics, some in Washington are suddenly asking: Can we really send our athletes to compete in a country that tortures its own citizens merely for expressing political thoughts? That has enabled the Darfur genocide by supplying weapons to Sudan? That, most recently, chose to stand by and watch--you might even say wink--as its sadistic allies in the Burmese military slaughtered protesters in the streets of Rangoon? In August, one congressman introduced a resolution calling on the United States to boycott the 2008 Olympics. And, in the wake of last month's carnage, Fred Hiatt of The Washington Post suggested delivering the following pointed message to Beijing: "Tell China that, as far as the United States is concerned, it can have its Olympic Games or it can have its regime in Burma. It can't have both."
The problem with these proposals is that they probably won't do much good. America's boycott of the 1980 games in Moscow--protesting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan-- accomplished nothing geopolitically and served only to deny U.S. athletes a shot at Olympic gold. It is far from clear that a boycott would yield better results now. And, even if it would, it isn't going to happen. The Olympics are a far bigger deal today than they were in 1980. With vast sums of money in sponsorships and TV rights at stake, with so many Americans planning to tune in, and with President Bush having promised to attend, the political will for a boycott simply doesn't exist.
And so we have a different idea--one that hinges on the American athletes who will compete next year in Beijing. Put simply, we think they should pull a Lee Bollinger--or, rather, a Lee Bollinger in reverse: Whereas the president of Columbia was spectacularly rude to his guest, we hope they will be spectacularly rude to their host.
These Olympics afford our athletes an opportunity that citizens of the free world rarely get: to travel to a country where speech is tightly regulated and to speak--without fear of retribution and from a significant public platform--about the injustices that country inflicts on its own citizens, as well as others. The 2008 games will provide no shortage of chances to do this. In 2006, speed skater Joey Cheek spoke about Darfur after winning his gold medal in Turin. If an athlete expressed similar sentiments to a pack of journalists next year, while adding some observations on how Beijing has facilitated the genocide, he or she would instantly command the world's attention. Similarly, a press conference called by multiple American athletes in a prominent Beijing location to discuss Chinese support for the junta in Burma would not go unnoticed. Nor would an open letter by U.S. athletes to China's leaders demanding the release of specific political prisoners--delivered in person to a top official at the games.
Of course, China tightly controls domestic media, which means these displays would not necessarily reach average citizens. But there are ways around this problem. Chinese-language banners unfurled by athletes at the opening ceremonies that call for the government to permit free speech, t-shirts slipped on during medal ceremonies that carry messages of solidarity with Chinese dissidents--these gestures could reach tens of thousands of spectators and, through word of mouth, many more. And, even if such images are seen only by a tiny fraction of China's population, they will invariably be viewed by millions around the world--perhaps becoming iconic symbols of resistance, like the famous shot of black athletes with their fists raised at the 1968 Olympics. This would itself be valuable. The men who rule China are brutal, but they are also insecure; and they value these Olympics mainly as a chance to cement their status as respectable members of the world community. If, rather than a point of pride, the Beijing games become a point of controversy or debate or even shame, it could provoke these autocrats to rethink their behavior.
We realize our suggestions are, at some level, presumptuous. We do not know whether American athletes care about Darfur or Burma or freedom of speech in China. But that is why we are proposing this idea now. Over the next ten months, we hope our athletes will weigh the issues involved. And we hope that at least some will come to the same conclusion we have: that these are questions on which good people cannot remain silent.
We also know that athletes are not politicians. But, by awarding the games to China, the International Olympic Committee has already made them political actors. If they speak up next year in Beijing, they will be making a political statement; but, if they stay quiet, they will be participating in an event that helps legitimize a brutal government. Only they can decide what to do. We hope they remember Yang Chunlin as they choose.
By the Editors