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If the Olympics were being held in Zimbabwe ...

By Andrew Bartlett - posted Tuesday, 25 March 2008

If the Olympics were being held in Zimbabwe would we want to be part of it?

The human rights record of the Chinese Communist Party government has been a matter of closer examination since the International Olympic Committee decided the 2008 Olympic Games would be held in Beijing. The current violence in Tibet has increased that focus.

The argument made by many people was that the extra global scrutiny that would occur with the holding of the Games in Beijing would encourage the Chinese government to improve its very poor human rights record, as the eyes of the world would be watching. On March 17th, senior government Minister, Senator John Faulkner, argued in the Senate that:


The greater international focus the Olympics will bring can serve only to give the international community a greater understanding of China, including its diversity and its complex challenges, and give China a deeper appreciation of international norms, ultimately assisting in a better human rights situation in China.

I can understand the reasoning behind this argument. Unfortunately, almost all the independent evidence suggests that the human rights record of the Chinese government has not improved since they were awarded the 2008 Olympics. If anything, it has got worse. The recent crackdown against protests in Tibet, including the tight control and suppression of information out of Tibet, is a stark example of that.

It is worth noting that the Fundamental Principles of Olympism, part of the Olympic Charter adopted by the IOC, include the following:

  • Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles;
  • the goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity; and
  • any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.

As Senator Faulkner also said in the Senate:

Human rights abuses continue to occur in China, and China continues to fall short of international expectations, including with regard to the death penalty, torture, non-judicial detention and restrictions of freedoms of expression and information.


The people currently protesting in Tibet will be at risk of receiving just that sort of treatment from the Chinese government - unfair trials, torture, “re-education” and forced labour and potentially even the death penalty - all conducted beneath a cloak of secrecy.

The Chinese government’s oppression and suppression of its own people extends to much more than its actions in Tibet. There are more executions carried out in China than every other country combined, with the organs of executed people sometimes used in transplants. The use of torture and forced labour - often after seriously flawed judicial processes - is also well documented. Constraints on freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of belief and freedom of information are severe. Human rights and pro-democracy activists, Uighurs and especially Falun Gong practitioners are subjected to serious persecution.

I fully recognise that boycotting the Beijing Olympics will not stop all the human rights abuses of the Chinese government. I know that a boycott is a blunt and very imperfect instrument and is in many ways extremely unfair on athletes who have often made enormous personal sacrifices.  I also recognise the view expressed by the Dalai Lama not supporting a boycott of the Games and suggesting it would unfairly affect ordinary Chinese citizens who do not engage in human rights abuse.  But I can’t stop thinking that the Beijing Olympics presents a very rare opportunity for the people of the world to send a message that is so strong that even an enormously powerful government like the Chinese regime will be unable to ignore it or dismiss it. I am sure most Chinese people would choose freedom and human rights over the Olympic Games.

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First published in Andrew Bartlett’s blog on March 19, 2008.

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About the Author

Andrew Bartlett has been active in politics for over 20 years, including as a Queensland Senator from 1997-2008. He graduated from University of Queensland with a degree in social work and has been involved in a wide range of community organisations and issues, including human rights, housing, immigration, Indigneous affairs, environment, animal rights and multiculturalism. He is a member of National Forum. He blogs at Bartlett's Blog.

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