Gold medals but tarnished records

Yesterday I submitted an editorial to the Sydney Morning Herald’s opinion page on behalf of Sydney PEN, trying to draw sports-mad Australians’ attention to the fact that while we’re collecting medals and worrying about internet access for foreign journalists for the duration of the Beijing Olympic Games, there are approximately 40 Chinese writers and journalists who are locked up for years because they have dared to write something that upset the omnipresent censors in their authoritarian state. As I wrote in the editorial, “The death of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn on the eve of the Beijing Olympic Games throws into stark relief the tension between the oppressive might of a political regime and the moral authority of a writer’s dissenting voice.”

The International PEN Poem Relay has been making an eloquent online protest in the name of free speech in China in its six-month virtual world tour, following the flame of the Olympic Torch. The poem relay demonstrates the power of non-violent protest. Although peaceful protest has been good enough for Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama respectively, the lack of local interest in the relay is a sad reflection of a complacent undercurrent in Australian culture. It’s looking unlikely that the op-ed will run, due to the editor’s impression that the issue “has been covered already”.

China has more writers behind bars than any other country in the world. That’s a shameful world record that is absolutely not getting the attention it deserves.

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