Before Olympics, Yale should put pressure on China

With the world scheduled to arrive in Beijing for the Olympics in a few months, China’s abuses of human rights cannot go ignored. Other countries and their citizens must figure out how to voice concerns about the host country, and we at Yale should raise questions about the University’s friendship with China in the run-up to the Olympics.

As the Olympic torch traveled the world this week, it faced challenges at each stop. In London, 35 protesters were arrested. In Paris, more protesters managed to extinguish the flame briefly before forcing it onto a bus. And in San Francisco, the torch was kept safe by a police guard large enough to protect world leaders. The protests will only gain intensity over the coming months.

In the face of embarrassing and potentially damaging opposition, the host country and the International Olympic Committee have argued the Olympics are an athletic event and should not be “politicized.” But similar calls in the past have rarely been heeded.

Numerous countries boycotted the Olympics in 1956, 1976, 1980 and 1984 for political reasons. China itself is no stranger to bringing politics to the games. Through the 1980 Olympics, the People’s Republic of China, with its government in Beijing, did not participate at the Olympics because of the inclusion of the Republic of China, the country in Taiwan after the revolution of 1949. Since 1984, it has insisted on participating under the name of China, while the Republic of China must compete as Chinese Taipei.

Chinese officials claiming the Olympics are not a political event have their own country’s history as evidence to the contrary.

Politics have also made their way to the games. At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, American runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos dropped their heads and raised their fists to give a Black Power salute during their medal ceremony. Although both athletes were expelled from the games for a “deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit,” the Olympics saw true violence four years later. At the 1972 Olympics in Munich, eight Palestinian terrorists took 11 Israeli athletes hostage and killed two of them.

Despite the relative calm of recent Olympics, it is hard to argue that the games are apolitical.

China knew it would face increased scrutiny from the international community when it was selected to host the Olympics. Its bid came with many promises, among them cleaner air and more political freedom. But the Beijing sky is still dirty, and so far China has failed to provide the rights it promised.

Most remarkably, China has seemed willing to create more international controversy in recent months, as it has refused to end its support for the genocidal government in Sudan and, only last month, orchestrated a violent crackdown on protesters in Tibet. World leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have announced they will not attend the games, and Democratic leaders in the United States, including Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, have asked the same of President Bush.

The issue is not only for governments to wrestle with. We at Yale must question the University’s intimacy with the Chinese government. And Yale, too, must think about using the Olympics as a platform to show its opposition to China’s human-rights violations.

Some on campus have already called for action. Last month, several students organized an online petition urging University President Levin to “put the weight of Yale, an institution dedicated to liberal values, behind human rights in Tibet.” One of the organizers, Eli Bildner ’10 — who is a staff reporter for the News — explained the importance of taking action now: “I just think this is the time. The Olympics was supposed to be a coming out party for China. Their ear is really tuned to the world now. The question is: Are we going to tell them what they want to hear, or what they should hear?”

Even so, he does not want Levin and the University to take a hard line against China. Noting that he and many other students benefit from Yale’s close relationship with Chinese universities, Bildner said, “Given the University’s friendship with China, and I believe it’s an important friendship, when things like this happen, I don’t believe we can pretend they’re not happening. But I don’t think distancing ourselves from China is the most productive tact.”

Edwin Everhart ’09, the coordinator of the Amnesty International Club at Yale, said he feels students should take a more definitive stance, acting to influence the University and China. About the Olympics, he says students need to think about their participation: “Students who are planning on attending the Olympics should think twice. They should really think about what that means.” And about the administration’s connection to the Chinese government, he said, “Yale is not criminally negligent, but it is morally unacceptable to stand by while your friends are committing abuses.”

The News reported yesterday that Levin “expressed concern” about the unrest in Tibet to Chinese Ambassador Zhou Wenzhong last week. Bildner is happy with it, but I am not. A real stand against China’s oppressive policies will take more than friendly recommendations to an ambassador. Now Yale, led by Levin, must decide if it is principled enough to put on more pressure.

Inaction would be easy, and may be in Yale’s interest. But China has disregarded so many basic rights that Yale’s complacency will increasingly look like complicity. I want to see the administration make it clear China cannot continue the abuses of the past and keep the friend it has in New Haven.

Pete Martin is a sophomore in Morse College. His column appears every Thursday.

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