Aug. 6, 2008 -- China's last minute decision to deny a politically active 2006 Olympic gold medalist a visa to attend the Beijing Games is not unique. Chinese authorities have also denied a bronze medalist, a respected New York-based journalist and a Danish sculptor entry to China in recent months -- a sign that Beijing is still cracking down on freedom of expression in the lead up to the Games.
The visa denials highlight how Chinese authorities are worried that human rights activists will bring international attention to politically sensitive topics -- such as press freedom, the Tian An'Men crackdown, and China's problematic role in Africa -- during the Olympics, according to China experts. "By denying visas and entrance into China, the government is choosing to lose face in a small way," said Sharon Hom, director of the New York-based non-profit organization, Human Rights in China. "If these people do protest and garner international attention, [China] would lose face in a big way. There's a lot of anxiety about that."
Gold medalist speed skater Joey Cheek, recipient of the DHL Olympic Spirit award, the 2006 National Sportsmanship Award, and the inaugural Heisman Humanitarian Award, got word Tuesday night that his visa was revoked less than 24 hours before his scheduled departure for a two week stay in China.
Though the Chinese official delivering the denial told Cheek he was "not required to give a reason," the rationale was clear enough to Cheek. He is president and co-founder of Team Darfur, a group of Olympic athletes who have been raising awareness about the humanitarian crisis in the region. Among the group's targets: countries, like China, which have invested heavily in Sudan, whose president was recently charged with war crimes for the killings in Darfur.
"The denial of my visa is part of a systemic effort by the Chinese government to coerce and threaten athletes who are speaking out on behalf of the innocent people of Darfur," said Cheek, whose group does not -- like some -- call for a boycott of the Olympics.
Cheek is not the first member of Team Darfur denied entrance to the Olympics. Kendra Zanotto, 26, won a bronze medal for synchronized swimming in 2004 and hoped to cover that event as a reporter for the Olympic News Service.
But when Zanotto, who was raised in Los Gatos, Calif., went to the Chinese consulate in San Francisco in July, officials denied her application. Though Chinese authorities would not tell her why her visa was denied, the firm handling her job told her the government was uncomfortable about her affiliation with Team Darfur.
"I was shocked when I was seen as something offensive for the Games," said Zanotto.
Zanotto said she had not planned to make any kind of a political statement in Beijing. "I could understand if [the Chinese government] is scared about terrorism or violence, but if that's their reasoning for seeing me as threat, that's ridiculous," she said.
Though 72 members of the group are expected to compete in this year's Games, Martha Bixby, director of the group, said that four athletes competing in Beijing who are part of Team Darfur were pressured by the Chinese Embassies in their respective countries to withdraw from Team Darfur. They were told they would otherwise be closely watched and dubbed as "troublemakers" in Beijing, she said. Bixby declined to release the names of the four athletes in order to protect their privacy.
Such actions appear to be against the rules. An official at the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad (BOCOG) in Beijing said that accredited athletes should have no problem coming to China if they are affiliated with Team Darfur, but would not comment specific cases. Calls to the Consulate in San Francisco where Zanotto's visa application was denied were not answered.
It wasn't just newcomers who faced trouble. Bob Dietz, Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists has been traveling back and forth to China on journalist and tourist visas for years. Married to a Chinese-American woman, Dietz has many in-laws in China, and he has lived on and off in the mainland and Hong Kong since 1995.
But when he put in an application to visit China during the Olympics, authorities turned him down. "I'm just worried I'll never get to see my nieces and nephews again," he said. "Things should have gotten looser in China, not more restrictive with the Games. Something has gone wrong – I hope it's just a temporary setback for the country."
One other journalist at CPJ who did not want to be identified was also denied a visa.
Though Dietz and Zanotto never made it to China, well-known Danish artist Jens Galschiot flew to Hong Kong, for which no visa is required, in April but authorities turned him back, because, authorities said, his presence was not "conductive of the public good." A letter later sent to Galschiot by the director of Hong Kong immigration explained that all visitors are subject to immigration examination. It added that officers at the airport "acted properly and in accordance with the laws of Hong Kong."
The real reason, Galschiot said, seemed clear enough. One of his works was the "Pillar of Shame," a sculpture commemorating the 1989 Tian An'Men crackdown by Beijing on students demonstrating for democracy, which was erected just before Hong Kong was handed over to China by the British in 1997. And Galschiot, who had been invited to Hong Kong by the Hong Kong Association for Supporting Democracy in China, had flown to Hong Kong from London to repaint the statue in orange on the campus of Hong Kong University.
Albert Ho, a Hong Kong legislator and pro-democracy campaigner, said in a video posted on Galschiot's website that he was outraged at Galschiot's denial of entry. "This is obviously a denial of freedom of expression," said Ho. "He is our guest. We invited him. This is also a denial of our freedom as well."
Galschiot, who said his work represents repression around the world, saw his denial of entry as a way for the democracy movement to gain more attention. "This enables the democracy movement to gain support and media exposure for their activities in Hong Kong," Galschiot said in the video in Danish with English subtitles.
Calls to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing and the Chinese Embassy in Washington for this story were not answered.
Hom, of Human Rights in China, said that Galschiot's case highlights Beijing's increasing influence on Hong Kong, even though under China's "one country, two systems" policy, Hong Kong remains a capitalist economy and retains its political autonomy, and its people enjoy freedoms not found in the rest of China.