For China, the 2008 Olympic Games serve as a unique opportunity to showcase an efficient and modernized China to the world. Some may remember that it was originally sports that played a substantial role in opening a mysterious and secretive communist China to the West in 1971. Known as "Ping-Pong Diplomacy," American table tennis players accepted a special invitation to play in matches with the Chinese and tour famed landmarks. President Richard Nixon soon followed up on that encounter the following year with a historic visit to Beijing, lifting the "bamboo curtain" while working to normalize diplomatic relations.
In recent decades, China has pursued market reforms and free trade, which has greatly improved living conditions and pulled many Chinese into the middle class. While the expansion of economic freedom in China has been significant, religious and political freedoms may be trending backwards since the start of Olympic preparation in Beijing. Trying to shed the long shadow of Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, China promised improvements in human rights leading up to the games, but has instead used the occasion to crack down on those seeking religious and political freedom.
While enjoying greater wealth and prosperity, many Chinese are finding that material riches don't bring happiness. Religion, specifically Christianity, has exploded in unsanctioned underground churches. In a country where more Christians are in prison because of their faith than any other place in the world, the government's response has at times been brutal. Although the vast majority of Chinese Christians are law abiding citizens, it is not lost on the government that religious strength could someday threaten authoritarian one-party control.
Churches that don't register with the government and submit to their oversight are routinely harassed and church buildings are demolished. Several prominent ministers and many church members have recently been imprisoned or forced into labor camps. In Beijing alone, several notable underground churches have been persecuted and shut down this year. It is worth noting that the persecuted Christians offer no threat to the security or safety of the Olympic Games. The Washington Post quoted a law professor and house church member named Fan Yafeng who characterized recent government crackdowns as a misuse of power and lamented that security officials "have lost their humanity."
President George W. Bush has also used the Olympic Games to pressure the Chinese government to embrace religious freedom. "God is universal, and God is love, and no state, man or woman should fear the influence of loving religion," Bush declared in Beijing. The Voice of the Martyrs ministry is offering prayer bracelets to remind Christians to pray for China during the Olympics.
Chinese authorities employ other means to suppress its citizens' (and visitors') freedom. Human-rights watchdog Freedom House declares, "The Chinese government maintains one of the world's most sophisticated systems of blocking access to websites and monitoring its citizens' e-mail communications." Right before the games opened the Chinese government started censoring and monitoring the internet traffic of foreign journalists in Beijing, something they said they would not do.
Family planning and forced abortions are still a shameful part of Chinese policy. One of the most gruesome human rights abuses has been the forcible return of North Korean refugees to their native country, where they face torture, imprisonment, and possible execution. Another worrisome operation leading up to the games was the displacement of individuals and families who lived in areas near the Olympic sporting venues. Property rights remain a serious concern in this authoritarian regime, since many citizens face unjust compensation and displacement by the government in the name of development.
Jimmy Lai, a Chinese native and publisher of Apple Daily in Taiwan, predicted, "When the Olympic Games begin in Beijing, China will show the world its physical strength, but also its moral poverty. This is unavoidable because the Olympics are more than just a sporting event; they are an expression of the human drive for greatness in all pursuits."
At the Olympics, China set out to showcase its march into the modern world. When it comes to religious freedom, human rights, and political and property rights, the Chinese government has used the Olympics as an excuse to do an about face. This is unfortunate but understandable. Talk of more freedom always threatens tyrants.
Ray Nothstine is associate editor at the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Mich.