In the closing stages of the Olympics, there is a rising sense of deep disappointment at the lack of visible protest from competitors against the human rights catastrophe around them.
There were earlier signs that some significant protest could be mounted by athletes to challenge the Chinese regime while it basks in the limelight in the centre of the world stage. There was talk of orange and yellow armbands, symbolic protests and solidarity activities.
The encouraging aspect was that this discussion went on despite attempts to muzzle athletes by various governments and Olympic officials, including New Zealand.
This year, New Zealand Olympic officials required our athletes to sign themselves to silence on China’s human rights abuses. They were to avoid any public political comment or involvement in political activity while in China.
Olympic officials said they were simply protecting the athletes. It’s worth noting that the same hopeless justification was given by our rugby union 50 years ago as it refused to select Maori rugby players for the All Blacks tour to South Africa in 1960. They told the country they were doing so to protect the Maori players.
It was only after public pressure that the offensive part of the Olympic contract was withdrawn. Why should New Zealand athletes give up their right to speak out because the host country refuses to give the same rights to its own citizens? All the more reason for our athletes’ voices to be heard.
Our Government won’t want any protest. Having signed the first free- trade agreement with China while Chinese troops crushed the aspirations of the people of Tibet, our Government would be rightly embarrassed if our athletes showed them up.
For oppressed peoples, protests by those able to from outside are hugely important. They give hope to those in struggle and corrode the authority of the tyrants in power. Yes, there are plenty of Chinese who support their leadership, but there are just 40 million or so living lifestyles similar to that of developing Western countries like New Zealand. At the other end, the vast majority of China’s 1.2 billion population live in greater poverty than they did before the adoption of unfettered free market capitalism. This huge majority is invisible on our TV screens.
Meanwhile, the Games’ sponsors have plied their carefully managed advertising campaigns to get maximum exposure with minimum public association with China’s rulers. Television broadcasters have been making a mint from advertisers who in turn are raking in the cash from increased sales associated with the heavy promotion of their products to worldwide prime-time audiences.
We can’t expect these international corporations to step up to the plate. They are part of the problem. Last year, major United States and European companies appealed to the Chinese regime to abandon plans to pass new laws to improve the pay and conditions of Chinese workers. The US Chamber of Commerce produced a 40-page condemnation of the new laws. Their big backers (including major Olympic sponsors) want to keep making big profits from China’s low-paid workforce. An international outcry caused these major corporates to back off in public but the damage was done. The proposed law changes were watered down dramatically and Chinese workers lost another battle.
So it’s over to the athletes.
Will we see such a dramatic protest as the black-power salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico Olympics during the medal ceremony for the 200m sprint?
The image of that moment brought hope to black Americans in the civil rights struggle as well as providing a potent symbol of the on- going fight against oppression around the world.
There were a few high-profile banner raising protests in the few days before the Games opened which were swiftly suppressed by the authorities, but little has happened since. The regime basks in reports of a very well run international event. The infrastructure has been stunning, the organisation brilliant and the spectacle impressive.
I hope I’m speaking too soon and that in the closing days some significant, visible protest will emerge from the athletes to signal to the Chinese people who are working for economic change and genuine democracy that the world cares about their struggle and empathises with them.
At the time of writing, New Zealand has achieved three gold medals and sundry others. I mean no disrespect to the athletes involved but I’d trade in all our medals for a single New Zealand athlete who used his or her freedom of speech while in China to speak for those whose freedom of speech has been denied.