Today's date:
Summer 2008

Rebuild China With an Olympic Amnesty

Wang Dan, a leading student organizer of the 1989 Tiananmen democracy movement, spent nearly seven years in a prison in Liaoning province. In 1998, he was exiled to the United States. He has just completed his doctorate at Harvard University. The following piece is adapted from China's Great Leap: The Beijing Games and Olympian Human Rights Challenges, edited by Minky Worden and published by Seven Stories Press.

New York— The Sichuan earthquake and the coming Olympic Games in Beijing can be seen as the most important events in modern China since the Tiananmen Square protests and crackdown in 1989. As China's moment on the world stage arrives in the wake of devastating natural disaster, the time has come for China's leaders to let go of old wounds and offer an Olympic amnesty to all political prisoners and those of us who were forced into exile for peacefully speaking our minds. Then the Chinese people can work together to build a new China out of the ruins of national tragedy and to engage the world as a rights-respecting nation at home and abroad.

In 1993, I was one of 20 high-profile dissidents released from prison as part of China's first charm offensive to secure the Olympics. I was released one month before the International Olympic Committee came to Beijing for an inspection tour. Obviously, I was glad to be free, but I also recognized I was being used as a bargaining chip. I was released, but many others remained in prison for peacefully expressing their beliefs.

I publicly supported China's Olympic bids in 1993 and again in 2001, because I believe the Games can be a boost to China and a chance for Chinese people to be in touch with the world. I am convinced that China must develop a strong civil society, and one way to do that would be to have the international community come to China and engage with our people.

As my own case shows, the Olympics provide a rare opportunity to secure the release of the many Chinese dissidents still under detention. But after China's first Olympic bid failed, I was arrested again and sentenced to return to prison on charges of "subversion." The evidence against me included the fact that I had enrolled in a history correspondence course offered by the University of California.

In 1998, I was finally exiled to the United States along with fellow dissident Wang Juntao, in another bid to manipulate public opinion before President Bill Clinton's visit to China for a major summit. During both of China's Olympic bids, my central hope was that the Games would have a catalytic effect on the paralyzed political environment in China.

The Chinese people are not their government. Since 1989, my country, China, and its people have changed much. But the government has changed remarkably little. The many dissidents still behind bars today represent a national tragedy as well as a political humiliation. When bidding for the Olympics both times, Beijing solemnly vowed before the world to improve its human-rights conditions. Yet the autocrats who control the Chinese Communist Party—the only political force allowed to operate in the country since 1949—continue to crack down on any voices asking for some of the most basic human rights.

To distract from this record of repression, today the Chinese government is attempting to use the Olympic Games to once again propagate a new economic "leap forward" model, with narrow-minded nationalism as its flag. I fear that the generation that came of age during the Cultural Revolution has lost the ability to understand what it truly means to be patriotic and to "love the country." Nationalist fervor is no substitute for an open, transparent and democratic system of government.

There are many people in China today serving long prison terms for activities that are normal political engagement in most of the rest of the world. China's prison system still holds thousands of political prisoners, though the exact number is not known because the government will not provide official figures. An estimated 300,000 Chinese citizens have been sent to "re-education-through-labor" camps across the country, often for political activities.

But even in China's darkest corners, there are signs of light. The explosion of domestic Chinese media reporting of the earthquake's human tragedy—despite initial efforts at government control—could herald a seismic shift in the government's approach to the media.

Just as earthquake recovery will require rebuilding, so, too, could the Olympic Games help rebuild public trust in the government. A key first step would be to release Chinese citizens who were arrested without breaking any laws, and to allow those of us who have been forced into exile to return and enjoy the Olympics in our own country.

It's been 19 years since the Tiananmen bloodshed. As the Games launch in China, it is the moment for the International Olympic Committee, corporate sponsors, world leaders, athletes and sports fans across the world to ask the government to release China's political prisoners and to allow those of us who are exiled to at last return home.

Beijing should fulfill its human-rights promises and potential if the Chinese people are to emerge as the true winners of the 2008 Summer Games.