A particular risk

Posted: Monday, May 21, 2001

The following editorial appeared in Sunday's Washington Post:

Just a few days ago, the International Olympic Committee endorsed Beijing's bid to host the 2008 Olympics, making the Chinese capital a finalist along with Paris and Toronto. "The commission is clear that none of them presents any particular risk," an IOC report said. Tell that to Li Shaomin.

Mr. Li, 44, is an American citizen, educated at Princeton University, an expert in strategic management and marketing. Almost three months ago, on one of his regular visits to China, he was detained by China's security services, though for a time they did not bother to inform his wife or the U.S. Embassy. Last week - just about the time the IOC was proclaiming China risk-free - Mr. Li was charged as a spy.

Mr. Li's arrest is part of a pattern. At least a half-dozen Chinese Americans have been detained in recent months, including American University researcher Gao Zhan, whose 5 year old also was detained for a month at the time of his mother's imprisonment. (The 5 year old, also an American citizen, was held separately from both his parents; he and his father have been freed, but his mother remains in custody.) There may be more; many relatives fear that if they draw attention to such detentions Chinese officials will act more harshly. What the detained scholars seem to have in common is a past willingness to travel to, and in some cases write positively about, Taiwan. Mr. Li's added sin includes being the son of a noted Chinese liberal intellectual now living in Hong Kong.

The last American charged by China as a spy was human rights activist Harry Wu. The Clinton administration pressed for his release; China convicted and then expelled him. Mr. Li's wife, Liu Yingli, has called on the Bush administration to press for her husband's freedom, to "work as hard on it as they did for our 24 servicemen," meaning the crew of a U.S. reconnaissance plane that landed in China after colliding with a Chinese fighter jet. Ms. Liu is right; her husband's release should be a priority.

But his arrest also raises an interesting question about the Olympics. Some people argue persuasively that awarding the games to China might have a positive effect -- might help integrate China into the community of nations, deter aggressive behavior against Taiwan between now and 2008, and more. On the other hand, no country is automatically entitled to host the Olympics, and it's fair to ask whether bulldozing churches, arresting octogenarian bishops, shuttering Internet cafes and the like is the kind of behavior with which the IOC (not to mention NBC) wants to be associated. Would Beijing promise the IOC to suspend its KGB-style tactics for the duration of the games? The evident need for such an assurance raises questions about China's suitability; but in the absence of such an assurance, would everyone feel free to participate? The State Department recently felt compelled to issue a warning to Chinese-born Americans about traveling in China. It would be an odd Olympics indeed if some American athletes or journalists felt they could participate only at the particular risk of arbitrary arrest.

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