Olympic fiasco: Awarding Beijing rewards persecution

August 10, 2015

By Charles C. Haynes
Inside the First Amendment 

     Last week, the International Olympic Committee awarded Beijing the 2022 Winter Games, demonstrating yet again that selection of a host city has everything to do with politics, money and power — and nothing whatsoever to do with human rights.

     While Chinese government officials were celebrating the "Olympic spirit" in Beijing, it was religious persecution as usual in the rest of the country.

     The same week of the Olympic announcement, Chinese Christians in Zhejiang — a province in eastern China — were frantically organizing a movement to push back against a government campaign to remove exterior crosses from their churches or, in some case, tear down the church itself.

     Social media carried images of courageous Chinese Christians making crosses to wear and place on their homes as a non-violent protest against government repression. Last year alone, at least 400 churches were demolished or had crosses forcibly removed, according to the 2015 Annual Report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (www.uscirf.gov).

     This week Chinese police detained seven church members in Zhejiang who have been resisting cross removal. They were charged with embezzlement and a variety of other apparently trumped up charges, including "instigating others to disrupt the social order."

     Christians, of course, are not the only targets of government persecution in China. Uighur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong practitioners and others face harassment, arrest, torture, and imprisonment by a government determined to control and repress people of faith.

     Apologists for the Olympic selection process made hopeful noises in 2001 when Beijing was chosen as the site for the 2008 Summer Games. Holding the Olympics in China, the argument went, will put the spotlight on human rights concerns and encourage the government to grant more religious freedom.

     Instead, winning the Olympic bid in 2008 apparently inspired China's totalitarian regime to move in the opposite direction by cracking down on religious groups with increasing brutality.

     Tibetan Buddhist Goshul Lobsang, to cite just one of many examples, was imprisoned for helping to organize a peaceful protest in 2008. Last year, Lobsang died shortly after his release from prison where, according to the USCIRF report, he suffered "extreme malnourishment and brutal torture, such as regular injections and stabbings."

     As a reward for this abysmal human rights record, Beijing is now set to become the first city in modern Olympic history to host both the summer and winter Games.

     To be fair, the IOC had limited choices in the contest for the 2022 games. Four democratic countries, including frontrunner Norway, withdrew from the competition — leaving the IOC to choose between China and Kazakhstan, another authoritarian regime that routinely violates religious freedom and other human rights.

     The Olympics have become so costly, disruptive and unpopular that soon only totalitarian governments prepared to spend billions and repress dissent will be able to host the games.

     One solution floating around the Internet would be to designate a permanent home for the Olympics — Greece being the obvious choice. But the allure of national self-aggrandizement, billion dollar media deals, and fancy VIP receptions is probably too great to permit transformation of the current Olympic culture.

     Dressing up totalitarianism in Olympic colors comes at a cost. Russia, it should be remembered, spent more than 50 billion dollars on the Sochi Winter Games in 2014 — a propaganda extravaganza that fooled no one outside Russia.

     But the greater cost is to the Olympic spirit — and, indeed, the human spirit.

     I enjoy the Winter Olympic Games as much as the next person. But unless China begins to take religious freedom seriously, I won't be watching in 2022.

Charles C. Haynes is vice president of the Newseum Institute and executive director of the Religious Freedom Center. E-mail: chaynes@newseum.orgWeb: www.religiousfreedomcenter.org Twitter: @hayneschaynes.

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