The Olympics are now in full swing in Beijing after a spectacular opening ceremony that displayed many of the Chinese people’s finest attributes. The Chinese government and free speech, however, are another matter.
Our friend Kurt Wimmer has written an excellent piece for us on this topic titled “The Beijing Olympiad: A Fleeting Opportunity for a Freer China.” Kurt notes that by July, Chinese officials had imprisoned almost 50 Chinese writers whose opinions the government found subversive or threatening. And the clampdown was not limited to native Chinese.
Western journalists were ordered out of the ravaged Sichuan province following the earthquakes there, and at least 10 foreign journalists covering Tibet have had their lives threatened since March. Meanwhile, the “Great Firewall of China” blocks access to Internet content that criticizes the government, lest Chinese citizens hear anything untoward about their leaders.
The drumbeat continued in the days just prior to the games with stories about journalists denied access, activists deported, and even the U.S. press corps plane being delayed for a baggage search. Subtlety is not in the playbook of Chinese censors, from all indications.
Still, Kurt finds a glimmer of hope in all of this. If the United States and other nations can bring enough media pressure to bear, perhaps the will of the Chinese people can prevail and usher in a new era of greater transparency, he says.
It’s a big “if,” as Kurt acknowledges. There are no guarantees that free speech will take root just because the Chinese are hosting the Olympics. But as the Games focus the world’s attention on China, they do provide an opportunity – however fleeting – to begin a process that could just lead to greater freedom of speech and press.