Protests Follow Olympic Torch

Olympic protests

hide captionThousands gathered in San Francisco on Wednesday to protest China's human rights record. Here the Chinese and Tibet flags clash as their respective supporters march through the city.

Max Whittaker/Getty Images

As the Olympic torch heads to Beijing, the traditional relay has been overshadowed by protests of China's human rights record. Sports writer Brian Kazinew and Sherry Chang, who hosts a radio program for Chinese Americans, discuss the controversy.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, what to do with undocumented kids? We look at detention centers in the U.S. that house undocumented immigrants along with their children. Plus, jazz. We talk about whether the music will fade if radio stations don't play it.

But first, as the Olympic torch relay made its way through San Francisco this week, protestors did everything they could to stop it. It was all part of a grassroots international effort to draw attention to China's human rights record. Some activists have called upon athletes to sit the games out. Others have urged world leaders like President Bush to refuse to attend the opening ceremonies. Still others suggest that the attention brought by the games may do more to encourage change than denouncing China will.

All this has caused us to wonder about the success of past efforts to link the games with pressing political issues. Here to talk more about this is Brian Cazeneuve. He covers the Olympics for Sports Illustrated. Also with us is Sherry Zhang, who hosts the show "Tea after Dinner" on AM 1400 in the Bay Area. It's a program that focuses on issues of particular interest to Chinese Americans. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. BRIAN CAZENEUVE (Writer, Sports Illustrated): Thank you.

Ms. SHERRY ZHANG (Radio Host, "Tea after Dinner," AM 1400): It's nice to be here.

MARTIN: Brian, if we could start with you? On the one hand, somebody always makes the argument that sports and politics don't mix, but in your reading of the history, the modern Olympics have a history of boycott and protest. Could you tell us more about that?

Mr. CAZENEUVE: Oh, absolutely. I mean, you can go back literally an entire century to the London Games in 1908 and the Irish team, you know, boycotting the opening celebration there. And we've had two boycotts. There have been protests, you know, before the games in Seoul there were student protests that probably helped democratize the country a little bit more there. There were protests in Mexico City. 250 students killed before the games, and that probably did very little. So, and the two boycotts in Moscow and Los Angeles. It's a dual resolve on the part of the Olympic Committee to put on a good Olympics, and at the same time, you know, keep them out of too much controversy surrounding the games. But it's the largest gathering of mankind and it reflects the realities of geopolitical struggles around the world.

MARTIN: Do the boycotts or do the protests tend to be bottom-up or top-down? Which is to say, does it tend to be - like the L.A.-Moscow Olympics was very much driven by the governments. But is that the norm or is it more grassroots, as we seem to be seeing with this Olympics?

Mr. CAZENEUVE: Yeah. That's a very interesting point because those two boycotts that you mentioned were obviously top-down and they were government led. Some of the other protests that you've referenced really come from grassroots and protestors outside of the games.Very rarely have the protests been athlete-driven, although there was the famous black power salute on the part of John Carlos and Tommy Smith at the Mexico City Games, of course directed at their very own government when they were standing on the victory podium. And there was also a bloody water polo game between Hungarian and Soviet teams in 1956. The Soviet tanks were overrunning Budapest. So, they've run the gamut, really.

I think this is a grassroots protest on the part of individuals who are not necessarily competing, not involved with the games.It will be interesting to see if the athletes in this commercially sensitive era follow suit and get more knowledgeable about it and express their feelings about it. Otherwise, it really is a protest that's driven from the outside.

MARTIN: Sherry Zhang, you've been involved in something called the Human Rights Torch Relay. Do I have that right?

Ms. ZHANG: That's right.

MARTIN: What is that?

Ms. ZHANG: The Human Rights Torch Relay actually started about August 9th last year. It's all about raising awareness of the Human Rights in China. It was organized by the CIPFG, which is the Coalition to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong. After about - they found out there is this fact of organ-harvesting of the practitioners of Falun Gong in China, so they started this Human Rights Torch Relay, and they have actually lit this flame in Greece and then went through the entire Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Africa, South America, and then came into the United States. In fact, it was in San Francisco on April 5th, just a few days before the Olympic Torch got to San Francisco.

MARTIN: So I understand what you're trying to do is kind of use the event to draw attention to - to create kind of a parallel event to raise awareness of the things that you care about. Where do you come out on the "go-don't go" to the Olympics question? I'd love to hear what the callers to your show are saying.

Ms. ZHANG: Yeah, actually, in my show we have a call-in program, basically. We talk about - we discuss a lot about the Olympic Torch and also the recent crackdown in Tibet. I think it's really a mix of people calling in. I would say one-third in my show, one-third of the audience that call in say they're very angry because that it seems like a lot of people try to protest the Olympic Torch and they are very angry at the Tibetans and the supporters of Tibetans because they feel like it's just a very - a kind of hurting their feelings. But there are about two-thirds of people who are very supportive of the human rights causes in China, and they also - when sometimes when the audience, some of the audience is calling in with very hateful words towards the Tibetans, then the other side would call in and tell them that really they should not do that. So it's actually a very, very interesting debate. There's a lot of debates constantly and people all feel very passionate about it.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More. I'm Michel Martin and we're talking with radio host Sherry Zhang and Sports Illustrated writer Brian Cazeneuve about the protests around the Olympics. As I think we've heard, many people feel that the Olympic are a time for the global community to come together and to put aside conflict in the name of sportsmanship and goodwill. In fact, President Bush had something to say about this about a week ago at the NATO summit. He was asked about the director Steven Spielberg who's decided to withdraw from participating in the games. Let's listen to what he had to say.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: There's a lot of issues that I suspect people are going to, you know, opine about during the Olympics. I mean, we've got the Dalai Lama crowd, you've got global warming folks, you got, you know, Darfur, and I guess - I am not going to, you know, go out and use the Olympics as an opportunity to express my opinions to the Chinese people in a public way because I do it all the time with the president.

MARTIN: Sherry, what do you - how do you react to that statement?

Ms. ZHANG: Actually, I interview a lot of Chinese people. It's particularly Chinese lawyers, human rights lawyers in China, and a lot of people that have been suppressed over there. And they feel very - actually, they feel sad about this comment and they really, they had hope in the United States and they had hope in the president of the United States to help with the situation to support the human rights in China. They really were very disappointed in President Bush's comment and I do think that, you know, there is a lot of talks between China and the U.S. and between China and Europe about the human rights situation, but it's all behind closed doors. And that's actually initiated after 1989 when the Chinese communist government actually persecute - I would say they crackdown the student movements.

And after that massacre, after that they initiated this kind of a human rights talk, but none of them actually really helped because that is all happen behind closed doors. So the government in China doesn't feel any - doesn't feel that much pressure from the outside world, and I think that what President Bush is saying it's kind of a - it's kind of same thing, so I...

MARTIN: OK...

Ms. ZHANG: Don't think it really - don't help.

MARTIN: You don't think it does help. Brian, can I ask you, what is your read of the history in this? Do these protests, in your view, what does the history show? Do they sometimes make a difference, or not? Mr. CAZENEUVE: Well, I mean, I mentioned what happened in Korea before the Seoul Olympics in '88 and people point to that as a turning point in making that a - in taking some of the corruption away from the government situation there. On the other hand, if you look at, for example, the Moscow boycott in 1980, I think people look back and say, well, the athletes were punished.

People look at the Soviet-led boycott in Los Angeles. They say, well, the athletes were punished. What was really accomplished by those? Did the Soviet troop withdrawals in Afghanistan happen more quickly because of the boycott? Or did it have, really, any impact at all? It is a mixed bag, to say the least.

And if you can directly link one of those protests, whether it be top-down or bottom-up, to significant progress in any one particular place, you would probably get an argument from people saying that, at the very least, there were other, more significant factors that contributed to those changes. However, those protests accurately reflect what is going on elsewhere in the world and the Olympics are simply not immune from that.

MARTIN: Very briefly, Brian, are any of the athletes, to your knowledge, discussing whether they should go or not?

Mr. CAZENEUVE: Well, I don't think that there is a significant discussion that I've heard of people simply not attending. There is a group called Dream for Darfur. A lot of athletes are getting involved with that and becoming more educated about the situation. Actually, a couple of athletes have done TSAs. Kobe Bryant, from the Los Angeles Lakers, who is going to be on the basketball team, did one.

And there is a bit of a groundswell of interest on the part of athletes to just get more involved and perhaps have a unified statement that doesn't take away from what they are trying to do, but I think that's really in the early stages, and I don't think that there is any sentiment on the part of athletes to simply not go. The sentiment to boycott the Opening Ceremonies is generally coming from governments and national Olympic committees making those decisions for the athletes.

MARTIN: Very briefly, Sherry, I don't think you ever told me whether you would like the U.S. to participate or not. Do you have a position on that?

Ms. ZHANG: I think China promised to improve its human rights in order to obtain the rights to host the 2008 Olympics, and I do think that the U.S. government should, and in particular, actually, the IOC should hold China to that. And I think more and more pressure should be put on the Chinese Communist government just because right now, actually, it's - the Olympics is the biggest political task for the - for all levels officials in the Chinese government, and they are trying to, in the names of preparation for the Olympics, a lot more people are being persecuted.

MARTIN: All right...

Ms. ZHANG: So, I think it's really...

MARTIN: I'm sorry, Sherry. I'm sorry, we're going to have to leave it there, and I think - and hopefully we'll speak again about this, as the Olympics draw closer. Sherry Zhang is the host of "Tea After Dinner," which airs on AM 1400 in the Bay Area. She spoke to us from her studio in San Francisco. Brian Cazeneuve writes about the Olympics for Sports Illustrated Magazine and he joined us from New York, and I thank you both.

Mr. CAZENEUVE: Thank you.

Ms. ZHANG: Thank you.

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