March 8, 2001

Watching Beijing's front-running bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics, I've been trying to figure precisely what's so wrong with this picture. After all, China's authorities recently went all out to welcome a team of inspectors from the International Olympic Committee -- promising to invest billions in fancy new sports facilities, spraying green paint to beautify brown grass, showing off a special police unit and even engaging in the ritual early release of a jailed dissident.

The Olympic inspectors seemed pleased, praising Beijing's preparations and public support for the Olympics, and waving aside a recent flood of damning reports on the Chinese government's abuse of its own people. The IOC "cannot take positions on political matters," Hein Verbruggen, leader of the Olympic evaluation commission, explained at a press conference last month after a four-day tour of Beijing.

And there's the heart of the problem. The Olympic games specifically honor fair competition. What Mr. Verbruggen airily dismisses as a mere "political" matter happens to be an entire system of government so abusive to the spirit of fair play that it deserves at least as much scrutiny as, say, your average sprinter on steroids. China's ruling [party] -- which would be the real host of any games in Beijing -- has an in-your-face habit of crushing political competition by jailing or shooting all rivals. That may seem less important to IOC bookkeepers than the exact height of a diving board. But it ought to be of some interest to anyone trying to preserve the most broadly ennobling aspects of the Olympic tradition.

To put it in perspective, were there an Olympic contest to degrade and abuse the human spirit, then of the cities now vying to host the 2008 Olympic Games, Beijing would win, flat out. The other four -- Osaka, Japan; Istanbul, Turkey; Paris and Toronto -- wouldn't stand a chance, their governments being bogged down to varying degrees by civilized norms of human conduct.

While the Olympic Committee, when it votes in July on the winning bid for the 2008 games, might prefer to avoid politics, that could get pretty tough if the members actually bother to read the Olympics' own charter. Among the "fundamental principles" are listed such priorities as "encouraging the establishment of a peaceful society concerned with human dignity."

Dignity is not a word that comes to mind in reviewing the recent activities of Beijing's regime. "China: Human Rights Deteriorate," reads a report issued last November by Human Rights Watch, citing such stuff as "ongoing repression," "large scale arrests" and "executions" in the restive northwest. The report also notes that a European Union attempt over the past three years to improve human rights in China through dialogue with government officials "has become largely a rhetorical shell, lacking in accountability, transparency, and clear benchmarks for progress."

A U.S. State Department report on China's human rights practices, issued just last month, goes into dozens of pages of detail on how during the past year "the Government's poor human rights record worsened and it continued to commit numerous serious abuses." These included "extrajudicial killings, the use of torture, forced confessions, arbitrary arrest and detention, the mistreatment of prisoners, lengthy incommunicado detention, and denial of due process." Along with this, "the Government severely restricted freedom of assembly and continued to restrict freedom of association."

Especially targeted were members of the peaceful Falun Gong spiritual movement, also known as the Falun Dafa, which the Chinese government has vowed to rub out. The State Department report includes such details as this: "Approximately 100 or more Falun Gong adherents died during the year in police custody; many of their bodies reportedly bore signs of severe beatings or torture, or were cremated before relatives could examine them."

Yet another report, this one published in the latest Columbia Journal of Asian Law by respected China researcher Robin Munro, extensively documents the Chinese government's Soviet-style abuse of "psychiatry" for "purposes of political repression." "Thousands of political and religious dissenters, including urban dissidents, exposers of official corruption . . . and unconventional religious sectarians have in recent decades been forcibly and unjustifiably incarcerated in mental asylums," Mr. Munro wrote in The Asian Wall Street Journal last month. Though these practices had declined in the late 1980s, writes Mr. Munro, "there has been a conspicuous resurgence lately in the case of detained adherents of the Falun Dafa spiritual movement and others."

This information casts a particularly interesting light on the Web site of China's state-run Xinhua news agency, which has a festive, blinking display of China's main goals -- the campaign for "New Beijing Great Olympics" sharing the page with the crusade to "Condemn Falun Gong "

When that symbolic flame of freedom can be safely lit again in China, it will be fitting to award Beijing the Olympic Games. Until then, the Olympics can better keep faith with human dignity -- especially that of the Chinese people -- by going somewhere else.