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China’s Biggest Olympics Test

Will its government ever learn to respect human rights?

By 11.6.07

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The Beijing Olympics are less than a year away. While China's extensive construction program is well under way, the People's Republic of China (PRC) is retrogressing on its promise to the International Olympic Committee to improve human rights.

A Beijing television reporter recently was sentenced to one year in prison for allegedly fabricating a story that Chinese dumpling makers used cardboard as filler. The PRC declared that it was targeting "false news reports, unauthorized publications, and bogus journalists."

Yet the report may have been true -- government officials and the police discouraged any other journalists from investigating the charge. This campaign was thought to be an attempt to discourage aggressive reporting in advance of the Communist Party congress, which convened in mid-October.

But the Chinese government is most concerned about potential protests during the Olympics. In August a group of Chinese intellectuals wrote an open letter to the Communist Party requesting that it honor its commitment to respect human rights: repression "violates the Olympic spirit," they argued.

Western human rights advocates have promised to use the international contest to highlight abuses by Beijing. John MacAloon, an Olympic historian at the University of Chicago, predicts that "All of these voices are going to become stronger and stronger; not weaker and weaker, as the Games approach." Thus, the PRC authorities must attempt to preserve enough national openness to highlight the country's economic success while limiting media access enough to prevent critics from highlighting the government's human rights failure.

Beijing shows increasing confidence in its dealings with the world. At home, however, the Chinese leadership evidently fears its own people.

AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL RECENTLY PUBLISHED a report on the status of human rights in China, and the overall news is disappointing. Reports AI: "with just one year to go before the Olympics take place in Beijing, many in China and abroad are beginning to look ahead to assess the likely legacy of the Games for human rights in China." Unfortunately -- but not surprisingly- -the communist government has failed to live up to its promise to improve. Concluded Amnesty:

While positive steps have been made in some limited areas, namely reform of the death penalty system and greater reporting freedom for foreign journalists in China, Amnesty International remains concerned that these are overshadowed by other negative developments -- in particular the growing crackdown on Chinese human rights activists and journalists as well as the continued use of "Re-education through Labour" (RTL) and other forms of detention without trial. Official statements suggest that the Olympics are being used to justify such repression in the name of "harmony" or "social stability" rather than acting as a catalyst for reform.

Repression is on the rise. Earlier this year Human Rights Watch reported that the Chinese government was engaging in its "largest 'clean-up' of protestors and rights activists in years." Explained HRW, "China's annual session of the National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing has been marred by increasingly violent crackdowns on protesters, petitioners and rights activists across the country and a surge in house arrests of activists." Beijing employs violent thugs as well as police to break up demonstrations.

Moreover, notes Amnesty, "the authorities have used the Olympic Games as a pretext to extend the use of two forms of detention without trial: 'Re-education through Labour' and 'Enforced Drug Rehabilitation.'" These tactics have been used against those accused of petty crimes and drug offenses. AI points out that "unchecked police power to impose detention as a punishment without charge, trial or judicial review, is in flagrant violation of international fair trial standards.".

Even good news often is twinned with bad. For instance, there has been some improvement of "the freedom of foreign journalists to cover news stories in China in the run-up to and during the Olympics," says Amnesty. In theory, foreign reporters now will be able to report without interference. Nevertheless, 40 percent of members of the Foreign Correspondents Club of China report government intimidation, while their Chinese employees are routinely spied upon and harassed.

Moreover, these new "regulations were introduced against a background of increased official controls over the distribution of foreign news within China and a renewed crackdown on domestic journalism, including print, broadcast and online media," warns AI.

THE BEIJING GOVERNMENT ANNOUNCED in mid-August that it was cracking down on "false news reports, unauthorized publications and bogus journalists." Nominally directed against inaccurate reporting, these measures discourage aggressive reporting of any sort, especially regarding anything embarrassing to the government.

There are numerous examples of official media repression. Journals have been closed or forced to dismiss their employees. Posts by online publications have been restricted and distribution limited. In advance of the October Communist Party congress, Beijing listed 20 topics as off-limits, including not just human rights and government corruption, but financial and sexual scandals. The group Reporters Without Borders issued a report in August pointing to 29 imprisoned Chinese journalists.

The Internet is a favorite target of the authorities. Explains AI, "Internet censorship remains pervasive in China with few signs that the authorities are prepared to relax policies of surveillance and control, thereby upholding freedom of expression and information online." Websites have been closed; rules have been introduced to force people to register under their own names to use the Internet; writers and journalists have been jailed.

The government employs an estimated 30,000 snoopers and has added animated figures to the screens of Internet users warning of official controls. Reporters Without Borders affirms that China's "cyber-police" have become more active in recent months. In August the Chinese government pressed major blog providers to agree to enforce government standards, essentially a pledge of self-censorship.

No surprise, the government is punishing human rights activism. Warns Amnesty, "While the Chinese authorities have shown growing levels of tolerance for some forms of rights activism which are not perceived to threaten the status quo, activists who report more widely on violations, challenge policies which are deemed to be politically sensitive or try to rally others to their cause are facing heightened levels of abuse."

BEIJING IS PARTICULARLY CONCERNED that Chinese citizens as well as foreign human rights activists desire to use the Olympics to publicize political repression. Many of the former, says AI, "have expressed fears that abuses against activists in other parts of China appear to be rising, partly because so much attention is focused on Beijing in the run-up to the Olympics." Surveillance, detention, imprisonment, and physical abuse all have been deployed against human rights campaigners.

Lawyers who defend human rights activists also face attack. State punishment "often extends to other family members, particularly if forms of 'house arrest' are imposed or if relatives seek to highlight ongoing abuses," reports Amnesty. Prison is not uncommon.

Indeed, last December Human Rights Watch issued a report entitled "A Great Danger for Lawyers." Despite Beijing's professed commitment to implement the rule of law, explains HRW: "the authorities introduced new regulatory curbs on lawyers representing protesters and plaintiffs bringing collective lawsuits. These restrictions effectively deprive people with lawful collective complaints of meaningful legal representation, and risk instilling a sense of futility about legal avenues of redress that may exacerbate social unrest in the future."

In September the authorities detained Gao Zhisheng, who had been convicted and sentenced to house arrest last year for his activities on behalf of human rights activists. Li Heping, known for defending victims of government abuse, including religious persecution, was physically attacked.

Religious persecution continues. The government has initiated a crackdown on foreign missionaries in advance of the Olympics and tightened control over house churches. At least 15 leaders of the underground church were arrested in six different provinces as part of a recent drive "against illegal religious and evil cult activity" that adversely affected "the stability of village governance," stated the government. Severe repression continues against Falun Gong practitioners, and the government has even purported to ban (seriously!) the reincarnation of "living Buddhas" in Tibet. Underground Catholic Bishop Jia Zhiquo was arrested in August.

Finally, though the communist authorities have dumped Mao, they seem to be enlisting Orwell. The city of Shenzhen is installing 20,000 surveillance cameras along its streets and providing hi-tech residency cards with a computer chip programmed with personal information. The government claims the measures are meant to fight crime, but in practice could -- and almost certainly will -- be used to control their citizens' lives.

This is a sad record for a nation poised to become one of the globe's leading geopolitical actors. Notes AI, "the continued imprisonment of numerous human rights activists and journalists as prisoners of conscience and the use of police surveillance of 'house arrest' to curtail the peaceful and legitimate activism of others continues to stain the Chinese government's reputation on human rights both at home and abroad. Without swift action to address such abuses, the human rights legacy of the Olympics will be jeopardized."

WHAT TO DO TO HELP the Chinese people? The U.S. cannot force political change on the PRC. Sanctions, including an Olympics boycott, would antagonize Chinese citizens as well as leaders -- without improving the situation in China. Indeed, a nationalistic government would more likely crack down than improve human rights in response to that kind of overt, official pressure.

Nevertheless, people of good will around the globe should speak out on behalf of the Chinese people. President George W. Bush called his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, to account at the Asia Pacific Cooperation meeting in Sydney in September: "We urge China's leaders to use this moment to show confidence by demonstrating a commitment to greater openness and tolerance."

Asian and European leaders should do the same. Their efforts should be buttressed by private protests and boycotts. Chinese leaders are seeking international influence and respectability; instead, they should be embarrassed at how they treat their people. Undoubtedly, the Beijing regime would complain about Western criticism. Observed Chinese embassy spokesman Wang Baodong: "we are against any irresponsible allegations or unfounded slandering. And we are also opposed to the practice of politicizing the Olympic Games. We are also against any attempt to exert pressure on the Chinese side by making use of the Beijing Olympic Games." Human rights critics have struck a nerve. That nerve should be struck again.

The IOC should weigh in, reminding the Chinese government of its commitment to improve human rights. AI calls on the Committee to take "A more proactive stance on human rights issues." Although the IOC's leverage is limited, it should add its voice on behalf of freedom for the Chinese people.

While the criticism should be sharp, it should point to a positive end. That is, the Chinese government should be urged to follow the logic of its reach for global leadership. A country with growing geopolitical power demanding respect from the international community should respect its own people. The leaders of a good, strong, and powerful nation should trust their people with freedom. Moreover, a political leadership hoping to win legitimacy and defuse social protest at home should give its citizens a stake in, and ultimately control over, their own government.

There likely will be no more important bilateral relationship this century than that between America and China. The U.S. has much at stake in Beijing's future development. Although America cannot force the PRC to respect the human rights of its own people, Americans can encourage, pressure, and shame the Chinese authorities to do so. With the 2008 Olympics approaching, there's no better opportunity to act on behalf of the Chinese people.

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About the Author
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).