Opponents of China's military support for the war in Sudan's Darfur region have been challenged this week by Beijing's tight media controls, its surveillance tactics, and limited avenues for public protest at the Olympic games. But activists say U.S. athletes produced a powerful symbol on Darfur by selecting a 23-year-old Sudanese-born member of the U.S. Olympic track team, Lopez Lomong, to be the American flag bearer at the games opening ceremonies.
African studies Professor Lako Tongun of California's Pitzer College says he hopes the coalition of human rights groups will succeed in breaking through China's controls. But he says he fears that when the games are over, Beijing will abandon the flexibility they have shown on implementation of a Darfur peacekeeping force, and the West will lose its leverage for further Sudan peacemaking efforts.
"They have given in, for instance – access to some internet links, and also the pressure on the Sudan by the Chinese government at the U.N. – namely allowing, for example, the deployment of the U.N. peacekeeping force, the 26,000. Those are the concessions they have given to prevent this movement to acquire more support. Once the Olympics are over, there is not going to be any more constraints on them. There'll be no other bargaining tools, basically for the world community to influence China to behave and help pressure the Sudanese government to change committing the genocide in Darfur," he said.
The Sudanese-born Tongun credits U.S. Olympic athletes for surprising Chinese officials with their choice of Lomong to carry the U.S. flag in the ceremonial festivities and sending an unmistakable message of support for ending the Darfur genocide. At the age of six, Lomong escaped abduction by Sudanese rebels who he thought had killed off his entire family. He spent the next 10 years in a Kenyan refugee camp before being selected for adoption by an American family and immigrating to the United States in 2001. Lomong subsequently excelled in track and field and trained in northern Arizona for this year's U.S. Olympic squad. He became a U.S. citizen in 2007.
Lomong's selection has been widely seen as a slap at China's revocation of a visa last week to U.S. Winter Olympics gold medalist Joey Cheek, who has been an outspoken proponent of an end to government-supported attacks on civilian villages in Darfur. Cheek is president and co-founder of the Team Darfur organization, which enlists US athletes to back efforts for bringing peace to the violence-torn region. Professor Tongun says the banning of Joey Cheek may have cost the Chinese more than it helped them, because the American athletes so far have been the most effective proponents to deliver activists' message so far at the games under very tight Chinese media restrictions.
"Right now, it seems like no group really has come out. There is, I think, the fear probably that the Chinese government has been able to achieve over these individuals who wanted to speak out because of what has happened to this denial of a visa," he noted.
The African studies professor says time will tell as the games continue if human rights activists will be able to have an impact on Bejing's military and political backing of Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir.
"The Olympics are not over yet. There might be down the road some statements because they say Darfur movement is quite strong and I am hoping that the [superstar, celebrity-dominated U.S. Olympic] basketball team will have some members who will speak out, hopefully at the end of the Olympics because many of them are aware of the situation in Darfur," he said.