Meet Ji Sizun, imprisoned for three years for daring to take China's promises of greater openness at the 2008 Games at face value.
- By Phelim KinePhelim Kine is deputy director in the Asia division at New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Four years ago, amid the pyrotechnics and superlatives in the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Ji Sizun’s aspirations were relatively modest. A 61-year-old self-described legal activist from Fujian province, Ji had little interest in the athletic events, let alone the Chinese government’s relentless "One World, One Dream" Olympics propaganda campaign that pitched the games as proof of the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s wisdom in guiding the country to world-power status.
Instead, Ji saw the Beijing Olympics as a platform to highlight problems in Chinese governance and society, including the need for greater participation of citizens in political processes and redress for rampant official corruption and abuses of power.
Under normal circumstances, Ji’s plan for a successful public protest in Beijing would have been foolhardy, especially during a Chinese government-designated "sensitive" period for a high-profile event such as the Olympics. The Chinese government rarely tolerates public protests; those that do occur are usually quickly dispersed and their participants often detained. China’s security agencies, flush with a "stability maintenance" budget that will reach $111 billion this year, are adept at efficiently silencing potential protesters.
Ji knew all this. But he also knew that the Chinese government had promised the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that it would suspend its repressive reflexes and observe international standards of free expression and association during the games. After all, Liu Shaowu, the security director for the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG) had on July 23, 2008, publicly vowed that "people or protesters who want to express their personal opinions can go to do so" in line with "common practice in other countries." The BOCOG even established three official protest zones in Beijing where groups and individuals would be free to peacefully demonstrate without fear of official reprisals. The Washington Post reported that in an August 2008 interview, Ji said that "he believed the offer was sincere and represented the beginning of a new era for human rights in China."
So Ji — along with dozens of other brave Chinese souls who took Liu at his word — applied for a permit to demonstrate. On August 8, 2008, the day of the opening ceremony, he entered a police station in Beijing’s Xicheng district to file his application. But as a veteran activist, Ji took precautions. So before returning three days later, he contacted several foreign correspondents and asked them to wait outside the station while he entered to pick up his permit.
About 90 minutes after Ji entered the police station, those reporters watched aghast as several men who appeared to be plainclothes policemen escorted him out of the building and put him in a dark, unmarked Buick. As the car sped off, Ji managed to make a short call to his family to notify them he had "problems." That was the last time anyone heard from him for five months. On Jan. 7, 2009, Ji’s lawyer announced that a Fujian court had convicted his client on dubious forgery charges and had sentenced him to a three-year prison term.
Ji wasn’t the only victim of the Chinese government’s Olympic "protest zone" duplicity. Police met parents wanting to protest the deaths of their children in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake at Sichuan’s Chengdu airport and tore up their airline tickets. Nor was age a barrier to the Chinese government’s determination to derail any possible Olympics protests and punish potential protesters. Two Beijing women in their late 70s who had applied for protest permits in early August 2008 were sentenced to camps to be "re-educated" through forced labor. Only an international outcry prompted the Chinese government to overturn that verdict.
Why did Chinese leaders promise freedom and then take it away? The Chinese government made human rights improvements an explicit component of its bid for the 2008 Games. Yet as the Olympics neared, Beijing continued to restrict media freedom, violate the rights of migrant workers, and illegally evict and demolish homes to build Olympic infrastructure. The Chinese Communist Party feared challenges to its political legitimacy far more than it respected the IOC, and it rightly calculated that the IOC valued its friendly relationship with the Chinese government more than its duty to enforce Beijing’s Olympics-related rights commitments.
The party was right, though the IOC’s failure to speak out forcefully about these abuses did prompt serious international dismay. Despite the extensive documentation of Olympics-related rights violations prior to the start of the Beijing Games, IOC President Jacques Rogge insisted two days before the opening ceremony, "We believe the games are going to move ahead the agenda of the social and human rights as far as possible; the games are going to be a force for good." An official IOC review of the Beijing Olympics released in November 2008 praised the games as an "indisputable success" without mentioning the numerous documented Olympics-related human rights and press freedom violations.
Ji could have given a credible repudiation of that IOC claim, but of course in November 2008 he remained in the hands of Chinese security forces, whereabouts unknown, a situation contravening both Chinese law and international human rights standards of due legal process. In February 2009, Ji wrote from prison in a letter to his family that he kept the faith in his pursuit of justice and the Chinese legal system. "Everything is fine here, please don’t worry! Please believe that I only have done good rather than brought harm to our people and country. I will win the lawsuit in the end," Ji wrote.
Ji was released from prison on June 27, 2011, to what Chinese dissident website Boxun described as a warm reception by activists and residents of his Fujian village. Photographs showed Ji surrounded by well-wishers holding a giant red banner emblazoned with the words, "Thank you, citizen Ji Sizun!"
Despite his Olympic lesson on the costs of activism, Ji has continued to challenge the Chinese government’s often abusive status quo. And he has continued to pay the price. In June 2011, a team of plainclothes police reportedly detained Ji as he attempted to board a train to Beijing ahead of the celebration of the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. They held Ji for several hours before releasing him, long after the departure of his Beijing train. Government surveillance and intimidation of Ji reportedly ramped up in December 2011 with the round-the-clock monitoring of his home by local government officials and police.
As the Olympic torch enters the stadium for the start of the 2012 London Games, it’s likely that Ji Sizun will be spending his day in much the same way he has spent most days since the Beijing Olympics: confined, silenced, and dreaming of a fairer and more just China.