Gay Rights a Non-Issue for Asian Leaders at Sochi
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Chinese counterpart appear not to be bothered by the international ruckus over Russia's law restricting gay rights.
Unlike President Barack Obama, who pointedly declined to attend the Winter Olympics, the leaders of the world's second and third largest economies - where gay rights are not a hot-button political issue - are going to Sochi.
Also skipping the event are French President Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron and German President Joachim Gauck.
Sochi organizers have declined to provide the names of the leaders coming to the opening ceremony or the countries they represent, but among them are U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon plus the leaders of Greece, Bulgaria, Lebanon, Morocco, Armenia, Finland, Greece, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Mongolia, Montenegro, Serbia, Tajikistan, and the monarchs of Monaco and Luxembourg.
China's state-controlled media have barely mentioned the Russian law that bans pro-gay "propaganda" that could be accessible to minors. It was signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in July.
That's partly because of Beijing's strict insistence on non-interference in other countries' internal affairs, but also a reflection of relatively little public discourse on gay rights.
In Japan, awareness about minority rights - not just for gays, but also for migrant workers and ethnic Koreans - lags behind the West, said Sonoko Kawakami, campaign manager for Amnesty International Japan.
"The prime minister’s actions reflect that," she said.
The Foreign Ministry said Friday that "Japan pays close attention to the human right situation in Russia, but we do not link it with Prime Minister Abe’s attendance at the Sochi Olympics." The statement added that the Japanese team will be buoyed by any encouraging words from their prime minister.
The lack of interest leaves Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping free to pursue their geopolitical goals with Russia.
China has also found common cause with Russia in coming under criticism from Western governments, media and human rights groups, even using it to try to foster better ties. During the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008, China faced many complaints about the stifling of dissent.
"The West has constantly found fault with Russia’s holding of the games," the state-run newspaper Global Times said in Friday’s editorial. It added that the criticism Russia is facing only serves to underscore the connection between the two countries.
Xi is the first Chinese head of state to attend the opening ceremony of an international sporting event outside of China. State newspapers devoted their front pages Friday to Xi’s meeting with Putin, which was also the lead item on state broadcaster CCTV’s national news.
"China and Russia are good neighbors, good partners and good friends. As is Chinese custom, I should most certainly come in person to congratulate my neighbor on their happy occasion," Xi was quoted as saying by the Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily.
Abe will met Putin on Saturday, the fifth meeting between them since Abe became prime minister about 13 months ago. He hopes a close personal bond with the Russian leader will allow the two countries to resolve a territorial dispute that dates to the end of World War II.
On his way to the airport Friday, Abe stopped briefly to speak to an annual rally about the islands, known as the Southern Kurils in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan. "I am determined to work tenaciously to resolve the Northern Territories issue, which is the biggest issue left between Japan and Russia," he said.
This article is part of "Sochi-ology," an EDGE special report series chronicalling the social and political events surrounding Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. Visit the full list of Sochi-ology stories here.