China’s Cautious Olympic Diplomacy

A few days after the June 4, 1989 massacre in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, Ren Wanding, then one of the stars of China’s dissident movement, fled to a foreign compound and begged its residents to find him an embassy that would smuggle him, like others, out of the country.

Ren made visits to several embassies but all refused to help him. Ren got back on his bicycle, returned to his home in Beijing and was arrested. His reward was seven years in prison “for inciting unrest.”

On April 16, the former accountant, now 63, was allowed to leave China for the first time after being given a week’s visa to come to Hong Kong for medical reasons. His visa follows one a week earlier to Chen Ziming, another internationally known dissident, who was also allowed to leave China for the first time, coming to Hong Kong for two weeks.

Chen served 13 years in prison for his role in the 1989 pro-democracy protests and Ren 11, including four after joining the human rights movement at the Democracy Wall in Beijing in 1979.

The two are part of a slight thaw in Beijing towards its prominent dissidents – not out of kindness but rather a strategy to forestall what China’s leaders regard as the nightmare scenario that occurred in Korea in June of 1987. There, public demonstrations began 15 months before the 1988 Olympics in Seoul and spread nationwide. In mid-June of that year, the International Olympics Committee issued an ultimatum to its military government, saying that, if the riots were not stopped, it would revoke the rights to the games.

That ultimately forced President Roh Tae-woo to agree to democratic reforms and eventually led the imprisonment of two Korean presidents on corruption and other charges. That scenario is the dream of many activists in China and a nightmare for the country’s leaders.

“The Olympics are an opportunity for us,” said Hu Jia, a human rights activist in Beijing. “They are a tool of democracy. China has finally a chance to be democratic.” As they see it, never will Beijing be so vulnerable to foreign pressure as over the next 15 months, given the possible loss of the Olympic prize.

So far, the games, which begin in Beijing on August 8 next year, are well on course. The biggest obstacles the IOC Coordination Committee could find during its visit on October 18 and 19 were air pollution and traffic congestion. Beijing will deal with them by closing factories and banning all but Olympic vehicles during the games.

China’s leaders were reminded of their vulnerability during a television debate ahead last Sunday’s French Presidential election when the Socialist candidate Segolene Royal raised the possibility of a boycott of the 2008 Olympics to protest Beijing’s support of the Sudan government, under harsh international criticism for its treatment of refugees in Darfur. Royal was responding to a question about how western governments had allowed ‘genocide’ in Darfur without taking action.

It was the first time a senior politician in the west had raised the possibility of a boycott and was a harbinger of the diplomatic risks over the next 15 months and how it could be vulnerable to human rights violations, not only at home but also in pariah countries with whom China has good relations, like Sudan or Zimbabwe.

The Communist Party learned its lesson about mass protest in spring 1989 and has invested heavily in the security manpower and equipment in cities all over the country aimed at pre-empting a South Korean scenario.

The Ministry of Public Security reported 87,000 public disturbances in 2005, an increase of 6.6 per cent over 2004, but there is no evidence of organized protest comparable to the students in South Korea or Solidarity in Poland.

In Hong Kong, Ren said that he thanked the Olympics for allowing him to come to Hong Kong. “Democracy activists in China see 2007 and 2008 as two years in which the political environment will be more relaxed.”

Another liberalisation was to allow foreign journalists in China until August 24 next year, the last day of the games, to interview anyone they wish as long as they have his or her permission.

On January 1, the first day the new rule came into effect, Reuters in Beijing went to interview Bao Tong, 75, the former political secretary of Zhao Ziyang, who served seven years in prison after 1989 and remains under house arrest.

“But, during the term of Hu (Jintao) and Wen (Jiabao), the party will not overturn the verdict on June 4, although it will in the end,” Ren said. “We should respect the quality of Hu and Wen but it is very hard for them to solve this issue within the party. As activists, our demand is to reverse the verdict today and implement the constitution tomorrow.”

But lest human rights activists get their hopes up, the thaw is hardly perceptible anywhere else. For instance, the government banned mainland five human rights lawyers from attending a seminar on China’s human rights law at Hong Kong University on April 21.

And early this year, the General Administration of Press and Publications banned eight books dealing with topics from China’s recent history, including the anti-rightist movement of 1957 and the Cultural Revolution. These are two of many topics which the party Propaganda Department believes too sensitive for public discussion.

One of the authors, Zhang Yihe, in mid April filed a lawsuit against the administration calling for a reverse of the ban. “I know the law courts will not accept the case and will hand the suit back to us. But I must do it. I must use not only words but also take action to protest against the ban.”

Anti-AIDS campaigner Gao Yaojie, 80, returned to her native Henan province after receiving a “global leadership award” at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on March 14. She was only able to go after Hu Jintao himself overrode the provincial government which forbad her from traveling.

Back home, she finds that her telephone is not working most of the time and visitors must register before they can enter her apartment. “They have paid 500 yuan to my maid and to my research student to report on me, saying that it is a question of national security.”

Petitioners who travel to Beijing because the local government will not deal with their complaints are routinely arrested when they arrive in the capital by police sent from their local districts.

“Stability” at home is the best way, the party believes, to safeguard the Olympics.