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

CHINA: Hu Plea Not to Politicise Beijing Olympics

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Aug 1 2008 (IPS) - A gathering storm of international criticism over China’s security crackdown and limits on free speech while hosting the Olympic games this month has prompted Chinese president and communist party chief Hu Jintao to step in with a plea not to politicise the sporting event.

President Hu Jintao with foreign journalists a week before the start of the Beijing Olympics.  Credit: Chinese Official Web Portal

President Hu Jintao with foreign journalists a week before the start of the Beijing Olympics. Credit: Chinese Official Web Portal

Speaking at a rare press conference with international media on Friday, a week before the games begin on Aug. 8, Hu also fired expectations for Olympics-induced changes by promising a slew of economic and political reforms to help realise the Chinese people’s dreams of “national renaissance”.

As a leader who has worked to promote a model of “social harmony”, Hu stroke a conciliatory note addressing mounting international criticism of China’s human rights record on issues such as Tibet, Darfur and free speech. “It is only inevitable that people from different countries and regions may not see eye-to-eye with one another on different issues,” he said.

He said politicising the games ran counter to the Olympic spirit and to the shared hopes of people across the world. “We should enter into consultations on an equal footing to narrow our differences and expand our common ground on the basis of mutual respect.’’

Bu Hu’s peace-making overtures were in contrast to Beijing’s sharp rejection of U.S. political criticism this week after the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution urging China to honour its pledge to improve human rights before the games.

Liu Jianchao, a foreign ministry spokesman, condemned the House measure as “odious conduct” and said the U.S. should stop “making use of so-called religious and human rights” issues to score political points.

Members of the U.S. House voted 419 to 1 to endorse a resolution asking China to “immediately end abuses of the human rights of its citizens, to cease repression of Tibetan and Uygur citizens, and to end its support for the governments of Sudan and Burma”. Such action would “ensure that the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games take place in an atmosphere that honours the Olympic traditions of freedom and openness”, the House statement said.

The resolution also called on U.S. president George W. Bush to make a strong public statement on China’s human rights situation during his upcoming visit to Beijing to attend the opening ceremony of the games. It came a day after Bush held talks with five prominent Chinese dissidents at the White House – Harry Wu, Wei Jingsheng, Rebiya Kadeer, Sasha Gong and Bob Fu. All of them are long-time critics of the Chinese government’s alleged human rights abuses.

Liu described the meeting as “rude interference” in the country’s internal affairs. “The arrangement of a U.S. leader to meet with them, and to make irresponsible comments on China’s human rights and religious situation, has rudely interfered with China’s internal affairs,” he said at a regular press briefing.

The angry exchanges occur as scrutiny grows over how China is treating its people and the visiting news media. As an Olympic host, Beijing has committed to a series of reforms of its tight, top-down political system to ensure openness, free speech and unfettered access to information during the games.

In 2001, when China was granted the hosting of the 2008 Olympic Games, Wang Wei, Secretary General of the Beijing Olympic Bid Committee said: “We will give the media complete freedom to report when they come to China. We are confident that the Games coming to China will not only promote our economy but also enhance all social conditions, including… human rights.”

But in the run up to the games, Beijing’s draconian security measures have muzzled up the media along with government critics. Beijing-based human rights activists have been warned not to speak with the foreign media. People seen as potential “troublemakers” during the games have been shipped out of town.

“These measures unfortunately recall those adopted by the Soviet police during the 1980 Olympics Games, when dissidents were forced to leave Moscow,” Reporters Without Borders, which monitors press freedom said in a statement on Friday.

An escalating row between Beijing games organisers and the foreign media over the country’s failure to fulfil its longstanding pledge to provide reporters with unfettered access to Internet was partly defused Friday. Some sites that had been blocked in Olympic media centres – such as that of rights group Amnesty International – became accessible.

But another Olympic pledge by Beijing, to allow protests within designated demonstration zones in the city, remains under scrutiny after several attempts by petitioners to obtain permission this week were blocked.

Chinese citizens have a legal right to protest, but they must first apply for permission from their local Public Security Bureau. Such requests are rarely granted and when protests occur they are almost never officially sanctioned. Human rights activists have expressed concerns that such protest zones would be merely a public relations ploy with no real function.

Reports in the Hong Kong media said attempts by property owners in the eastern city of Suzhou to apply for a permission to protest over a land dispute were foiled in Beijing and petitioners were made to go back.

Brushing off media scepticism, President Hu promised in his address that bolder political reforms would emerge from the international spotlight on the Beijing games. Comprehensive reforms – both economic and political – would continue after the Olympics, he told foreign journalists.

“The current dream of the Chinese people is to accelerate building a modern country and realise the great renaissance of the Chinese nation,” Hu said.

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