2022 Beijing Winter Games: an olympic-sized setback for Tibet

In early 2008, months before China was to welcome the world to the Olympic Games in Beijing, an uprising began in Lhasa, the capital of occupied Tibet, and spread across the country.

It made headlines around the world, followed by thousands of pro-Tibet campaigners gathering to protest as the Olympic Torch was carried in Argentina, the United Kingdom, France, the United States, India and South Korea.

"The Tibetan people knew the world was watching China, and took this opportunity to once again tell China they can’t oppress Tibetan people’s rights," said Migmar Dolma, a Tibetan activist born in Switzerland to parents who were exiles in India.

The Olympics had been awarded to China in 2001 by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), with the hope that the Games would support the progress the country was making in opening up, and lead to greater freedom for media, expression and human rights.

"There was a great deal of optimism that China was in a democratic development process," said Jens Sejer Anderson, International Director of Play the Game, a Danish initiative to use sports promote ethics and democracy. "Allowing China into the good company of nations was justified in 2001. There were hopes that China would adjust its human rights policies."

What happened in 2008, however, was the exact opposite: following protests in Lhasa there was a massive crackdown in Tibet and the region was effectively closed off to the outside world.

Today, seven years later, Tibet remains a no-go land for foreigners, and a place where, according to research undertaken at the University of Colorado Boulder, there are now fewer foreign journalists than in North Korea.

"We are not seeing a process where China is becoming more liberal politically, showing more respect for human rights," said Alistair Currie, Campaigns and Media Manager for Free Tibet. "In fact we’re seeing the reverse over the last couple of years, particularly in Tibet."

Yet, the IOC could repeat its mistake as Beijing is in the running to host the 2022 Winter Olympics (the winning city will be announced by the IOC in Kuala Lumpur on 31 July 2015).

If the Beijing bid is successful, activists fear that China could be emboldened to further repress the rights of its Tibetan, Uyghur, and other minority populations, who are still suffering from the repercussions of 2008.

“China will take the award of the Olympics Games as an endorsement of its policies," said Currie, "[that] the outside world doesn’t really mind if you oppress people in Tibet.”


Seven years of repression

Tibet was annexed by China in 1950, and has seen sporadic uprisings throughout its history of Chinese control, most notably in 1989 where hundreds were massacred in Lhasa. The 2008 protests was merely the latest outcry, with hope that with the world’s attention on Tibet, China would be forced to address Tibetan grievances.

What resulted was the opposite – full-scale martial law in Tibet, and the closing off of the region to foreign media. Today, according to Currie, there is no improvement.

"The level of surveillance and control is much deeper than it has been before, and [the] intensity of propaganda and pressure in Tibet is very high,” said Currie, adding that the growing use of collective punishment – in which an entire village or family is punished for the actions of a single individual – is especially worrying.

According to Golog Jigme, a Tibetan Monk who, along with filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen, made a documentary released in 2008 that showed regular Tibetans speaking out against Chinese rule - an act which resulted in him being imprisoned and tortured multiple times - the 2008 Games brought nothing but pain and suffering to Tibet

"The international community promised that human rights will improve with the Olympics, but the reality was the contrary, the situation deteriorated since ’08," he said, citing the increase in surveillance, and the countless checkpoints and barriers that make it nearly impossible for Tibetans to travel freely.

"It is easier to move from one country to another in Europe than from one Tibetan region to another.”

Golog Jigme escaped from prison and went underground for nearly 18 months, during which he fled into exile in India. He is currently in Switzerland where he plans to do everything he can to tell the world about the plight of the Tibetan people.

"As long as I live, and am free, I will remain active for the Tibetan cause," said Golog Jigme.

It is not only Tibetans who are suffering under Chinese rule.

Last year, Uyghur academic Ilham Tohti was arrested; he remains in custody. 2010 Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo has been under house arrest ever since his award was announced. The Chinese Premier Xi Jinping has reigned over what many see as the most repressive period in China since Mao Zedong’s death in 1976.

Right now, the Chinese government has made fasting for Ramadan illegal in Xinjiang province, home to the Muslim Uyghur people who face the same human rights abuses as Tibetans.

According to Golog Jigme, giving China the Olympics now would only empower them to clamp down even further.

“If the 2022 games are granted to China, the situation inside Tibet will definitely get worse. 2008 is very clear proof," said Jigme. "In fact, what they will do is use these Olympic games as an opportunity to put more restrictions on minorities such as Tibetans and Uyghurs, to destroy Tibetan people’s culture as a whole, and reinforce China’s repressive policies.“


A global failure

The 2008 uprising and subsequent crackdown, including the arrests of Golog Jigme and countless other Tibetan activists, showed the world that China would not keep its earlier promises to respect human rights.

Yet, that summer, the world turned a blind eye to Tibet, as not a single country boycotted the Olympic Games.

"The international community needs to hold China to account for its behaviour. Unfortunately, governments are unwilling to express forceful concerns about Tibet, to demand changes, and to encourage dialogue on this issue," said Currie.

For Golog Jigme, the IOC needs to do the right thing and deny Beijing the games, but if they do, Tibetans inside and outside Tibet will be ready.

"If the Olympics are given to China in 2022, then Tibetan people everywhere will be prepared, and we will do everything we can to highlight the situation inside Tibet," said Golog Jigme.

According to Dolma, the 2008 Games were the first time she became an activist. This time, her and countless other Tibetans, Uyghurs, and allies will be ready.

"2008 was like a training for us. Now we have the experience, we have taken our lessons, and we will apply it to the 2022 Olympic Games," said Dolma.

"They should not make the same mistake – but if they do, then they have to be responsible. We will show the world once again we are not satisfied with Chinese colonial policies."