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China dragging feet on human rights before Olympics: Report

July 9, 2008

Aileen McCabe, Asia Correspondent
CanWest News Service (Canada)
July 7, 2008

The Beijing Olympics will not on its own solve issues surrounding
China's human rights record but it can serve as a catalyst to
constructive dialogue, according to Olympics chief Jacques Rogge, as
China prepares to mark the one-year milestone to the Beijing 2008
Olympic Games.

SHANGHAI - With just one month to go before the opening ceremony, it
is increasingly obvious worldwide efforts to use the Beijing Olympics
to hold China's feet to the fire on human rights have floundered.

A 71-page report outlining violations of press freedom in China
released Monday by Human Rights Watch is the latest indication that
hosting the Games was not enough of a lever to convince the Beijing
government to improve its sad rights record.

Proponents and critics of the Beijing Games agreed on one thing -
that fewer restrictions for international media and scrutiny of China
at this time would constitute progress, Sophie Richardson, HRW's Asia
advocacy director said.

Yet the Chinese government, with the help of the International
Olympic Committee, has done its best to impede progress. Talk of an
Olympic boycott to pressure Beijing on rights never gathered wide
support, but it fizzled totally last week when U.S. President George
W. Bush said he would attend the opening ceremony on Aug. 8.

Following his announcement, French media reported President Nicolas
Sarkozy, who has hemmed-and-hawed about boycotting, would also
attend. Sarkozy's office did not deny the story and a disappointed
Robert Menard, head of Reporters Without Borders, said in a
television interview on the weekend: "This is a stab in the back of
Chinese dissidents. This is truly cowardly and is the opposite of
what one expects from France."

Hordes of world leaders, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, are
not going to the opening ceremony. But like Harper, most have taken
some pains to make it clear their absence is not a boycott.

Over the past year, Beijing has made a few concessions to human
rights concerns, almost certainly because it is hosting the Olympics.

When Hollywood director Steven Spielberg withdrew as a consultant to
the opening ceremony to protest China's involvement in Darfur, China
made some effort to bolster international attempts to rein in the
rogue government.

And, this spring, after protests over the crackdown in Tibet reached
a crescendo worldwide that threatened to affect the Games, China
re-opened talks with representatives of the Dalai Lama.

But, as in the case of media freedom, which was the sole "rights"
guarantee China actually gave the International Olympics Committee
(IOC) when it was awarded the Games, progress on those files is
spotty, at best.

The HRW report documents dozens of cases where the Chinese have
harassed, intimidated and impeded foreign journalists in direct
violation of its promise to allow free access nationwide to foreign
reporters in the run-up to the Games.

The most egregious example is the closure of Tibet to foreign
journalists following the violent protests in March, but HRW cites
case after case where reporters working on environmental, health or
industrial stories were also hassled, roughed-up or detained by
security officials. It lists incidents where they were simply talking
to disgruntled citizens and their notes or pictures were confiscated
and their sources intimidated. In many, if not all of these cases,
the reporters appealed to Beijing to live up to the guarantees it
gave the IOC, but they were ignored.

"While some correspondents have noted improvements brought about by
the new regulations, the majority say the regulations have done
little to enable them to report on issues that government officials
are determined to conceal," HRW said. "Those include high-level
corruption, ethnic conflicts, social unrest, public health crises and
the working of China's large detention system, including prisons,
labour camps, mental institutions and police stations."

Despite the shortcomings, the rights watchdog appealed to the
international community to convince Beijing to extend the media
"freedom" beyond the Olympics.

"It's in the interest of the IOC and the foreign heads of state who
will attend the Beijing Olympics to try to ensure that media freedom
is a lasting legacy of the Games rather than a broken promise,"
Richardson said.
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