Columnists > Voices

Beyond the arena

While Olympic pageantry reigns, remember the shut-outs

Issue: "The audacity of real change," Aug. 23, 2008

Watching the opening Olympic ceremonies in Beijing, and anticipating a closing spectacle soon, I couldn't help but be awed by what was easily the most arresting live performance ever. It is undeniably amazing that a country whose annual per capita income only a few years ago stood at less than $1,000 could orchestrate such a light, sound, and precision-tuned extravaganza. Stephen Spielberg need not apply.

But as the drummers and the calligraphy dancers and the tai chi artists and others performed in Beijing's National Stadium, I found myself thinking of Mamertine Prison. Mamertine sits on a hill in downtown Rome within earshot of the Colosseum. Its legendary underground chambers held high-profile prisoners like Peter and Paul. Researchers who've pieced together its ancient past say it's likely that the apostle Peter could feel the dank walls vibrate and hear the roar of the crowd, the unabashed pitch and frenzy of Rome's elite as Nero and his men found ever more diabolical ways to put Christians to death. Outside the arena, Peter awaited his own martyrdom as part of the first-known wave of large-scale Christian persecution.

I do not equate China's leaders with Nero, although they stand in his train-with one hand directing an economic empire and with the other beating and imprisoning thousands. But here I draw a comparison to the bystanders. In National Stadium we glimpsed a seemingly hapless President Bush, who removed his coat and bantered with Russian ex-president Vladimir Putin while Russia's tanks streamed across the border into Georgia. We saw an amiable President Hu Jintao and a stolid Jacques Rogge, the Interna-tional Olympic Committee president, take seats of honor knowing Hu had barred athletes and others (including U.S. Olympian Joey Cheek) from attending because of their political views.

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And then there is the vast contrast between the pageantry in Beijing's stadium this month and duller echoes of oppression outside. We likely will never know the extent of the Chinese crackdown leading up to and following these Olympics. We do know that untold foreigners plus Chinese, even Beijing residents, were banished from the city.

We know that three Americans on the eve of the Olympic opening were arrested for staging a peaceful and unobtrusive protest in Tiananmen Square by unfurling a banner reading, "Christ is King." We know that Chinese officials harassed a team of Americans who host summer camps for Chinese orphans. The orphans, ages 5-18, are considered ineligible for adoption because they are disabled or too old (14 is the legal age limit for adoption). Officers shut down the Beijing camp site during the Olympics. Police kept workers at the camp's site in Nanchang, five hours south of Beijing, under what one worker described to me as "campus arrest," unable to travel outside the university where the camp was held.

How did the authorities treat their own? We know about Hua Huiqi. As President Bush and the first lady made their way on Sunday, Aug. 10, to Kuanjie church, one of a handful of government-sanctioned Protestant churches in Beijing, Hua also set out for Kuanjie, on a bicycle. But along the way he and his older brother were detained and kept from worshipping there. Hua was baptized at Kuanjie about 10 years ago but has since been active in house churches. He knew he was under surveillance leading up to the Olympics because last November he was arrested, beaten, and left unconscious for three days. Officers arrested his mother also, then promised to release her if Hua would give up the names of house-church contacts.

Hua was not the only believer shut out of the Kuanjie service. Regular church-goers discovered that only those with red slips of paper outlining security procedures were admitted. Those who actually got in, observer Zhang Lujia reported to the human-rights group China Aid, were "security people, political workers and people trained by them to pose as believers."

U.S. history at its best is one of striving with those outside the arena to enfold them, men like Sudanese runner Lopez Lomong who from a refugee camp became the flagbearer for the U.S. team. Theirs are the stories we can't forget, but do if we love too much our good seats in the arena. c


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