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.
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.
The international relay will likely end in Hong Kong, about as close to the Chinese mainland as possible. Organizers hope to have a mobile exhibit commemorating the 1937 Nanjing massacre, when invading Japanese soldiers raped, killed, and looted the old city.
In late July, another Darfur activist, 2006 Olympic speed-skating champion Joey Cheek, and a Darfuri refugee walked up to the Chinese Embassy on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C. Carrying two hefty binders of petitions, Cheek rang the front door buzzer.
Then he waited. Five, 10 minutes passed as he wondered about the delay: His group, the Save Darfur Coalition, called ahead a day earlier to inform the embassy of his visit. At last after waiting 35 minutes, the door opened and an official ushered him into the lobby, leaving his friend outside.
As they stood in the lobby, the official listened to Cheek's little speech asking China to help civilians in Darfur, as a staffer took notes in the background. The official accepted the binders and said he hoped Cheek and others would not "politicize" the Olympics.
In all, the meeting took seven or eight minutes. "There was no tea for me," Cheek joked.
Cheek grew interested in Darfur activism after years of seeing its crisis reported on the news, particularly as he traveled in Europe. Last year he donated his Olympic bonus to help Darfuri children, and since then he has given speeches and allied with big-tent advocacy groups such as Save Darfur.
For all their earnestness, however, such advocacy efforts are unlikely to prompt China to reform. Such campaigns "won't change whether they'll hold the Olympics in China or whether they'll get oil in Darfur," says China expert Joseph Grieboski, president of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy. Those are the bread-and-butter issues China cares about. And though China may fret about its image, he thinks Beijing is winning the public-relations battle. "The Chinese are thinking about these things six, seven, nine steps ahead of the rest of the world."
Asked how Beijing views Olympics advocacy campaigns critical of China, cordial embassy spokesman Wang Baodong said China has made "undeniable" progress in protecting human rights.
"Of course, China, like any other country in the world, is not perfect," he told WORLD. "The Chinese government always welcomes constructive criticism from all parties for the shortcomings in its work. But we do not accept irresponsible allegations or groundless slandering."
Many human-rights monitors might disagree with Wang: If anything, they say, China has stepped up abuses in order to "clean up" Beijing before the Olympics. Since February, for example, China has expelled some 100 foreign missionaries and has restricted local Christians, hoping to tamp down on evangelism. Christians who help desperate North Korean refugees say China has tightened its Korean border, making escape harder.
For now, China wants to prove it can stage an Olympics show as spectacular as any Western nation's. Tethong and others are already in tandem, plotting their protests for next year. They may not dent China's abuses, Grieboski said, but "Olympic athletes from Asia, Latin America, Africa coming to Beijing, may have a new awareness that they might not otherwise have."