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Broken Rings

May 14, 2008, 12:00 am
Five ways New Mexico is connected to the Olympic controversies.
Liu Qi, the former mayor of Beijing, stands at a modern podium in ancient Olympia before a crowd of international dignitaries, 1,000 armed police officers, a marching band and the eyes of the world. Seven years have passed since Beijing was selected as the official host city of the 29th Olympiad and now, March 24, 2008, the Olympic Torch will finally be lit.

As chairman of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Committee, Qi has barely begun his opening remarks when a protester bearing a black flag breaks through the line of armed guards and makes a mad dash for center stage. Television stations in China immediately switch to pre-recorded B-roll, while the Greek state-run network in charge of the international live feed zooms out until the scene is indistinguishable. Nevertheless, the activist is able to elude the police just long enough to position himself behind Qi and unroll the flag in full: handcuffs arranged into Olympic rings. The next day, the Western newspapers lead with that image. Although The Guardian will later call Qi's address a "rousing speech," Chinese President Hu Jintao will not be amused.

In the weeks that followed, the Chinese government regularly complained about negative bias in the Western media's coverage of the 85,000-mile Olympic Torch Relay. And they were correct. The press has, indeed, taken sides from the very beginning. That first protester was the media: that first protestor to cross the police line was an activist with Reporters sans frontieres (Reporters Without Borders), a media-rights organization based in France that has unequivocably condemned China's censorship record, particularly regarding Tibet.

Many diplomats have argued that, as an institution of peace, the Olympics are an improper venue for this kind of politics. Reporters sans frontieres argues that the Olympics may be the only appropriate venue, the only event of its kind where the whole world is watching, including the Chinese.

"The treatment reserved in China for those who express themselves freely, the censorship imposed on the press and the news blackout in Tibet demand this sort of protest," the organization said in its official statement, after three of its members were arrested at the torch-lighting ceremony. "All possible means must now be used to condemn the serious violations of basic freedoms in China. We will protest whenever we can."

As the flame passed through 21 nations, torchbearers were met by protesters at at least half the stops. The causes were diverse: In Istanbul, 200 Uighur Muslims protested what Human Rights Watch has termed a "crushing campaign of religious repression" against the Islamic minority in China's Xinjiang region. In Buenos Aires, a small group of Free Tibet activists and Falun Gong practioners staged a peaceful demonstration. In Seoul, two North Korean exiles attempted to set themselves on fire to protest Chinese mistreatment of North Korean refugees.

In London and Paris, thousands converged on the relay to demand religious freedom and political autonomy be returned to the Tibetan people. Similar protests were organized for San Francisco and Canberra, but organizers launched preemptive strikes: In San Francisco, the relay was diverted down a ***image3***secret route at the last second; in Canberra, the Australian government erected a steel fence to protect the torch.

After a controversial climb up Mount Everest, the torch has now returned to China, making its final celebratory tour before the Olympics begin in August.

But the protesters who forced the torch's handlers to extinguish the flame nearly a dozen times are far from finished. A second relay, the Human Rights Torch Relay, has been running concurrently to allow for further demonstrations in those cities the torch never reached.

The Human Rights Torch Relay is scheduled to arrive in Santa Fe on Thursday, May 18, a day that Mayor David Coss has already made official with a proclamation. Coss will deliver the opening remarks and State Rep. Jim Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, will light the flame. Santa Fe's Tibetan community, Falun Gong practitioners and Darfur genocide activists will man informational booths to drive home the fact that, in a globalized society, New Mexico is not untouched by global conflicts.

In addition to these three human-rights concerns, SFR has identified two public-health problems tied to China that directly affect New Mexicans: poisoned imports, such as the 2007 contaminated pet food scare; and the threat of pandemics, such as SARS and avian influenza.

This week, SFR breaks down these five issues, explaining the conflict, the background and the players. While these serious problems will likely continue long past the Beijing Olympics, the event presents the perfect opportunity for the world to protest and, perhaps, for China to listen.

Web-extra exclusive interview with Debbie Armstrong, who won the US its first gold medal for women's giant slalom in 1984 at the Sarajevo Olympics and now teaches skiing in Taos.

  #1  FREE TIBET    

The Conflict:
On a warm Tuesday evening in May, at the base of the castle at United World College in Montezuma, NM, a quartet of Tibetans from Santa Fe have just finished addressing a small, half-filled auditorium. Samuel Lai, the 17-year-old student from Hong Kong who organized the panel, lifts the microphone to his mouth, thanks the speakers and then makes a dangerous statement that could earn him persecution when he returns to his homeland.

"Yes, the Chinese government has been abusing human rights in Tibet for the past 40 or 50 years," he begins. "But it's also basic human rights all over China. The next time we see a slogan that says, 'Free Tibet'-No, not just 'Free Tibet.' I say, 'Free China.'"

Lai then apologizes directly to the Tibetans and bows.

A little less than two months ago, protests in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, to commemorate the 49th anniversary of the failed 1959 Tibetan uprising, accelerated into street battles with Chinese security forces. The government accused Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, and his followers of secretly masterminding the unrest. Meanwhile, human-rights organizations accused the Chinese forces of covering up brutal retaliation against ethnic Tibetans by barring the foreign press from the Himalayan nation.

In solidarity, the Santa Fe Tibetan Association, a community of approximately 100 Tibetan exiles, many who arrived in the US during an early-'90s resettlement program, staged a demonstration in front of the Roundhouse. While a line of cross-legged monks chanted on a traditional rug, approximately 14 Tibetans and Western activists sat in plastic chairs while assistants shaved their heads bare before a half-dozen television cameras.

As the Olympics approach, Tibetans in Santa Fe will become increasingly visible in their demonstrations. Association President Rigzin Latoe heartily disagrees with the idea that the Olympic games and political activism are incompatible.

"The Chinese, as well as many, believe that there is no relation between politics and Olympics," Latoe says. "If it is nothing to do with politics, China will never sponsor Olympics."

But it's not just about exposing China's human-rights record, Latoe says, but also opening dialogue with the Chinese people. Lai gives him hope for the future.

"When he say he apologize for what the Chinese government did to the Tibetans and he bowed, it touched our hearts and we really felt like crying," Latoe says.

The interwoven history between China and Tibet can be traced back centuries, but the modern conflict stems directly from 1950, when the Chinese People's Liberation Army crossed into Tibet and usurped the power of the Tibetan government. Nine years later, a failed uprising left tens of thousands dead and forced the Dalai Lama, then Tibet's 24-year-old spiritual and political leader, into exile. The "Cultural Revolution" instituted by Chairman Mao Zedong represented several decades of religious repression and human-rights violations against Tibetan Buddhists and their culture. In recent years, this tension has been compounded by economic factors, such as the influx of Chinese migrants to the region and Chinese control over business and employment. Recently, however, an envoy from the Tibetan Government in Exile began talks with the Chinese.

The Players:
Human-rights advocates: Human Rights Watch, an international humanitarian organization, issued an open letter to the heads of nations participating in the Olympics, urging them to boycott the opening ceremonies unless the Chinese government allows international investigators into Tibet. Reporters sans frontieres has also presented China with a nine-point ultimatum, demanding the government allow foreign journalists into Tibet and lift censorship of the Internet for the Chinese people.

Dalai Lama: Throughout the Olympic Torch's journey, the Dalai Lama has stated repeatedly that he does not support a boycott of the games, though he does support the rights of people globally to protest whatever they like. He also has made it clear he does not endorse independence for Tibet. Rather, he asks for only autonomy and the ability for exiled Tibetans to return safely.

Chinese government: After US Undersecretary of State Dr. Paula Dobriansky met with the Dalai Lama in April, China's Foreign Ministry argued that the US was "extremely erroneous and irresponsible" and had committed a "blatant violation of the fundamental rules of international relations and an interference with China's domestic issues." Spokesman Jiang Yu also stated that the March 10 violence was caused by Tibetan separatists in league with the Dalai Lama and the US should have condemned the "atrocity of the rioters."

  #2  DARFUR    
The Conflict:
In the 1980s, American investors embarked on an ambitious campaign to use their money to bring down apartheid, the legalized system of segregation and oppression imposed on black South Africans by white Afrikaners. Shareholders in companies operating in South Africa drafted letters of concern to corporate executives, threatening divestment if no action were taken.

Students at American universities staged protests to force their colleges to stop investing in South African corporations. States and cities, under pressure from citizen activists, passed legislation to drop similar government-held investments. Eventually, the US Congress passed laws barring new US trade in South Africa and, although President Ronald Reagan opposed the policy, the Republican-controlled Senate overrode his veto.

Consequentially, the South African exchange rate plummeted and, in 1990, South African President Frederik Willem de Klerk announced his plans to end apartheid.

The South African divestment movement serves as the precedent for the current divestment campaign being waged upon the investment community ***image7***in response to the five-year conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan that has left more than 200,000 dead and 2 million displaced. Already, President George W Bush has issued executive orders barring US corporations from conducting oil and gas operations in the East African nation. To date, 24 states have implemented programs to withdraw investments from these businesses.

New Mexico joined the list in the fall of 2007 when Gov. Bill Richardson, who earlier in the year had personally negotiated a short-lived cease fire between rebel groups and the Sudanese government in Khartoum, ordered the State Investment Council to drop more than $45 million in Chinese corporations tied to oil operations in Sudan. The New Mexico Educational Retirement Board follow suit a little more than a month later.

And yet, the New Mexico Public Employees Retirement Association, which manages pension investments for 72,000 government workers, has defied Richardson's plea to divest from these companies. According to April 30 holdings reports, PERA currently holds $24 million in investments listed as "highest offenders," including two Chinese corporations, by the Genocide Intervention Network's Sudan Divestment Task Force. This does, however, represent a small reduction compared to the $28 million invested in August 2007, in part due to a drop in value for several of the stocks.

PERA's holding are miniscule compared to the shares held by Thornburg Investment Management, a Santa Fe-based mutual fund firm. Thornburg is currently the fifth largest investor in Sinopec Corp., a subsidiary of the Sinopec Group, which controls one of the largest shares of the Sudan oil reserve. According to Thornburg's February filing with the US Securities and Exchange Commission, its holdings are worth more than $877 million.

In the spring of 2003, rebel groups representing ethnic Africans in Sudan's eastern Darfur region began launching attacks on Sudan military outposts. The government in Khartoum reacted with a "counter-insurgency" strategy consisting mostly of bombing villages in Darfur and arming the Janjaweed, a nomadic militia, to further destruction.

Sudan is an oil-rich nation, but since it does not have the capacity to drill and refine its own reserves, it has formed consortiums with foreign oil companies, mainly from China and India. The shared profits from petroleum prop up both Sudan's economy and its government.

The Players:
Thornburg Investment Management: When asked about its investments for several stories over the last year in SFR, Thornburg Investment Management issued a statement pointing out that, unlike its Chinese state-owned parent company, Sinopec Corp. does not have any operations in Sudan. Furthermore, Managing Director David Miller said, "Thornburg Investment Management bases its investment decisions on financial and economic factors, keeping in mind our responsibilities as corporate citizens…We believe that we can at times be a voice for change as a shareholder. We lose such influence through divestment." Thornburg has yet to provide SFR with details of how it has influenced the Chinese company.

Sudan Divestment Task Force: Adam Sterling, executive director of the task force, argues that because the Chinese corporations directly involved in Sudan petroleum operations are fully owned by the state, the only way for investors to exert their influence is by focusing on the corporation's publicly traded subsidiaries. In February, nine Nobel Prize laureates and a coalition of political leaders, entertainers and athletes wrote a letter to China chastising the nation for doubling its trade with Sudan in 2007 without significantly amping up its humanitarian commitments.

Chinese government: After director Steven Spielberg turned down the job of artistic advisor to the Beijing Olympics because of his concern for Darfur, the Chinese Foreign Ministry held a press conference to counter the argument that the games can seen through the prism of Sudan. Ministry spokesman Liu Jinachao stated, "China has made unremitting efforts to resolve the Darfur issue, a fact that is obvious to anyone in the international community that is not biased against China." These efforts, Jianchao said, include $13.5 million in assistance to Darfur, the African Union and the United Nations, and the promise of a 315-person engineering unit to help rebuild the region.

  #3   FALUN GONG    
The Conflict:
Jane Dai is a tall, thin and lithe Chinese woman whose accent is as contradictory as the optimistic calm with which she speaks about the most shocking of human-rights abuses. It's almost as if she pronounces her consonants in the tongue of her ancestors, but forms her vowels in the brogue of Australia, her home in exile. Sitting in SFR's conference room, Dai speaks of kidnapping and torture, murder and organ harvesting, while her 8-year-old daughter, Fadu, focuses intently on folding ornate blue paper into an origami lotus flower.

Jane and Fadu are on an informal US tour to bring attention to Chinese oppression against practitioners of Falun Gong, or Falun Dafa, the most popular of many alternative spiritual practices to emerge from the Cultural Revolution's crackdown on religion.

Sara Effner, an instructor who leads regular free Falun Gong lessons at Whole Foods Market, discovered the practice while visiting China in the beginning weeks of the government's 1999 ban on Falun Gong. Nearly a decade later, Effner spearheaded the local stretch of the Human Rights Torch Relay and arranged for Dai and Fadu to give a presentation at the Santa Fe Institute (and at SFR's offices).

The presentation centers around a short but intense documentary about the troubled history of Falun Gong, and Dai's husband, a Falun Gong leader, who ***image9***she says was kidnapped and then murdered by the Chinese government. She shows articles from magazines that feature gruesome photos of mutilated cadavers as evidence of Chinese brutality. Then, Dai and Fadu demonstrate a series of precise, swan-like Falun Gong exercises, something akin to Madonna's Vogue music video in slow motion. They end the meeting by presenting SFR with Fadu's flower and a strip of paper printed with the three principles of Falun Gong: Truthfulness. Compassion. Tolerance.

Falun Gong was created in 1992 by Li Hongzhi, a security worker for a Chinese grain company. The practice is a form of qigong, or mind-body "cultivation," similar to tai chi. The movement grew enormously through the '90s, both in China and abroad, until 1999 when the Chinese government branded it an "evil cult." According to US State Department reporters, at least 100,000 Falun Gong practitioners were arrested in the first five years of the ban. Amnesty International also estimates several hundred died while in custody.

In 2001, a group of at least five alleged practitioners lit themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square. The Chinese government reported that seven were involved in the self-immolation, including a 12-year-old girl. The idea that Falun Gong burnt a child created doubt in the international community about the legitimacy of the movement, even though Western news agencies, including CNN, later disputed the accuracy of the Chinese government's account. Many suspect the 12-year-old was fabricated by the government to vilify Falun Gong.

The Players:
Falun Gong: Practioners of the qigong discipline claim it isn't a "cult," or even a religion for that matter. Instead, they characterize it as a very simple belief system rooted in Chinese traditions that provide paths for harmony between the mind and body. Many practitioners take it a step further and believe that, if practiced diligently, Falun Gong can heal illnesses. The goal of the Falun Gong movement in Olympic protests is to force China to free imprisoned practitioners and release Gao Zhisheng, a lawyer they say was kidnapped by Chinese secret police immediately after he sent a letter to the US Congress urging America to boycott the Olympics.

Human Rights advocates: Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both documented abuses against the Falun Gong and lobbied the international community, including the United Nations, to intervene in what they classify as oppression of the basic human right to worship and organize.

Chinese government: "Falun Gong is an anti-human and anti-science evil cult," a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman told the press in 2002. "It damages and claims lives, destroys families and endangers society. More than 1,700 people died because of practicing it. The decision by the Chinese government to outlaw Falun Gong in light of law is to safeguard the fundamental human rights and freedom of the citizens and it has won the support of the vast number of people." China's position on Falun Gong mirrors its policy on Tibet: It views it as an internal security matter that is no business of foreign governments.

Cult expert: Without a moment's hesitation, cult expert Rick Ross characterizes Falun Gong as a "destructive cult." He describes Hongzhi as the stereotypical "charismatic" and, in the eyes of his followers, infallible leader common to all cults. However, Ross concedes that Falun Gong is closer to Sun Myung Moon's Unitarian Church than David Koresh's Branch Davidians. Ross says he regularly receives complaints about Falun Gong from family members of adherents, ranging from irrational behavior to cessation of treatment for medical conditions. Recently, he says, he testified in a divorce case in which the plaintiff argued that his spouse's personality had changed substantially because of an obsession with Falun Gong.


The Conflict:
March 2007 might well be remembered as Mother Hubbard Month, the month that cupboards were bare and America's pets went hungry. On the Ides of March, the US Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency warning that certain pet foods were causing renal failure in dogs and cats across the nation.

Pete Sanders, owner of Pete's Pets in Santa Fe, remembers that, at first, it was just a single brand of wet dog food marketed by Canada-based Menu Foods. But over the next week, more and more tainted products were discovered, including dry food, eventually resulting in the recall of more than 5,300 products.

"They kept recalling more and more products as it went further and further, and it was confusing," Sanders says. "You found out things you never knew existed in the business; that is, all these different companies that you think are independent are all having their food mixed at the same plant."

A joint investigation by the FDA and the US Department of Agriculture turned up evidence that food processed by a Chinese company that had contracts with several pet food companies were contaminated with melamine, an organic toxin. Within two months, the FDA reported more than 1,950 cats and 2,200 dogs had died as a result of ingestion.

The New Mexico Department of Agriculture's Feed, Seed and Fertilizer Division does not have figures for pet deaths in New Mexico, but a spokesman said that the state was likely hit as hard as the rest of the country.

Pet food wasn't the only contaminated import to land on American shelves. In the months that followed, the FDA issued warnings about Chinese produce and fish that had been exposed to chemicals banned in the US. In August, Mattel recalled more than 11 million toys, including 1.5 million Fisher-Price toys for preschoolers, because of lead paints used by Mattel's Chinese manufacturer.

A year later, Sanders is optimistic the US and China have addressed the problem.

"This dog food recall seems like it's really water under the bridge," Sanders says. "I think it's something that we're all trying to get past. Hopefully, the big companies have learned their lessons."
In 2006, approximately 40 percent of all consumer goods-$250 million worth-imported to the US came from China, according to the US Consumer Product and Safety Commission. Sixty percent of all product recalls, the CPSC adds, are Chinese imports. The Washington Post also reported that FDA inspectors are only able to check less than 1 percent of Chinese imports, but in the months following the pet food debacle, the agency rejected more than 300 food shipments from China.

The Players
US government: The FDA has made it clear it views the import of tainted goods as a criminal offense. In February 2007, it secured a 26-count indictment in US federal court against four Chinese businessmen involved in ***image11***the import of the poisoned pet food and a 27-count indictment against executives of the US corporation ChemNutra, one of the main pet-food companies involved in the recall. The FDA also launched a "Beyond Our Borders Initiative" to reform trade agreements with foreign governments, including India and China. In April 2008, the FDA signed an agreement with its Chinese counterpart to introduce third-party inspectors into the import process.

Chinese government: In response to the US outcry, the Chinese government claims it initiated a crackdown on domestic businesses that ignore international quality standards. To prove its commitment, China's Administration for Industry and Commerce announced it had closed nearly 3,200 food manufacturers and destroyed more than 5,800 tons of food in the first six months of 2007.

  #5  PANDEMIC    

The Conflict:
To most Americans, the threat of a worldwide pandemic seems like the stuff of historical legend: Bubonic plague, smallpox, polio-all have been virtually eliminated in the country, which has since shifted its focus to more lifestyle-based epidemics, including obesity, lung cancer and HIV/AIDS.

But in 2002, China experienced a widespread outbreak of SARS, a deadly respiratory virus, that killed close to 1,000 people. Images of the destruction of chickens by the millions, of the Chinese adding face masks as a uniform part of their wardrobes, created a lasting imprint on the global imagination. A worldwide outbreak of SARS or avian influenza became a distinct possibility and nations worldwide began vigorously pursuing quarantine plans in case a super-disease spread across the nation. So far, outbreaks have generally originated in Asia due to population density and weak health standards for handling livestock.

Last month, the Olympic celebrations were marred by reports that an intestinal virus was spreading across the country, causing an epidemic of hand-foot-and-mouth disease, which is fatal to children and infants. This has caused serious concern in the international community because the disease not only poses a potential risk to the athletes, but, if infected, the athletes themselves could be vectors for transmitting the disease upon their returns home.

While Los Alamos National Laboratory is most closely associated with the development of nuclear weapons, the research institution is also actively engaged in developing technologies to combat super-viruses. In December 2006, LANL licensed its EpiCast epidemic-mapping software to Santa Fe-based Company for Information Visualization and Analysis (CIVA) for private development and marketing. The technology allows organizations to check their prevention and quarantine plans for holes by predicting the spread of a particular disease over a closed location. It may be the key to preventing a global epidemic.

According to CIVA's predictions, New Mexico would be one of the last states to be affected by a pandemic because of its spread-out and rural populations- assuming the disease arrives at a major US airport as opposed to moving across the Mexican border.

The New Mexico Department of Health currently has a draft plan for handling an epidemic, including immunizations and travel restrictions. CIVA's software predicts these methods would primarily serve to slow down the process, which, CIVA Product Manager Paul Brienza says, is important because combating pandemics is largely a time game. The more a government slows the spread, the more time it has to manufacture and distribute vaccinations. According to New Mexico's draft plan, once the pandemic strain is identified, it would take as long as six months to begin production of a vaccine. However, the US's capacity to produce vaccines is expected to quadruple in 2008.

But the New Mexico draft plan states there is "no conclusive evidence" that avian influenza will cause a human influenza pandemic any time soon. Brienza says the science disagrees. 

"From all the research that we've done up to date, it's just a matter of time," Brienza says. "If it's not the avian flu, it'll be something similar to the avian flu."
The last major global epidemic was the Spanish flu in 1918, which killed more than 40 million people. Avian influenza, or H5N1, was first documented in humans in 1997, when 17 people were infected and six died. In 2004, the first signs of a pandemic began to emerge in Vietnam and Thailand, although Indonesia has been hit the hardest with 133 infections and 108 deaths since 2005. China has reported 30 cases that resulted in 20 deaths. In addition to Southeast Asia, human infections also have been recorded in Africa and the Middle East. Infected birds also have been found in Europe.

Close contact with poultry is the primary source of human infection. Scientists have confirmed the virus mutates rapidly, which has the potential to complicate vaccination development.

The Players:
International health organizations: Although an Italian newspaper reported that the World Health Organization issued warnings that Olympic tourists should pack anti-viral medication, WHO has since claimed that was a hoax. The US State Department advises Olympic tourists to be aware of the ***image13***symptoms, but WHO has not issued any travel alerts or warnings for avian influenza in Asia. The Australian Olympic Committee, however, has expressed concern and told athletes to avoid poultry and dairy products in China. As far as hand-foot-and-mouth outbreak goes, WHO's China representative, Hans Troedsson, told reporters this month: "China has the capacity at central and local levels to control and prevent the disease."

Chinese government: The Chinese Center for Disease Control told the press in April 2007 that it would reserve 6,250 beds and place 144 hospitals on standby in case of an infectious disease outbreak during the Olympics. Officials also have bragged that they have reduced the reporting time for avian influenza from one week to 10 hours. China has stated that the hand-foot-and-mouth epidemic will not affect the Olympics.


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