Amoral Silence

by Chris Curran | 7/9/01 5:00am

The recent 4th of July celebrations offer a unique opportunity to reflect upon an ideal our nation was founded upon: freedom from tyrannical rule. Whether from governmental encroachment on civil liberties or foreign expansionist threats, the mission of America has been to promote liberty, freedom and equality universally. This premise of rewarding democracies and supporting human rights while vigorously combating the threat of authoritarian or tyrannical rule is now in jeopardy with the Bush Administration's conspicuous silence on Beijing's bid for the 2008 Olympics.

The three most likely candidates for the 2008 games are Toronto, Paris and Beijing. Ignoring precedent, the Bush Administration has chosen not to back one city and has opted instead for "neutrality." This is cowardice masquerading as business interest promotion. Canada and France both have exemplary human rights records and would do well in "respecting universal fundamental ethical principles" as is required by the International Olympic Committee charter. China would not.

The IOC is a highly political body. It is susceptible to lobbying and in 1993, with heavy U.S. support, Sydney beat out Beijing for the 2000 Olympics by only two votes. The vote, which occurred only four years after the bloody Tianamen Square massacre of pro-Democracy demonstrators, would likely have gone to China had the U.S. not intervened.

Now, eight years later, the same issues that were a problem in 1993 still exist and have worsened in many cases as the Government struggles to maintain legitimacy. According to the State Department human rights report on China, "The Government's poor human rights record has deteriorated markedly." By remaining on the sidelines the Bush Administration has all but assured that Beijing's bid will be successful. When this occurs, it will be an enormous setback for the cause of human rights worldwide. Hosting the Olympics is a privilege and one that brings plentiful benefits through positive publicity and national pride. China is not yet deserving of this privilege.

Is the oppression of the Tibetan people, and the rejection of their cries for self-rule, consistent with "fundamental ethical principles"? Is it ethical for China to execute persons for crimes as small as petty theft? Is it ethical to imprison American scholars Gao Zhan and Li Shaomin without legal counsel or due process? Is the crackdown on the peaceful Falun Gong spiritual movement consistent with these norms?

Chinese officials have countered these charges by asserting that Westerners do not understand "Asian values" and that these matters are essentially domestic ones. This is not true. Taiwan, South Korea and Japan all have vastly superior records of respecting fundamental human rights of association, self-rule and freedom of dissent. Are these nations less Asian? Of course they are not; they have merely incorporated these ethical principles into their existing structures. It is true that some of these issues are domestic in nature, but in awarding a privilege like the Olympic games, these domestic issues are highly relevant. A look at history explains why they should be considered.

In 1936, Berlin, Germany enjoyed the privilege of hosting the Olympic games. The games served as a very effective propaganda tool for Adolf Hitler. The New York Times praised the games as, "A piece of perfect German pageantryOlympics leave a glow of pride in the ReichVisitors gain a good impression." This was quite a coup for the new National Socialist regime, which sought, and received international legitimacy from hosting the games. In retrospect it seems obvious that hosting the games in a nation that systematically repressed its citizens' right to religious expression and fostered intolerance, was unequivocally wrong. To the extent that the positive glow of the Olympics numbed the international community to the evil nature of the Nazi regime, the IOC is at least partially responsible for facilitating the atrocities and denial of basic human rights that ensued, following the 1936 games.

While it is inappropriate to compare Jiang Zemin to Adolf Hitler as the Chinese president lacks the zeal for expansionism and anti-Semitism of Hitler, the comparisons resonate nonetheless. That the persecution of Falun Gong, Christian and other religious groups is hidden more effectively than it was in 1936 Berlin in no way mitigates its fundamental immorality.

In 1935, there was considerable debate over whether the U.S. should participate. We elected to compete and, Jesse Owens' heroics notwithstanding, it was the wrong thing to do. We now have the opportunity to prevent international legitimacy from being accorded to another repressive regime; we should take it.

In fairness, there are many powerful interests promoting China's bid. Businesses would love to gain a foothold in the enormous emerging market. The opportunity to get young Chinese hooked on McDonald's, Nikes and Wal-Mart seems irresistible. But to do so at the expense of human rights indicates misplaced priorities.

In 1980, the U.S. chose not to participate in the Olympic games in Moscow because of the invasion of Afghanistan and the denial of basic human freedoms. 80 nations followed the lead of the U.S. and the Olympic prestige given to the Russians was lessened dramatically. Less than two decades later the oppressive regime collapsed, paving the way for a transition to democracy. The comparisons between 1936 and 1980, in American actions and eventual results, are striking.

The Declaration of Independence, though it detailed many instances of economic unfairness, was not about business or taxation. It was about the right to self-rule. It affirmed that "All men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights." If our founding fathers were willing to risk their lives for the cause, cannot we at least weather short-term business fallout from such an action? Until China recognizes these universal fundamental ethical principals which we hold so dear and celebrate every July 4th, the Bush Administration's position of silent acquiescence to the authoritarian Chinese regime is amoral at best.