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Human rights take field in China

Times Staff Writers

On the cusp of the Summer Olympics, human rights moved into the spotlight Wednesday as critics attacked China for banning Darfur activists, President Bush expressed “deep concerns” about the government’s harsh policies and U.S. Olympians selected a former Sudanese refugee to carry the Stars and Stripes in Friday’s opening ceremony.

Bush said the United States stood in “firm opposition to China’s detention of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists,” and that his saying so was not intended “to antagonize China’s leaders.” His remarks were prepared for delivery today in Bangkok, Thailand, and released by the White House.

Lopez Lomong, a 1,500- meter runner who gained U.S. citizenship only 13 months ago, was named the flag-bearer in a vote by American team captains -- a move quickly seen as condemnation of China’s support of the Sudanese government, which is accused of human rights violations in its war-torn Darfur region.

“It’s more than a dream,” Lomong, one of the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan, told the Associated Press when asked about the honor. “There are no words to describe it.”

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Lomong’s selection came a few hours after China revoked permission to enter the country for Joey Cheek, a gold medal-winning speedskater and former flag bearer who formed Team Darfur with the support of other U.S. Olympians to raise awareness of the crisis. Co-founder Bradley Greiner, a former UCLA water polo player, and Kendra Zanotto, a U.S. bronze medalist in synchronized swimming at the Athens Games in 2004, were among group members whose visas were also revoked.

Jim Scherr, U.S. Olympic Committee chief executive, said it was “unfortunate” that Cheek would not be welcome in China but said it was “between [China’s] government and Joey as a private citizen.”

Also Wednesday, four American and British activists unfurled “Free Tibet” banners near the main Olympic venue, the National Stadium, and three Americans unfurled a religious banner in Tiananmen Square protesting China’s population policies. The government handled both events with unusual restraint, though Olympic spokesman Sun Weide said, “We hope that foreigners will respect the related Chinese laws.” The three Tiananmen protesters were arrested again today.

In a telephone interview, Cheek said the unexpected visa revocation was “very personally disappointing.”

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“But the fact that I was denied a visa is more evidence of a much deeper and more systemic effort by the Chinese government to silence any form of criticism.”

More worrisome, Cheek said, was recent word that four Beijing-bound athletes “had been told by their national Olympic committees that if they remain part of Team Darfur they will be treated as suspect individuals in China, subject to extra security procedures and scrutiny when they arrive in Beijing.”

The Foreign Affairs Ministry released a statement defending its decision: “The visa issue is a country’s sovereign affair. The purpose is to provide a proper, secure environment for people watching and attending the Games.”

The move sparked concern in the White House, which has come under criticism from human rights groups that say Bush has been too accommodating. Aides reportedly considered having the president give a human rights speech in Beijing or visit an underground church, but decided it would be too offensive to the hosts.

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“We were disturbed to learn that the Chinese had refused his visa,” spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters aboard Air Force One as Bush flew to Thailand, his final stop before arriving in Beijing for Friday’s festivities. “We have sent in our embassy in Beijing to . . . say we are concerned about this, and we want you to reconsider your actions.”

In his prepared remarks, Bush tempered his criticism by ending on an upbeat note.

“I am optimistic about China’s future. . . . Change in China will arrive on its own terms and in keeping with its own history and traditions,” Bush said.

More than 100 leading retired and active athletes, including gold medal contenders Blanka Vlasic of Croatia, the reigning women’s world high-jump champion, and Dayron Rubles of Cuba, high hurdles world record holder, signed a letter released Wednesday asking the Chinese president to respect human rights, find a peaceful solution to the issue of Tibet and end the death penalty.

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In a few locations, controversy gave way to competition as a few soccer matches were played, while people counted the hours until the curtain is officially raised on the 29th Summer Olympics of the modern era. About 91,000 people are expected to pack the main stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest, for festivities that begin at 8:08 p.m. local time Friday (5:08 a.m. PDT).

“I am so happy and excited,” said Qi Yang, 20, a recent college graduate, who came to Beijing for the Games from eastern Shandong province, even though she has no ticket. “This is so important for China to host the Olympics. It means our nation has great power to hold such a prestigious event.”

The glitzy opening will include 15,000 performers, 29,000 fireworks shells and a program created by director Zhang Yimou depicting 5,000 years of Chinese history.

But Wednesday and early today, politics held the stage.

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Actress Mia Farrow, who has been an outspoken critic of China’s policies, praised the U.S. team captains for selecting Lomong as flag-bearer. She had urged Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg to disassociate himself from an agreement to direct the opening ceremony, which he did.

“It appears that U.S. Olympic athletes have a far better sense of the Olympic spirit than the USOC or the Olympic host,” Farrow said. “By choosing Lopez Lomong, U.S. athletes are sending a powerful message. They want the world to remember the anguished people of Sudan.”

Lomong, 23, spent 10 years in a Kenyan refugee camp after fleeing southern Sudan during a civil war and becoming separated from his parents. As one of thousands of Sudan’s Lost Boys, he relocated to the United States and became a citizen in July 2007.

China is a major investor in Sudan’s oil industry and sells arms to the government. Those interests, critics say, motivate China to protect Sudan from international pressure to end the conflict in Darfur, where international experts estimate that at least 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million have been displaced.

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Lomong is not from Darfur, but after qualifying for the U.S. team last month, he told the Chicago Tribune, “I need to send the message as an athlete from Sudan. I am worried about the kids who are dying in Darfur, kids who don’t have the dream they could be good athletes or Olympians or doctors, because they will be running away from their village, separated from their families.”

Wednesday’s political developments mingled with the other long-running headache for the organizers -- air pollution. In a nod to Beijing’s sensitivity to criticism over the issue, four U.S. cyclists apologized for arriving at Beijing’s airport wearing masks, saying they did not mean for their action “to serve as an environmental or political statement.”

The USOC’s Scherr, speaking at a news conference, criticized the four cyclists, saying that “it really wasn’t the best and most opportune time for the athletes to wear those masks.”

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helene.elliott@latimes.com

Gerstenzang reported from Washington. Times staff writers Lance Pugmire in Los Angeles and Mark Magnier in Beijing, and Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Downey and staff writer Philip Hersh in Beijing contributed to this report; the Associated Press was used in compiling it.


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