Beijing's Real Olympic Hero

Meet Ji Sizun, imprisoned for three years for daring to take China's promises of greater openness at the 2008 Games at face value.

Four years ago, amid the pyrotechnics and superlatives in the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Ji Sizun's aspirations were relatively modest. A 61-year-old self-described legal activist from Fujian province, Ji had little interest in the athletic events, let alone the Chinese government's relentless "One World, One Dream" Olympics propaganda campaign that pitched the games as proof of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's wisdom in guiding the country to world-power status.

Instead, Ji saw the Beijing Olympics as a platform to highlight problems in Chinese governance and society, including the need for greater participation of citizens in political processes and redress for rampant official corruption and abuses of power.

Under normal circumstances, Ji's plan for a successful public protest in Beijing would have been foolhardy, especially during a Chinese government-designated "sensitive" period for a high-profile event such as the Olympics. The Chinese government rarely tolerates public protests; those that do occur are usually quickly dispersed and their participants often detained. China's security agencies, flush with a "stability maintenance" budget that will reach $111 billion this year, are adept at efficiently silencing potential protesters.

Ji knew all this. But he also knew that the Chinese government had promised the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that it would suspend its repressive reflexes and observe international standards of free expression and association during the games. After all, Liu Shaowu, the security director for the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG) had on July 23, 2008, publicly vowed that "people or protesters who want to express their personal opinions can go to do so" in line with "common practice in other countries." The BOCOG even established three official protest zones in Beijing where groups and individuals would be free to peacefully demonstrate without fear of official reprisals. The Washington Post reported that in an August 2008 interview, Ji said that "he believed the offer was sincere and represented the beginning of a new era for human rights in China."

So Ji -- along with dozens of other brave Chinese souls who took Liu at his word -- applied for a permit to demonstrate. On August 8, 2008, the day of the opening ceremony, he entered a police station in Beijing's Xicheng district to file his application. But as a veteran activist, Ji took precautions. So before returning three days later, he contacted several foreign correspondents and asked them to wait outside the station while he entered to pick up his permit.

About 90 minutes after Ji entered the police station, those reporters watched aghast as several men who appeared to be plainclothes policemen escorted him out of the building and put him in a dark, unmarked Buick. As the car sped off, Ji managed to make a short call to his family to notify them he had "problems." That was the last time anyone heard from him for five months. On Jan. 7, 2009, Ji's lawyer announced that a Fujian court had convicted his client on dubious forgery charges and had sentenced him to a three-year prison term.

Ji wasn't the only victim of the Chinese government's Olympic "protest zone" duplicity. Police met parents wanting to protest the deaths of their children in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake at Sichuan's Chengdu airport and tore up their airline tickets. Nor was age a barrier to the Chinese government's determination to derail any possible Olympics protests and punish potential protesters. Two Beijing women in their late 70s who had applied for protest permits in early August 2008 were sentenced to camps to be "re-educated" through forced labor. Only an international outcry prompted the Chinese government to overturn that verdict.

Why did Chinese leaders promise freedom and then take it away? The Chinese government made human rights improvements an explicit component of its bid for the 2008 Games. Yet as the Olympics neared, Beijing continued to restrict media freedom, violate the rights of migrant workers, and illegally evict and demolish homes to build Olympic infrastructure. The Chinese Communist Party feared challenges to its political legitimacy far more than it respected the IOC, and it rightly calculated that the IOC valued its friendly relationship with the Chinese government more than its duty to enforce Beijing's Olympics-related rights commitments.

The party was right, though the IOC's failure to speak out forcefully about these abuses did prompt serious international dismay. Despite the extensive documentation of Olympics-related rights violations prior to the start of the Beijing Games, IOC President Jacques Rogge insisted two days before the opening ceremony, "We believe the games are going to move ahead the agenda of the social and human rights as far as possible; the games are going to be a force for good." An official IOC review of the Beijing Olympics released in November 2008 praised the games as an "indisputable success" without mentioning the numerous documented Olympics-related human rights and press freedom violations.

Ji could have given a credible repudiation of that IOC claim, but of course in November 2008 he remained in the hands of Chinese security forces, whereabouts unknown, a situation contravening both Chinese law and international human rights standards of due legal process. In February 2009, Ji wrote from prison in a letter to his family that he kept the faith in his pursuit of justice and the Chinese legal system. "Everything is fine here, please don't worry! Please believe that I only have done good rather than brought harm to our people and country. I will win the lawsuit in the end," Ji wrote.

Ji was released from prison on June 27, 2011, to what Chinese dissident website Boxun described as a warm reception by activists and residents of his Fujian village. Photographs showed Ji surrounded by well-wishers holding a giant red banner emblazoned with the words, "Thank you, citizen Ji Sizun!"

Despite his Olympic lesson on the costs of activism, Ji has continued to challenge the Chinese government's often abusive status quo. And he has continued to pay the price. In June 2011, a team of plainclothes police reportedly detained Ji as he attempted to board a train to Beijing ahead of the celebration of the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. They held Ji for several hours before releasing him, long after the departure of his Beijing train. Government surveillance and intimidation of Ji reportedly ramped up in December 2011 with the round-the-clock monitoring of his home by local government officials and police.

As the Olympic torch enters the stadium for the start of the 2012 London Games, it's likely that Ji Sizun will be spending his day in much the same way he has spent most days since the Beijing Olympics: confined, silenced, and dreaming of a fairer and more just China.




Bashar al-Assad may be gearing up to create an Alawite statelet along Syria's coastal mountains. And he has the means to do it.

How long will President Bashar al-Assad remain in Damascus? His regime appears to be reeling: A bombing last week claimed the lives of his brother-in-law and three other senior figures of his regime, military defections continue, and rebel forces have arrived in the country's largest cities. The prevalent view in Washington and many other foreign capitals is that the question is not if Assad will lose the capital, but when.

Assad has no intention of abandoning Damascus without a fight. Since last week's bombing, the Syrian Army's Fourth Division -- led by Assad's brother Maher -- has launched an intense campaign to retake control of the capital's neighborhoods from the rebels. To secure Damascus, the regime has redeployed troops from the Golan and eastern Syria. Control of the capital is critical to Assad for maintaining the pretense that he is not merely an Alawite warlord, but the embodiment of the state.

The Syrian despot, however, is fighting a losing battle. As heavy fighting rages on in the cities of Damascus and Aleppo, the regime is losing control over the Syrian interior and the Kurdish northeast. The predominantly Sunni areas of Syria are falling from Assad's grasp, and there is no realistic way for him to reassert his authority there.

But Assad has one card left to play: The Syrian regime has been setting the stage for a retreat to Syria's coastal mountains, the traditional homeland of the Assads' Alawite sect, for months now. It is now clear that this is where the Syrian conflict is headed. Sooner or later, Assad will abandon Damascus.

The Syrian regime's recent decline in fortunes has seemingly accelerated this process. With the sectarian fault line clearly drawn, reports are emerging of internal population migration as Alawites begin moving back to the ancestral mountains -- echoing the dynamics seen during the Lebanese civil war. Shortly after the assassination of the top Syrian security officials, opposition activists and Western diplomats reported that Assad had relocated to the coastal city of Latakia. This claim has since been contested, but Assad's whereabouts remain uncertain.

Despite the fact that the Syrian regime is a family enterprise, Assad has sought to present himself throughout the conflict as the sole legitimate interlocutor with the outside world. Regrettably, the international community has played along with this conceit. All diplomatic initiatives to solve the Syrian crisis have stipulated dialogue with Assad and refrained from calling on him to hand over power.

However, it has long been apparent that Assad's bid to control the entirety of Syrian territory was hitting against demographic and geographic realities. Contrary to all early assertions regarding his military, Assad's forces are little more than a sectarian militia. This limited manpower has, from the beginning, meant that Assad would not be able to re-impose his authority on the predominantly Sunni interior and periphery.

This sectarian geography has determined the regime’s behavior. As he dug in for a long war, Assad has had to consolidate the Alawites behind him and fortify his position in the Alawite coastal mountains overlooking the Mediterranean, in the region roughly between Jisr al-Shoughour in the north, near the Turkish border, and Tal Kalakh in the south, near Lebanon.

Assad has moved to secure all natural access points leading to this Alawite redoubt. In a move somewhat reminiscent of the Lebanese precedent, he also began to clear hostile Sunni pockets within the enclave and to create a buffer zone in the plain that separates the coastal mountains from the interior. This was the calculus behind the string of mass killings in villages like al-Houla, Taldou, al-Haffeh, and Tremseh -- all Sunni population centers either inside or on the eastern frontier of the Alawite enclave in the central plain.

The common denominator to all these places is their relevance to Syria's strategic and sectarian geography. The areas near Homs and al-Haffeh, for instance, are historical access routes into the coastal mountains. In addition, villages like Taldou and Tremseh mark the eastern faultline where outlying Alawite villages are sprinkled uncomfortably near Sunni ones. They also lie strategically on the north-south axis linking Damascus to Aleppo, and the rebellious governorates of Homs and Hama to Idlib.

Damascus, however, lies well outside this prospective enclave. In the capital, the regime does not possess a demographic reservoir of loyal Alawite communities with which to balance the power relationship with its rivals. The Syrian regime has responded to this problem by ringing Damascus with military bases stocked with loyal Alawite troops to control the main communication routes out of the city. As a result, French political geographer Fabrice Balanche has written, the capital has become an "encircled city." Moreover, as recent news reports have noted, the influx of mostly Sunni refugees into Damascus from other rebellious districts has further complicated the demographic equation in the capital.

It is therefore not only conceivable, but also rather likely, that these geographic and demographic factors will at some point lead Assad to abandon Damascus and fortify himself in his Alawite stronghold. As occurred in Lebanon, this could lead to a prolonged static war, where the support of external patrons -- namely Iran and Russia -- becomes increasingly critical to Assad.

Some will argue that an Alawite enclave is unviable in the long-term, but Assad has an insurance policy to protect his retreat. As the Assad regime just reminded the world, it possesses a large stockpile of chemical weapons. While most observers are worried about Assad passing these weapons along to third-party actors like Hezbollah, he is more likely to hold on tightly to them. These weapons are his last remaining and most formidable deterrent against his Sunni foes, and precious leverage to guarantee the quiescence of the outside world.

With this insurance policy, Assad could hang on as a warlord presiding over an Iranian and Russian protectorate on the Mediterranean. The past several weeks have dealt Assad a serious blow, but this is not yet the end of the Syrian conflict. It is rather the beginning of a new phase, the endgame of which is not in Damascus, but further west.