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Olympic opportunity

"Olympic opportunity" Continued...

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

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."

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