Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Human Rights

CHINA: Pledges on Rights, Environment Unmet – Critics

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Jul 28 2008 (IPS) - The party is all set. Firework fountains of red peonies and yellow dragons are ready to light up the skies for China’s biggest revelry ever.

But ten days before the Summer Olympic games open in Beijing, the host country is still engaged in a fight with international critics over its fulfilment of Olympic pledges on human rights and environment it made back in 2001.

Critics charge that a broad security clampdown initiated in the name of safeguarding the Olympic games has smothered a vast array of groups daring to challenge the government on human rights and corruption. They say that the environmental cleanup of the capital has failed to meet standards expected of an Olympic host city and Beijing’s pollution still presents a palpable danger for athletes competing in the games.

On Monday Amnesty International accused the Chinese authorities of breaking their promises to improve the country’s human rights and betraying the core values of the Olympics. In a new report published Tuesday to mark 10 days countdown to the games, the international campaign group says human rights have deteriorated rather than improved in the run up to the Olympics.

“By continuing to persecute and punish those who speak out for human rights, the Chinese authorities have lost sight of the promises they made when they were granted the Games seven years ago,” said Roseann Rife, Asia Pacific deputy director at Amnesty International at a press conference in Hong Kong.

Almost simultaneously, Greenpeace, the environmental lobby group, launched its assessment of Beijing’s environmental performance for the games, listing a long array of missed opportunities for the host city and voicing concerns over the impact of lingering pollution on competing athletes.

“Despite all the efforts of the government, Beijing’s air quality today is probably not yet up to what the world is expecting of an Olympic host city,” said Lo Sze-ping, campaign director of Greenpeace China at a press conference in Beijing.

The launch of Greenpeace report, entitled “China after the Olympics: Lessons from Beijing”, came as the capital remained shrouded in heavy smog that rendered objects within ten metres range murky.

Beijing has been struggling against its reputation as a grey Olympic capital. The authorities introduced draconian measures a week ago forcing the city’s 3.3 million cars to run on alternating days based on even- and odd-numbered licence plates. All construction in downtown areas was ordered to halt and more than 150 high-polluting earth and cement works were shut for two months.

The cleanup campaign has affected areas as far away as the coastal city of Tianjin where the Olympic football qualifiers will be held, and Tangshan, a heavy industrial base northeast of Beijing. Nearly 350 factories have been ordered to shut down in the two cities.

But after the drastic steps allowed for initial breath of clean air, pollution built up again, aided by humidity and sultry heat. On the weekend, the air in the capital was “unhealthy for sensitive groups”, according to Beijing’s environmental protection bureau. The air pollution index (API) was between 103 and 124, or above 100 – the national standard for good air quality. China’s national benchmarks are less stringent that those considered “safe” by the World Health Organisation.

“Despite the series of long and short-term plans by Beijing, air pollution remains one of the toughest challenges for the city,” Lo Sze-ping said. He pointed at capital’s unshakable pollution over the last week as an example of the country’s “failed growth model”.

“This shows China’s growth model of ‘develop first and clean up later’ is wrong and should be dropped as soon as possible. It is easy to pollute but much harder to clean up the damage.”

Beijing Olympic organisers have defended their record, saying all Olympic pledges made by the host city have been met. Du Shaozhong, the city’s environmental protection bureau director, told reporters Sunday that air quality conditions were 20 percent better than during the equivalent period last year.

“If the city landscape appears murky, it doesn’t mean that the air quality is bad,” he said.

The organisers pledged even more draconian steps to ensure that Beijing stands by its promise to hold “green Olympics”. A contingency green plan that may see only 10 percent of the city’s private cars on the roads and more factories closures in northern China is in the works.

“We will implement an emergency plan 48 hours in advance if the air quality deteriorates during the Aug 8-24 Games,” the China Daily quoted Li Xin of the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau as saying.

On the human rights front, Olympic organisers have been far less accommodating to international demands. When China won the right to host the games in 2001, it promised to enhance all social conditions, including human rights.

But citing security threats, the government has cracked down on a broad range of people which it perceives as potential Olympic troublemakers – Tibetan separatists, supporters of the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong, groups fighting to end Chinese rule in the Muslim province of Xinjiang and disgruntled peasants and workers.

Amnesty’s report said the Chinese authorities have extended the use of punitive administrative detention – including “re-education through labour” and “enforced drug rehabilitation” – to “clean up” Beijing before the start of the Olympics and ensure activists stay out of sight during the Games.

Officials in charge of Olympics security have denied they are rounding up peaceful critics, saying the country faced serious security threats given the scope and audacity of global terrorism.

“We are concerned a positive legacy from the Beijing games is in danger if urgent measures are not taken,” Amnesty’s Roseann Rife said.

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