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Q&A: Will Olympics Break China's Human Rights Paralysis?

Interview with Minky Worden, media director of Human Rights Watch

NEW YORK, Jul 7 2008 (IPS) - Barely a month before the opening ceremony of the 29th Olympics in China, it remains uncertain whether the Chinese government will respect basic human rights and press freedom during the Games.

Minky Worden Credit: Human Rights Watch

Minky Worden Credit: Human Rights Watch

To secure the 2008 Summer Games, Beijing committed to major reforms, such as allowing international reporters unfettered access throughout the country. In July 2001, in his final presentation to win the bid for the Olympic Games at the Moscow vote, Beijing Mayor and Bidding Committee President Liu Qi boasted that the Beijing Games would "benefit the further development of our human rights cause".

In an interview with IPS correspondent Omid Memarian, Minky Worden, the editor of "China's Great Leap: The Beijing Games and Olympian Human Rights Challenges" (Seven Stories Press) and media director at the New York-based Human Rights Watch, pointed out that although most of the world thinks of the Olympics in the context of athletics, inside China, the Games serve a principally political role for the government: to boost its legitimacy and standing at home and abroad.

The title of the book, "China's Great Leap", refers to China's potential progress but is also a reminder of Mao Zedong's "Great Leap Forward" policy in the late 1950s.

"The year 2008 is also the 30th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping's reforms and opening policy which transformed the country by allowing economic freedoms – but not allowing political freedom or basically human rights," Worden told IPS. "So you could say that the next leap forward for China needs to be in the area of press freedom, the rule of law and basic human rights."

Excerpts from the interview follow.

IPS: In this context, should world leaders boycott the opening ceremony?

MW: Human Rights Watch does not back a boycott of the Games, which are very important to the Chinese people, but we have asked foreign leaders to condition their attendance at the highly political opening ceremony on specific human rights improvement. The Chinese government has invited more than a hundred heads of state and Beijing is eager to obtain a stamp of approval from global leaders, including President [George W.] Bush who has said that he will attend the Games as "a sports fan".

IPS: How is it possible for the president of the United States to attend in a personal capacity?

MW: This poses a fundamental problem, because President Bush is the elected leader of a country that claims to put human rights at the centrepiece of its foreign policy. Yet the Chinese government has failed to honour most of its pledges on improving human rights, and indeed human rights conditions have deteriorated in China as a direct result of the Olympics. At a minimum, President Bush has an obligation to seek the release from prison of courageous human rights advocates such as Hu Jia, who took Beijing at its word that human rights would improve because of the Games.

IPS: Chinese government officials have committed to pursue a reform plan in different areas. To what extent have they kept their promises?

MW: There have been some efforts in the area of media freedom. In 2001, Wang Wei, who was the vice president of the Beijing Committee said, "We will give the media complete freedom to report when they come to China." The Chinese government partly followed up on this pledge and lifted some restrictions on the reporting by foreign journalists. Yet this loosening of restrictions didn't affect Chinese journalists, thereby creating a discriminatory two-tier system where western journalists have much more freedom than Chinese journalists. The other problem is that the regulations have simply not been enforced. Journalists are still harassed or detained, and ordinary Chinese people who are interviewed face risks. Furthermore, six weeks before the Games begin, many journalists are reporting to us that their visas are not coming through and they are not getting their satellite hookups and other coverage essentials.

IPS: Is this a matter of mismanagement, or an organised and conscious decision?

MW: It's a matter of the right decisions not being made in Beijing, so you could say that it's a form of political paralysis. That's a big problem because an estimated 25,000 journalists are going to China to cover the Games. Many are sports journalists who've covered six, eight, and even 10 Olympics, and they know the way the system works and they know it's not working in China. Sports reporters in particular know that by one month before the Games, they are supposed to have had all of their clearances and arrangements in place. Look for this set of reporters to be very tough on the Chinese government when they don't get what they were promised.

IPS: How many human rights violations against journalists have occurred in the run-up to the Olympics?

MW: The Foreign Correspondent Club in China put out a "working conditions survey" in January. That said that they believe close to 200 incidents of physical violence, harassment, and detention occurred in 2007 alone, and that's after the new laws on reporting were in force.

IPS: Is there a possibility that during the Games, the number of riots and protests against the Chinese government will increase?

MW: These Games are turning into a major public test of how able the Chinese government is to follow its own voluntary pledges. One key area to watch is protests. The Olympics are the ultimate predictable event, and many groups and individuals have been planning to protest since 2001. The question is, how will the Chinese government handle the protests? Will they allow greater freedom for the absolutely inevitable protests and allow journalists to cover them, or will they crack down on the protestors and pull the plug on the cameras? That's the big open question. One month before the Games we don't know the answer.

IPS: Both the Mexican and South Korean governments cracked down on critics during the Mexico City Olympics in 1964, and the Seoul Olympics in 1988. Is there any concern that history will repeat itself in China?

MW: Yes. There are tens of thousands of documented protests in China every year, according to the Chinese government's own numbers. Many protests are directed against corrupt local party officials acting above the rule of law. Other protests have to do with environmental disasters or catastrophes that affect entire villages, or with topics such as forced evictions. Although there have been some improvements in China's legal system, lawyers taking these cases often get beaten up and many such cases never even get heard. When legal avenues are closed, protests will result.

IPS: Could the Olympics have a positive impact on political change in China similar to South Korea in 1988?

MW: China is at a different level of political development than South Korea, but there is some reason to hope that international pressure for Beijing to honour its human rights pledges – if there is any – combined with pre-existing domestic pressures to reform, could result in and more space for civil society to operate and truly lasting human rights improvements in China.

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