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Olympic opportunity

China | As the 2008 games bring attention to China, activists hope to shine a spotlight on the country's human-rights abuses

Issue: "Safe haven," Sept. 15, 2007

China expects to spend $40 billion on Olympic venues and infrastructure-more than any host before it. Architectural wonders are sprouting around Beijing: the Bird's Nest, a 91,000-seat stadium; the Egg, a domed theater; and the Water Cube, a swimming venue named for its water-drop-effect windows. Human- and political-rights groups, though, are anticipating an Olympic-sized platform to air their grievances. They are portraying Olympic rings as handcuffs and launching torch relays to commemorate mass slaughter.

One such protest began in the early hours of Aug. 7. Melanie Raoul and fellow activists went to the Great Wall of China carrying backpacks stuffed with rope, anchors, and harnesses. Two Canadians, one Briton, and three Americans all wanted to arrive early, around 7 a.m., before the crowds came. Two positioned themselves at ground level with a video camera pointed up, in order to film what happened next.

The six are volunteers for Students for a Free Tibet (SFT), a U.S.-based group that demands Tibet's independence from China. They planned the morning months ahead, strategizing carefully-one day ahead of Beijing's festive ceremony to begin the countdown to 8/8/08-the opening day of the XXIX Olympic Games and a date chosen because three eights are thought to bring good luck in Chinese culture. The activists hoped for maximum media attention.

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With two in the group acting as supports on the wall, Raoul and fellow Vancouver native Sam Price slipped on their harnesses, grabbed two ends of a 25-by-18-foot banner and rappelled down until it unfurled, some 50 feet above the ground: "One World, One Dream, Free Tibet in 2008," the banner read in English and Chinese.

Raoul and Price hung on the Great Wall with their banner unfurled for almost an hour. Hearing of the silent protest, uniformed and plainclothes police officers rushed to the wall. They shouted up at the group and threatened to cut their ropes. After an hour the four agreed to come down, along with their sign, if they were not separated during certain detention.

The six spent the next 30 hours in detention at Beijing's central police station. Raoul said they suffered no harm, but police interrogated them under bright lights and told them-incorrectly-that their respective embassies wanted no contact with them.

Students for a Free Tibet is just one of an eclectic group of human-rights organizations determined to turn next year's Olympics into a spotlight on Chinese repression.

As the six launched their protest, elsewhere in Beijing SFT's U.S. director, Lhadon Tethong, was on the prowl. She blogged about the group's activities, buttonholed the International Olympic Committee's chairman, Jacques Rogge, and watched Tibetan performers at the National Ethnic Minorities Park, located directly across from the Olympic village. It was once identified as "Racist Park" on a badly translated road sign.

Minorities in the park area are "a sick display," Tethong said, dancing and educating visitors as part of what she called the government's "colonial idea of 'here are our happy minorities.'"

Police had trailed Tethong for days and detained her Aug. 8, just as she made her way to Tiananmen Square to watch countdown preparations. Officials deported her the next day, escorting her right up to the plane. Raoul and her fellow Great Wall protesters also were deported and put on the same flight. The group's release seemed timed for after the countdown festivities ended. "They didn't want us to be released before that, because we'd have an opportunity to push even harder," Raoul said.

With the whole group reunited, relief set in. On the plane, Raoul picked up a copy of the Hong Kong--based South China Morning Post, which carried a photograph of the banner. She smiled: Mission accomplished.

Other activists also hung their protests on the one-year countdown. Darfur activists have increasingly fingered China for prolonging a Khartoum-driven humanitarian crisis by investing heavily in Sudan's economy and its oil reserves. Four miles west of the Darfur border in neighboring Chad, actress-activist Mia Farrow lit the first torch of an anti-genocide relay that will run until December and draw attention to China's connection to Sudan.

The relay is organized by Dream for Darfur, a new Olympics-inspired group that aims to lobby China to use its leverage over Sudan to end the conflict in the Darfur region. Big-name advisors include Farrow, NBA basketball player Ira Newble, and Smith College Sudan expert Eric Reeves (see "Too little, too late," Aug. 18).

The modified relay-with torch lightings in select cities, but no runners-also is touring other sites of genocide. In Kigali, Rwanda, a grim-faced Farrow with lit torch led genocide survivors on a symbolic death march Aug. 15. More sobering stops are planned in Armenia this month and in Bosnia the next.

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