April 15, 2008 | Commentary on Asia, Democracy and Human Rights

Leadership event

America's leadership on human rights is facing a severe test on Tibet. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicholas Sarkozy have -- despite Europe's burgeoning trade ties with China -- voiced their strong concern about Beijing's ongoing violent suppression of dissent in Tibet, demonstrations in Xinjiang and stepped up arrests of dissident writers and activists among China's intellectuals. So far, they have been joined by the prime ministers of two other NATO allies, Poland and the Czech Republic. All have tied their concerns either explicitly or implicitly to their attendance at the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympic Games.

It is understandable that European leaders who grew up under Soviet communism -- and Sarkozy, whose father was a post-war refugee from Hungary -- are deeply unsettled by China's behavior. Literally thousands of Tibetan dissidents have been arrested and detained by Chinese security police and army units in the ongoing demonstrations and protests that began on March 11. "We have no reason to doubt that number," one highly placed Bush Administration official admitted to me. Recently, Chinese police shot into a crowd of non-violent Tibetan protesters in the Kardze section of Sichuan, killing eight and injuring dozens. "That's a hard number," the official observed.

In his second inauguration speech, President Bush called the American foreign policy establishment to its conscience. "America will not pretend that jailed dissidents prefer their chains," was the way the president described his determination to "clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation: The moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right."

Stirring sentiments, but given the ongoing violence in Tibet, perhaps the president wishes he had been a bit more circumspect. Or perhaps he wishes he hadn't been so eager last September to accept Chinese President Hu Jintao's invitation to attend the opening ceremonies at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing on Aug. 8.

Now, however, both he and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are determined to attend the ceremonies -- primarily because it is a "sporting event." But, Secretary Rice also stressed, the Olympic Games are "going to be a big event not just for the [Beijing] regime; this is going to be a big event for the Chinese people." Although U.S. officials insist that they "take seriously our obligation to talk to the Chinese about human rights" during the Olympics, they seem oblivious to the dodgy optics of an American president celebrating China's "emergence on the world stage," at a time when China is expressing an unrepentant preference for an outdated -- not to mention brutal -- Leninist system of governance. 

China is now a virtual superpower which cannot easily be lectured, on financial reforms or on intellectual property protections, much less on human rights. By now, Chinese leaders are inured to President Bush's de rigueur recitation of American complaints about Chinese arrests of dissidents, suppression of religious freedoms, lack of labor and political rights, forced abortions and the like. As long as the U.S. complaints are perfunctory and behind closed doors, the Chinese can put up with it. But Chinese leaders have, no doubt, let the president know that any move which may "embarrass" their regime, would be regarded with the utmost seriousness -- and would oblige China to cease its "cooperation" with the U.S. in any number of areas.

Which brings us to the Bush administration's dilemma. Can it afford to have the Chinese Communist regime hold up, for all the world to see, America's impotence as a defender of freedom? Last month, the State Department thought better of listing China as one of the "top ten" abusers of human rights. Now, the Bush administration seems intent on celebrating China's Olympian debut as the new Asian superpower.

If President Bush truly intends to demonstrate America's leadership as a champion of global democracy and freedom, he would do three things. First, he would let it be known that his attendance at the Olympics is not settled. Second, he would coordinate with congressional leaders on an American position. House Speaker Pelosi's House Resolution 1077, which passed virtually unanimously (with only Rep. Ron Paul voting against), urges the State Department to take China's human rights abuses more seriously, and two other bills (jointly drafted by Michigan Republican Thaddeus McCotter and Oregon Democrat Peter DeFazio) would block funding for most Bush administration attendance at the Olympics. 

Third, the president would confer on a common front with his NATO allies -- France's Sarkozy and Germany's Merkel, as well as Czech President Vaclav Klaus and Polish Premier Donald Tusk, who have already decided either to postpone a decision on attendance or have declined altogether. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown won't go to the opening ceremonies, but stressed he isn't "boycotting" the Games and he plans to go to the closing events.

Very few politicians argue for a total athletes' boycott of the Beijing Games such as the 1980 boycott of the Moscow Games and the 1984 Eastern Bloc snub of the Los Angeles Games. Surely, the Olympics are not "political," yet the Games are based on fundamental principles of "promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity." Indeed, for 30 years, South Africa's athletes were banned outright from the Olympics for their country's wholesale denial of rights to blacks. 

This is why, when the Olympic Games were awarded to Beijing in July 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell said, "The United States looks forward to seeing the changes in the next seven years that this historic event is bound to stimulate." A few months later, International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge told a BBC interviewer that "I said to the Chinese political leaders, the IOC urges you to improve as much as possible human rights, as soon as possible ... I have said we will be in close contact with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and the United Nations, and they will report to us and tell us what they feel ... The IOC is a responsible organization … in the field of human rights."

Thus, there is no reason why the leaders of the world's democracies should unconditionally grace with their presence the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The opportunity for American leadership on Tibet may be gone. But we can still do the right thing -- join with our European allies in refusing to turn a blind eye to China's abuses in Tibet and elsewhere in the lead up to the Olympics. In the process, we can provide the necessary heft to the global effort and salvage the reputation America needs to lead another day.

John J. Tkacik Jr. is senior research fellow in Asian studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

John J. Tkacik, Jr. Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

First appeared in the Washington Times