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The Silent Olympics

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It is important for the world to know that quietly and out of sight of the mainstream media, ordinary people from all over China have engaged in citizen activism even after the suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Their grassroots efforts are building a society that is likely to look very different than the prevailing state-sponsored image of homogenous nationalism, choreographed with even greater care as the Olympics approach.

I was privileged to glimpse the seeds of this emerging movement first hand. In 1991, the Global Fund for Women received our first-ever request from China for support on a project addressing domestic violence. The Chinese government at that time claimed that domestic violence was a Western concept and didn't exist in China! With funding from the Global Fund for Women, a group of courageous Chinese women set up China's first hotline and within the first nine months received more than 3,000 calls from survivors of domestic violence.

This change would never have happened without Chinese women standing up for themselves. Their initiative has been replicated in 17 cities across China and today, no longer able to deny the existence of domestic violence, Chinese officials take visiting dignitaries to visit shelters modeled on this early experiment.

Since that first request, more groups have applied for our support. Over the past few years, the Global Fund for Women has received more than 150 proposals, including requests from Tibet and Hong Kong. These represent but a fraction of the Chinese civil society that so desperately needs support. But for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the Chinese government's tight control over journalists access, few people in the West know about these efforts.

Today, one such association is educating impoverished rural women about their rights to economic security, offering business workshops and skills training programs. Another group works to make reproductive health care and education accessible to women from an ethnic minority group. Advocates for health and the environment are organizing women workers in Chinese villages to protect themselves from the overuse and misuse of pesticides.

The efforts of these courageous citizens need to be more visible and strengthened, which will not be easy. It took over 15 years of sustained resistance to build the non-governmental organizations and rights groups that are now active in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc. The continuing severity of Chinese government crackdowns in Tibet and the ruthless suppression of other ethnic and religious minorities such as Uighur Muslims and the Falun Gong reveal that the authorities do not welcome citizen-led efforts to democratize China.

But in this age of globalization, the Chinese government can no longer assume that its whole--hearted embrace of free markets can occur without its own citizens pushing for other kinds of freedoms. China's growing stature as a world power and its desire to be seen as more than just a military and economic force makes it increasingly vulnerable to pressure from inside the country as well as outside. And while it will be the Chinese people themselves who transform their own society in the long run, there are several ways we help their cause.

First, we should demand that the U.S. government do more to support grassroots democracy in China. In particular, the US has soft-pedaled its criticism of the Chinese government with regard to its treatment of minorities. The United States should do more pressure China to engage in diplomatic negotiations with the Dalai Lama, who has expressed willingness to dialogue on Tibetan autonomy.

Second, we should demand that the United Nations hold all countries, particularly powerful ones like the United States and China, accountable to one international human rights standard. China should fulfill the pledges it made to the International Olympic Committee to protect human rights both inside China and in far away places like Darfur and to give journalists unfettered access to all parts of the country, including Tibet.

Third, those of us active in civil society and human rights organizations outside China must hold our own governments accountable to the international human rights commitments they have made. India, the world's most populous democracy, disappointed many of its citizens when it failed to support the free speech rights of the Tibetans to whom it had once offered refuge.

This is a critical moment in China's history. By pursuing a two-track strategy of outside pressure and inside support, we can help sustain an engaged citizenry in China. One Olympic official pleading for patience after the tumultuous torch ceremonies in London and Paris observed that it took Europe several centuries to become truly democratic. But with timely and gutsy support for their homegrown efforts, hopefully the Chinese people can do it faster than that.


Read more HuffPost coverage of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games