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China’s Dangerous Nobodies

Ever since their reinvention by Pierre de Coubertin, the Olympic Games have always been politicized. The first took place in 1896 in Athens in order to embarrass the Turks still occupying Northern Greece. The Berlin Games in 1936 celebrated the triumph of Nazi ideology. The Seoul Games in 1988 opened the door to South Korea’s democratization.

This summer’s Olympics in Beijing will be no less political, but will it resemble Berlin or Seoul? Will it mark the apotheosis of an authoritarian regime or the beginning of its demise?

Many optimistic observers of China, often mollified by their close relations with the Communist regime, bet on a soft transition from despotism toward an open society, but recent events don’t support such a benign interpretation. Since the beginning of this year, repression of human rights activists, lawyers, and bloggers has been harsher than ever.

The exact number of democratic dissidents who have been incarcerated, or worse, is unknown. There is no way to account for ignored victims, or why some are condemned to death and shot. We don’t know how many are sent without trial to “re-education centers.” In the absence of reliable statistics, let us focus on two iconic figures of China’s pro-democracy movement: Hu Jia and Chen Guancheng.