When sports and politics collide

China’s human rights record faces

Kathy Xu
Kathy Xu

The world’s eyes will be on Beijing this month as it hosts the 2008 Summer Olympic Games with the mantra, “One World, One Dream.” But for Kathy Xu, Sci ’99, this year’s Olympics will only serve to uphold the practices of a regime whose human rights record has inspired talk of boycotts—the loudest since the 1980 Olympics in Moscow when 62 countries, including Canada, skipped the Games.

Xu said the Olympics should be about something more than athleticism.

“It’s not just about how fast you can run or how far you can jump,” she said. “I think having [China] hosting the Olympics is the exact opposite of what the Olympics claim to promote.”

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has been criticized by human rights groups worldwide for turning a blind eye to China’s support of the governments of Sudan and Zimbabwe and its treatment of Tibetans, Muslim Uyghurs and other minorities.

Xu, who moved to Kingston from Beijing in 1992, is a practitioner of Falun Gong, a spiritual practice with roots in Buddhism and Confucianism. Also known as Falun Dafa, the practice—similar to Tai Chi—was founded in 1992 and has since grown to more than 70 million members in China, according to a government estimate.

In April 1999, 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners protested peacefully at the Communist Party headquarters in Beijing after members were beaten and arrested in Tianjin. The government responded by launching a propaganda campaign against Falun Gong. In Beijing alone, 850,000 members were arrested, though many were later released.

Now, two-thirds of all reported torture victims in China are Falun Gong practitioners, according to the United Nations Special Rapporteur. Its members are forbidden to enter the country and are banned from Olympic events.

Xu said she embraced Falun Gong shortly after her mother, who had been teaching Tai Chi in Kingston, used it as rehabilitation following a car accident in 1997.

She said Falun Gong members in China became government targets because the practice promotes independent thought.

“Religious groups have their own beliefs and are not so easily manipulated by the Communist party,” she said. “The government … have particular hostility against people who have faith.”

In July 2006, former Canadian Secretary of State (Asia-Pacific) David Kilgour co-authored a report with Toronto lawyer David Matas investigating live organ harvesting of Falun Gong members in China. The report uncovered evidence of healthy Falun Gong practitioners in forced labour camps and prisons who had organs removed before being killed and cremated.

Kilgour, a fellow at the Queen’s Centre for the School of Democracy Studies, told the Journal in a phone interview that Falun Gong members are oppressed because of the movement’s immense popularity and non-violent values.

“They were twice as numerous as the Communist Party by 1999 … [government persecution] was part of a jealousy or paranoia,” he said. “They were absolutely non-political until persecution began and they have values of truth, compassion and forbearance. Truth was at the opposite end from the people running the party state.”

Kilgour said the 1999 silent protest kick-started the widespread persecution. The international community should use the Olympics to make a statement against the Chinese government’s human rights record, he said.

“The only thing the international community can do is not to go the opening ceremonies,” he said. “I’m proud that [Prime Minister Stephen Harper] isn’t going. … It’s a gesture, I know, but at least it doesn’t penalize our athletes as a boycott would do.”

Kilgour said U.S. President George W. Bush missed the opportunity to pressure China when he readily accepted an invitation to the ceremonies.

“As I understand it, [Bush] didn’t hesitate a nanosecond,” he said. “If he had said, ‘I’d like to come but we’ll see what happens with the human rights situation in the next year,’ he would have at least used a bit of leverage.”

In a speech to the Washington D.C. Rotary Club on July 23, e-mailed to the Journal two days before its delivery, Kilgour said the Olympics’ core values aren’t in line with China’s human rights practices.

“The Olympic Charter itself speaks about ‘respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.’ Does this not ring increasingly hollow as the rest of the world adjusts to worsening practices of China’s party-state as the Games approach?”

Consumers should question the Games’ major sponsors, whose silence implies acquiescence with China’s human rights record, he said, adding that the IOC’s separation of sport and politics isn’t plausible.

“For the party-state in China, it has everything to do with politics and its quest for legitimacy at home and abroad.”

Kevin Koo, ArtSci ’09, is a Falun Gong practitioner and a member of the Queen’s Falun Gong club. A former national-level field hockey player, Koo gave up his national team roster spot to spend more time raising awareness for Falun Gong victims, undertaking a cycling trip from the Chinese consulate in Toronto to Capitol Hill, a distance of more than 900 kilometres.

Koo said sport and politics would be separate in an ideal world, but not during this year’s Games.

“The difference is that persecution is going on here that’s not totally political,” he said. “Everyone’s witnessed that genocide is happening in the country that’s hosting the Olympics. … How can a country that advocates killing people hold an event that’s about having a union of everyone together?”

Koo said the Olympics likely won’t help alert the West to what’s going on in China.

“I think the Olympics should be helping, but the blockade of information is stopping it,” he said.

The Beijing Olympics will embolden the Chinese government to continue oppressing Falun Gong practitioners and other groups, Koo said.

“The Olympics is one of the grandest events of our time. If they get to hold it while they’re persecuting people I think they’ll feel like they can do whatever they want now,” he said, adding that he’s not sure whether boycotting the Games would be effective.

Others believe a boycott would do little good.

J.D. Burnes, ArtSci ’10, is travelling to Beijing with the Canadian archery team. He dismissed negative views about boycotting the Games—such as those of figure skater Elvis Stojko, a two-time silver medallist, who said in May that Canadian athletes should “think twice” about attending.

“I don’t think [Stojko] would have said those same words had he not won his medals beforehand,” Burnes said. “Nothing has ever been achieved by boycotting the Olympics and I don’t think anything ever will.”

Burnes, who said he’s looking forward to learning about other cultures and representing Canada in Beijing, said sports and politics should not be mixed.

“People should … try to leave the politics behind for this one month every four years, because that’s what the whole Games is about. It’s about leaving those issues behind and competing in fair play and representing your country in the best way possible.”

Dr. Andrew Pipe, a member of the Queen’s Board of Trustees and Medical Director at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute Minto Prevention and Rehabilitation Centre, has been a physician for Canada’s men’s basketball team since 1978 and will be on hand in Beijing for his eighth Olympics.

Pipe was the physician for the team when Canada boycotted the Moscow Games in 1980. He said boycotts aren’t effective.

“My experience with boycotts is very personal and very tangible from an Olympic perspective … I can only say that the decision to boycott [in 1980] was very short-sighted, very inappropriate, and—I would argue—a wrong decision,” he said. “It’s very easy to make athletes pawns in these Games.

Pipe, who has travelled to China a couple of times in the past few months, said the Olympics will be a positive event for China.

“They are immensely proud that their country’s hosting these Games, but also look at them as an opportunity to learn about other societies and cultures,” he said.

China has been seeing positive changes over the past 25 to 30 years, and the Olympics could accelerate that process, Pipe said.

“I can understand how a first-time visitor to China will see certain situations and see them as being onerous or forbidding, but I think overall the impact of the games will be positive,” he said.

But for Xu, China’s human rights abuses are too widespread to be ignored. She said the Beijing Olympics will send China the wrong message.

“Things are not getting better, and they won’t get better before or after the Olympics.”

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

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