This Friday, the attention of the world will turn to Olympics. Extensive media coverage will be given to exceptional athletes–the talented swimmers, gifted gymnasts, Dream Teams and so many others.
Let’s hope that in our amazement at the pageantry, we do not forget to remember those who will not be on our TV screens. They are the people who have suffered from Chinese human rights abuses. They are those forced into exile by China or who suffer due to Chinese support of tyrannical regimes. They will not be running in races, but rather running for their lives. They will not have Olympic villages, since, for many of them, their families and villages are no more. Their stories will certainly not be mentioned as China is celebrated on opening night and likely will not be chronicled in the interest stories which are regularly featured during Olympic broadcasts.
China is an enormous country, which boasts a rich history and culture as well as a large and diverse population. It is also notorious for being a totalitarian regime and abusing its citizens’ human rights. It was only 19 summers ago that we witnessed the protests in Tiananmen Square and the brutal crackdown on those calling for democracy and freedom. At that time, this was one of the more widely viewed examples of the Chinese government’s abuse of the’human rights of its citizens.
In 2001, as China was being seriously considered to host the summer games, the world expressed its concern about this abuse. Chinese officials did everything they could to assure the International Olympic Committee and the world that this would be their country’s opportunity to show the world a new respect for their own people’s human rights.’
As abuses, censorship and other oppressive measures have continued, it is clear that the Chinese government has broken its moral agreement with the world. Like so many other oppressive regimes in modern times, it is banking on worldwide distraction or amnesia–or worse, on silence and apathy.
China’s record at home is bad enough. On the world stage, China is entangled in some of the most serious problems now facing humanity.
Many believe that were China, as the largest consumer of Sudanese oil and the largest supplier of weapons to the Khartoum government, to use its leverage, the horrors of the genocide in Darfur would come to an end. Instead, China has blocked world efforts to stop the genocide and has fully enabled the Sudanese government and their allies in the janjaweed militia to kill hundreds of thousands and exile millions.
China also has supported the oppressive military regime in Burma and, not long ago, stood solidly behind it during the violent crackdown there against peaceful protests led by Buddhist monks.
China remains the main support for maniacal Kim Jong-Il in North Korea.
China’s record in Tibet has included the denial of all Tibetan appeals for autonomy and the refusal to speak or negotiate with the Tibetan spiritual leader in exile, the Dalai Lama.
During the Olympics, it is difficult to imagine that any of these issues will be given more than a mere mention, if that. Instead, the media will talk about sports and goodwill, both of incredible importance. It will be sad that those whose voices need to be heard now more than ever will be squelched.
It was not so long ago that whenever the Soviet Union wanted to talk with the United States, human rights would be the first issue on the table. What is happening now? Why are we so silent? Why are we turning a blind eye?
“Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” Jewish people begin their Sabbath on Friday night by lighting two candles. This Friday, all who cherish human freedom should light a candle in honor of those who will not be represented by the fireworks and songs in Beijing. Let us light a candle for the Tibetan people and the Dalai Lama, for the people of Burma and Darfur. As we light this candle, let us resolve to work for the time when they too will experience the light of freedom.
Oppressed people need more than our good intentions. They also need us to be involved. In the immortal words of Hillel the Elder: “If not now, when?”
May it be our prayer that blessing should come to those who should not be forgotten. As athletes gather for competition, may we also work on behalf of those denied the rights we sometimes take for granted. May the abuses of the powerful soon and speedily give way to freedom, justice and understanding for all.
Rabbi Andy Koren is the director of religious education at Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, N.C.