Olympic victory could heal wounds of history

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The Independent Online

Chairman Mao's portrait glowered overhead, but it was another old man who held our destiny in his hands. In the early hours of 24 September 1993 I joined a few hundred Beijingers gathered at Tiananmen Gate. We strained to understand crackling radios tuned to the Olympic boss, Juan Antonio Samaranch, in Monte Carlo. Before announcing who would be the 2000 Olympics host he paused to thank the competing cities, in alphabetical order.

But the Chinese translation had stopped too soon, in nervous anticipation of history. And when "Beijing" was heard first, the Tiananmen fountains erupted into the night sky, bubbling in a blaze of floodlight. The joyful ejaculation was woefully premature. It took two minutes until the cheering and hugging faded into shocked silence. The fountains dribbled to a trickle, and the actual winner celebrated down under.

Concealing the logo on my Radio Australia microphone, I tried to record reaction from tearful people angry at Beijing's loss in a race their government had assured them was won. Frustrated and suddenly tired, the crowds turned their backs on Chairman Mao and went home, as armed police hustled reporters away.

There is no official function planned in Communist China's political heartland tonight. Just as in 1993, the square may be off limits because of party paranoia about crowds that might turn on their rulers. Instead, a "mass cultural gathering" is planned several miles to the west, at the ugly Millennium Monument, a concrete tribute to China's future.

But I will stop once more beneath Mr Mao's portrait, because Tiananmen bears witness to China's history, and this time I want Beijing to win.

Eight years ago, I swallowed disappointment at Manchester's failed bid, and quietly enjoyed Sydney's success. It was but four years since Chinese soldiers shot dead hundreds of their fellow citizens in the avenues around Tiananmen. Market reforms heated up, yet the pace of political change was glacial. Dissidents released to curry favour with the IOC were incarcerated again after the vote.

However tainted the honour of hosting the Olympics, Beijing and China did not deserve it.

So what have they done since to change my mind? In 2001, China's Communist leaders boast they enjoy such great public support that opposition groups and free elections remain unnecessary.

The tools of repression are as busy as ever. Labour camps overflow with inmates who pursued illegal doctrines such as Falun Gong or multiparty democracy. Beijing feels confident enough not to bother freeing anyone ahead of tonight's vote. Several newspapers have been scrapped for missing the party line. In the past three months alone, execution grounds echoed to the gunshots dispatching 1,751 convicts, more than the rest of the world managed in the past three years. Yet it is just such depressing news, and hopes for modest change away from the headlines, that make me support a Beijing Olympics.

Dark comparisons with Hitler's 1936 Games ignore the fact that China is emerging from its nightmare, not heading back into Maoist hell. But nor is China so advanced on the democratic path that sport may spur political reform, as happened to the 1988 host, South Korea. The likely result is perhaps somewhere between. The Communist Party will relish the propaganda coup, while their citizens exploit the global spotlight to push diverse agendas.

Most of China's people now enjoy more rights than at any time under the People's Republic of China. And they are quietly clamouring for more. Dr Hu Yunteng, a social scientist who broke China's taboo on death penalty research, said: "China is not only developing economically, but also in the rule of law and protection of human rights. The Olympics will have a comprehensive influence on China."

If the arbitrary use of capital punishment unites most of China's critics, it is also an area where engagement, not confrontation, may yield results.

Beijing has received several lobby groups pushing for non-violent crimes to be struck off the capital crime list. Yet the greatest force for change in China must come from within.

The people who lend me hope are the brave pioneers of civil society who form non-government organisations to protect the environment, women's and migrants' rights. More broadly, an increasing number of Chinese are willing to challenge the government to fulfil its promises. Several million Chinese people travel abroad each year; even more explore the subversive world of the internet, despite the best efforts of China's internet police. As they pay their taxes, and buy their own homes, more Chinese expect accountability from a government best known for corruption and secrecy. Victory tonight would also help to heal the historical griev-ance, kept raw by the party, that the rest of the world wants to keep China down.