Politics and the Olympic Games in Beijing, 2008 - Czechs discuss the dangers and benefits

Contrary to the Olympic ideal, politics and economics always come into play well before the games begin in the city that is chosen. With the Olympic Games under way in Athens, the work of a Prague-based pressure-group called Olympic Watch came to my attention. In response to the International Olympic Committee's decision to hold the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, "Olympic Watch" was created by three former Czech dissidents in 2001. Their mission is to monitor the human rights situation in the People's Republic of China. With each Olympiad in the run-up to the Beijing Games they have produced a report on the development of human rights in China. In today's Talking Point we look at some of the issues in the debate from a Czech angle. Petr Kutilek is the executive Secretary of Olympic Watch. He points to parallels with Central and Eastern Europe at the time when communism was collapsing here fifteen years ago.

"One reason we feel it is important for people in this part of the world to care about what is happening in China, is the similarities and differences between China and the Czech Republic in the late 1980's. There were calls for liberalization and democratic reforms in China, but while regimes in the Eastern Europe broke down the Chinese regime brutally suppressed this movement in June 1989 in the Tiananmen Square massacre and since then has made further restrictions. So we believe is that we were lucky comparatively."

Dr. Olga Lomova is the head of the Far East Institute at Charles University in Prague. She is an expert on ancient Chinese poetry, literary criticism and modern Chinese literature and ideology. She told me her reaction to the IOC's decision to host the Olympic Games in Beijing.

"In China, it's pure politics. There's no other reason to have the Olympic Games than political reasons. It is a very important tool in the building up of national identity and of nationalism, which is very much supported by the Chinese government and the Chinese Authorities. As it looks now, with the communist ideology waning away, there is no context for the communist ideology in the country and they are trying to substitute it with nationalism."

Dr. Vladimira Dvorakova is the head of political science at the Prague School of Economics. As a specialist on comparative politics and issues of transitions to democracy, she feels that the Olympic Games in Beijing could be a positive step towards implementing democratic values.

"I think that any contact with the world community, any contact that enables the meeting of people from different countries, speaking publicly about the idea of the Olympic Games, about the freedoms and the role of the individual and so on, can be very important for the future transition to democracy in China because it will strengthen some values that are not very highly present inside the society. I'm not speaking about the direct influence of politics but, you know, politics cannot be done without changes in the society. And what we need is to influence the political culture in China in favour of the basic democratic or more rather liberal values that are not highly present in today's Chinese society. On the other hand it is quite clear that the communist government will use the Olympics for their own propaganda and they will use it for their own legitimacy, meaning - yes we are acceptable - and so on. But I don't think it is so negative because they will have to open some space for communication. You cannot organize the Olympics Games in prison."

But with increased security due to concern about terrorist attacks it is difficult to say how much contact with the world community the Olympics will bring to the general population in China. Low foreign turnout is already an issue at the Olympics in Athens.

I asked Mr. Kutilek, to what extent Olympic Watch was in contact with the IOC?

"Well actually, last year we did have a meeting with IOC President, Mr. Rogge, where we raised our concerns and asked him how the IOC wants to tackle the issue of human rights in China. He gave us some diplomatic answers and the bottom line was that they do share concerns about human rights but they do not want to take a political stance on issues. Therefore, just a couple of days ago we wrote to him to prevent the IOC from being abused for political purposes by the Beijing government in the way that it happened just last week where Taiwanese posters were censored in Athens. We are still expecting a response on that."

The posters Mr. Kutilek is referring to, were advertisements luring tourists to Taiwan, which were removed in their hundreds last week in Athens. China sees Taiwan as its territory and does all it can to block the island from taking part in international events. Dr Lomova again:

"A joke a Chinese friend told me about five years ago, " What is socialism with a Chinese face?" And the answer is that it is the worst parts of communism and the worst parts of capitalism combined together. This means two things. There is foreign investment and there is relative freedom in economic enterprise. Those who are cunning and clever and strong enough will win and make a lot of money, and those who are weak and can't compare to them will be totally crushed. On the other hand you don't have freedom of expression unconnected to consumerism. You can dye your hair and you can listen to rock music, but you cannot say anything critical about the current policies in China. It's very interesting to see Chinese TV because when you watch TV in China you have so many advertisements like in the United States but you have sudden appearances of the leadership of the party and they make speeches which remind you of the speeches which were given here in the 1950s."

The People's Republic of China is a rising economic power with a population of over a billion. Can the Czech Republic, a much smaller country in comparison, inform China of the process of democratization of China?

"Yes, the Czech Republic is quite popular because of its peaceful transition from the communist system and because of our success. Also because we had spokesmen for democracy who continued striving for democracy, like Vaclav Havel or Czech writers who published their books in exile. The Chinese knew their books very well and admired what they had to say. So, though so small the Czech Republic, at least for Chinese intellectuals, is a kind of example to be followed. And maybe I would add we should not say that one country is big and one country is small because NGOs work through the involvement of individuals regardless as to whether they come from small countries or big countries."

There was controversy in April of this year when President Vaclav Klaus was the first Czech Head of State to visit China since the Velvet Revolution in 1989. I asked Dr. Dvorakova if this was a sign of a shifting moral stance here in the Czech Republic.

"It was a great mistake that, just after 1989, we abandoned many areas, mainly in South Asia and Vietnam, where there were a lot of people speaking Czech, a lot of experts, and where we had built a lot of factories. There could have been some continuation at different levels than before. In fact this market was immediately occupied by Western countries like the United States. So, I think that Vaclav Klaus understood that there is space for good trade, which is of greater importance to us than it is for the Chinese. Keep in mind that mutual relations are also very important. If I make a comparison to the Czech Republic, it was very important in 1988 that the French President, Francois Mitterrand, came to Prague. The Czech communist leader really wanted this French president because it would bring legitimacy to the regime but he had one condition. I will visit you, I will have an official visit, and I will have one unofficial breakfast with the dissidents. He met with Vaclav Havel and so on. And I think that such combinations can be very important in the sense that you are in contact, you are not putting the country into isolation. From this point of view, I would not be critical of Klaus's visit to China, although I know that Klaus is not a person that would be strongly interested in the question of human rights."

Dvorakova is insistent on the step-by-step integration of democratic values to avoid the chaos seen in the former Soviet Union. So is pressure from organizations such as Olympic Watch a step in the right direction?

Dr. Olga Lomova:

"I think it's good not to be silent. And I could quote a Chinese proverb saying that human beings have mouths to speak up not only to eat. This is a Chinese proverb and I like it very much because it goes contrary to the propaganda saying that the Chinese are different and that they first of all have to eat and they don't need so much to speak."