The Magazine

Beijing Goes for the Gold

Will China in 2008 be a repeat of Berlin in 1936?

Mar 19, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 26 • By MIKE MURPHY
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MEET ZHOU JlANXIONG. A farmer in China's central Hunan province, Zhou was tortured to death by family planning officials in search of his wife, who was suspected of being pregnant without government permission. Zhou, who was 30 at the time of his death, was hung upside down, beaten with wooden clubs, and branded with irons.

Zhou's violent death is chronicled in a new report by Amnesty International, which contends that the use of torture against political dissidents, criminal defendants, and laborers is "widespread and systemic" in China.

Haunted by an atrocious record on human rights, China is hoping to use the international spotlight and prestige of the Olympics to polish its image. Beijing is a finalist in the competition to host the Summer Games in 2008. Toronto, Paris, Istanbul, and Osaka are also in the running. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) will announce the winner on July 13 in Moscow.

For the Communist leadership in Beijing, who desperately want to shed the baggage of Tiananmen Square and host a showcase Olympics, the Amnesty International report must seem like deja vu all over again.

Back in 1993, Beijing was the front-runner to host the 2000 Summer Games. In one of the greatest Freudian slips of all time, Juan Antonio Samaranch, the head of the IOC, announced that Beijing was the winner before correcting himself and declaring that Sydney had actually won narrowly, 45-43.

Beijing's supporters were livid at human rights activists and politicians in the United States and England for "politicizing" the selection process. But China was the one doing the politicizing: Beijing, which is one of the world's most polluted and congested cities, would not even have been in the running, except for pro-China politics.

After refusing to bid for the 2004 Summer Games, China is making an all-out push for 2008. At the Sydney games last September, Chinese officials, who are usually leery of foreign media, aggressively courted reporters with a glossy brochure in hand that declared, "awarding Beijing the honor of hosting the 2008 games will encourage China's continued growth and interaction, fulfilling the true aims of the Olympic spirit in uniting the world through sport." Or else.

China's new bid is serious. The government has already pledged $ 18 million for infrastructure improvements and pollution controls in Beijing and has powerful allies. In addition to Samaranch, who has announced that he will retire after the selection of the 2008 host city, Beijing's bid has secured the financial backing of General Motors, Budweiser, and Amway. This support and the narrow margin of its defeat in 1993 have led many observers to declare that the 2008 games are Beijing's to lose.

The prospect of the 2008 Olympics being held in totalitarian China should concern everyone who cares about basic human rights. Despite the happy talk of recent years, China remains one of the most tyrannical and repressive regimes in the world. Its Communist leadership is busy threatening democratic Taiwan, building a deep-water navy, and creating a strategic nuclear missile force that can reach American cities, all while sending technicians and equipment to aid Iraq as Saddam tries to strengthen his military.

Against this backdrop of military muscle-building and global mischief-making, nothing would please China's rulers more than broadcasting the global pageant of a peaceful and friendly China hosting the games. No better event exists to send a propaganda message about a "New China," and the Chinese leadership knows it. In a display of cynicism that would make even Stalin blush, Beijing officials brazenly announced last November that they would hold the beach volleyball tournament in the once blood-soaked Tiananmen Square if they host the 2008 games.

Given Beijing's corporate and IOC support, it would seem the fix is in. But a Beijing Olympics is not yet a done deal. Technical experts have grave doubts that China's shaky infrastructure can handle the demands of the games. The IOC's own technical report ranks Beijing near last, behind Paris, Toronto, and Osaka. Only Istanbul fares worse. And despite her rulers' efforts at camouflage, China's dismal human rights record will not go away.