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For Katrina Swett, fighting for human rights is all in the family

  • Katrina Lanos Swett talks about the blogger that was sentenced in Saudi Arabia. (GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff) Katrina Lantos Swett talks about the blogger who was sentenced in Saudi Arabia recently. Monitor file

  • FILE - In this June 5, 1989, file photo, a man stands alone in front of a line of tanks heading east on Beijing's Changan Blvd. in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. Hong Kong’s second ban on an annual vigil for victims of the bloody June 4, 1989, crackdown on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square protest movement and the closure of a museum dedicated to the event may be a further sign that the ruling Communist Party is extending its efforts to erase the event from the collective consciousness from the mainland to Hong Kong. (AP Photo/Jeff Widener, File) Jeff Widener

  • FILE - In this June 5, 1989, file photo, Chinese troops and tanks gather in Beijing, one day after the military crackdown that ended a seven week pro-democracy demonstration on Tiananmen Square. Hong Kong’s second ban on an annual vigil for victims of the bloody June 4, 1989 crackdown on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square protest movement and the closure of a museum dedicated to the event may be a further sign that the ruling Communist Party is extending its efforts to erase the event from the collective consciousness of Chinese people. (AP Photo/Jeff Widener, File) Jeff Widener

  • FILE - In this June 4, 2012, file photo, a man looks at a photo, believed to be taken by a former People's Liberation Army soldier at Beijing's Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. Hong Kong’s second ban on an annual vigil for victims of the bloody June 4, 1989 crackdown on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square protest movement and the closure of a museum dedicated to the event may be a further sign that the ruling Communist Party is extending its efforts to erase the event from the collective consciousness from the mainland to Hong Kong. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu, File) Vincent Yu

  • ">

    FILE - In this Feb. 3, 2021, file photo, activists wearing masks of IOC President Thomas Bach, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose in front of the Olympic Rings during a street protest against the holding of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, in Dharmsala, India. Groups alleging human-rights abuses in China are calling for a full boycott of the Beijing Olympics, which is sure to ratchet up pressure on the International Olympic Committee, athletes, sponsors, and sports federations. A coalition of activists representing Uyghurs, Tibetans, residents of Hong Kong and others, issued a statement Monday, May 17, 2021 calling for the “full boycott,” eschewing lesser measures like “diplomatic boycotts" and negotiations with the IOC or China. (AP Photo/Ashwini Bhatia, File) Ashwini Bhatia

Monitor columnist
Published: 6/6/2021 9:53:28 PM
Modified: 6/6/2021 9:53:27 PM

Human rights leader Katrina Swett has a simple yet important request for China’s president, Xi Jinping.

Stay out of your presidential box during the Opening Ceremony when Beijing hosts the Winter Olympics in February. Find somewhere else to sit. Preferably in the shadows. Swett even named her revolutionary vision: The Empty Box.

Let the dictator watch his Games. But don’t include him at the start, when the host country tries to show the world how great and unified it is. How everyone is happy to live there.

Then, and only then, will Swett – president of the Concord-based Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice – soften her stance and lower the volume, at a time when human rights groups are starting to simmer over China’s involvement in the Winter Games.

“Dictators with appalling human rights records use their opening ceremonies to legitimize their rule,” said Swett, who lives in Bow. “They create deception of moral integrity, waving and smiling as the athletes march into the stadium. It’s propaganda, too, by the worst of the worst dictators.”

Swett is a big part of a growing effort to bring attention to China’s human rights violations, leading up to the Beijing Games. That’s in just eight months.

She knows the U.S. will not boycott the games, like it did at the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow, after the Russians invaded Afghanistan. She also knows that calls to move the games to another country will go unheeded.

No matter what, though, the virtual meetings and protests and boat rocking will no doubt endure. If nothing else, the light that will shine on China’s iron-fisted rule, with all its abuses, will burn brighter.

“It’s completely inappropriate for them to host the Olympics,” Swett said. “The pressure is growing on the IOC and sponsors and the media companies. They have to be held accountable for supporting and broadcasting and enabling this unreal propaganda platform.”

Swett has some muscle. Her family is synonymous with furthering human rights on a national scale. In fact, she joined leaders from everywhere for a virtual meeting on Friday, the 32nd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Her husband, Dick Swett, was a U.S. Senator and a champion for human rights in Congress. Her father, Tom Lantos, survived a Nazi death camp and fought for human rights while serving in the U.S. Congress for nearly 30 years.

Now his daughter is out front. Her idea to oust Xi from his box during the Opening Ceremony is mostly symbolic in nature.

She knows the split-screen TV shot during the Opening Ceremonies – pairing peace and love on one side, Xi in his highly visible box on the other – is a juxtaposition of startling and enormous power, to be sure.

She wants the Empty Box to be an empty box.

“The IOC must not allow dictators to be seated in the box during the Opening Ceremony,” Swett said. “It’s a scarlet letter, but instead of an ‘A,’ it will be a ‘B’ for brutal.”

On Friday, Swett spoke to a panel honoring those killed at Tiananmen Square. She joined politicians artists, musicians and activists, all troubled by Xi’s Communist regime. She had strong words.

“It is inconceivable,” Swett told the panel, “that 32 years after the brutal repression of a peaceful movement for democracy and human rights, that China has become an even more repressive totalitarian, surveillance state.”

It was bad enough on June 4, 1989. Tanks and soldiers rolled into the square, stopping the momentum built by young people protesting China’s iron rule. They sought human rights. Hundreds or more died looking for it.

Swett knew this sort of pain. Her father was a Hungarian Jew. He spent time in a German prison camp outside Budapest, repairing bridges. He later found refuge at a safe house run by Raoul Wallenberg, who was credited with saving thousands of Jews near the end of World War II.

Lantos became the only Holocaust survivor to serve in the United States Congress, devoting his life to promoting and fighting for human rights. In fact, he fought with the IOC in 2008, shortly before his death, in a failed attempt to strip the Olympics from Beijing.

Swett was handed the torch, and now she’s the one focusing on China. She’s partnering her own committee with the Tom Lantos Commission on Human Rights – created by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi after Lantos’s death – to cast a harsh and true light on China.

The number of those killed in Tiananmen Square varied from hundreds to thousands. The truth never got out. An image is burned into the minds of those old enough to remember.

“I’ll never forget that young slender man standing in front of the tank,” Swett said.

The tank moved right, and the slender man stepped in its way. The tank moved left, and he did it again. The world watched. Immediately it was clear that something big, something to be remembered, was unfolding on live TV.

That’s the China Swett wants you to see. Not the China that staged the Opening Ceremonies at the 2008 Beijing Games. There, the world saw 2,008 drummers performing in unison, perfectly timed, perfectly in sync. Their drum sticks glowed, and the vision of all that movement happening in an orderly and structured manner was powerful.

Swett saw it. Amazing? Sure. An honest  depiction of life there? No. Not with Xi watching from his presidential box, masquerading as a compassionate fellow, painting a phony facade to exploit the hopeful and optimistic vibe rising from the dancing and light show on the stadium floor.

In the coming months, Swett hopes pressure builds on athletes, sponsors, Olympic officials and consciences everywhere. She hopes the issue is addressed, in some form.

“We have written to the IOC,” Swett said, “and we’re rolling out different things on this campaign.”

She wants to see an Empty Box, wants the dictator out of view, off camera, during the Opening Ceremonies. She wants him separated from the pageantry and joy unfolding in the stadium.

It’s the elephant in the room. Or the box.

“There are bad regimes in the world, but no one has been as blatant as China,” Swett said. “They never should have gotten the Olympics in 2008, and they certainly should not have gotten them in 2022.”




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