The Olympics, Kunchok Tsephel and China’s Human Rights Race to the Bottom
All over the globe, world-class athletes and sports fans are tuning in to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China. But do you know who is not celebrating right now?
China’s political prisoners.
Shortly after the 2008 Summer Olympics took place in Beijing, Chinese police arrested a gifted Tibetan writer named Kunchok Tsephel, founder of the first Tibetan literary website. Thirteen years later, Kunchock languishes behind bars, forbidden to speak in his native Tibetan even when his family comes to visit him every other month under prison rules. His treatment has been a mockery of due process as no one even knows what conduct he has been charged with — a dark and ominous reminder of what is at stake with authoritarian rule in China and all over the world.
Tsephel’s fate must not be forgotten. As a member of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, I adopted him as a prisoner of conscience and agreed to fight for his freedom. Since then, I have advocated for his release, which is hard because Kunchok’s case has been kept out of the public eye. The Chinese government tried him behind closed doors and denied him access to a lawyer. For nearly a year, his family was unaware of his whereabouts. His “crime,” as the Chinese government calls it, may have been simply discussing the Tibetan demonstrations of early 2008. These protests brought monks, farmers, nomads, and students together with a call for freedom, human rights, and the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to his native land.
Kunchok Tsephel is far from the only prisoner of conscience in Chinese captivity. Hundreds of others have been swallowed up by the Communist Party bureaucracy. Since Chinese authorities cracked down on the Tibet Autonomous Region in March 2008 in response to anti-government protests, more than half-million Tibetans have been forced into a coercive labor program. At least 150 Tibetans have self-immolated in protest or despair.
Of course, China’s rampant oppression spreads far beyond Tibet. Lists maintained by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China and the International Campaign for Tibet reveal the staggering variety of people who have paid the price for standing up for human rights against the Chinese behemoth: democracy campaigners, human rights lawyers, Chinese Christians, Uyghur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, practitioners of Falun Gong and many others.
I call on the Chinese government to release Kunchok immediately. While merely a first step, this would be a way to begin to redeem the Winter Games, which otherwise will look to a lot of people like a spectacular display of cruelty, complacency, and indifference to human suffering.
The world is watching.