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Freedom and human rights heat increases on China

August 15, 2008

Forget Michael Phelps versus Mark Spitz or the showdown between Tyson Gay, Asafa Powell and Usain Bolt in the men's 100m sprint, the best sport to be found at the Olympics is Wang Wei versus the western media.

The besieged vice-president of the Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG) is coming under increasing heat at his daily press conferences as western journalists probe for stories on human rights issues and political freedom in China.

Yesterday's Q&A at times resembled a high-level fencing contest with subtle and sharp digs on both sides while at other times it was more like a heavyweight boxing bout.

Questioned by the BBC on why there had not yet been a single protest approved to take place in one of the three designated protest areas, Wang replied: "Chinese people are allowed to demonstrate but they must first apply for a permit and the application needs to be approved. That no-one has been approved to demonstrate is not a BOCOG issue."

The journalist responded by implying that this was hardly the way forward for China, to which Wang countered with a stinging: "You cannot under-estimate the wisdom of the Chinese people. You cannot come here and think you are the smartest."

Earlier he had been asked why an IOC official had refused to allow a question to a Georgian judoka about the current Russia-Georgia crisis. "Under rule 51.3 of the Olympic charter, within Olympic venues ... there is no promotion of political or religious agendas so I can see with the IOC would not encourage that question; if you start another debate it won't end happily."

Riding shotgun with Wang was IOC communications director Giselle Davies.

She too had to deal with a few curly ones, including her view on an advertisement that showed Spanish basketballers pulling back their eyelids in an age-old imitation of the Chinese facial features. "It was clearly inappropriate but the team has apologised and said no offence was intended so as far as we're concerned the matter rests there."

She found it tougher when she was asked whether the IOC was embarrassed by China's many broken promises. She danced, with surprising verbal elegance, around that one with responses about how pleased the IOC was with the sporting event that was being put on for the athletes.

"Giselle, we're not getting anywhere are we," the reporter bit back. "Everyone in the room knows you're not answering the question."

Wang then charged in with his view that the Olympics were, in fact, helping China move forward and that journalists should be reporting how China is "so different" to the picture painted  in western media.

"The people are so friendly, the people are leading a good life, everyone is happy, people are optimists. Of course there are few exceptions but we can't let the country go into chaos.

"But we welcome suggestions and advice from all people but a few people come here to pick and be critical, to dig into smaller details and find faults. That does not mean we are not keeping our promises."

After a bit more rhetoric another journo chipped in with another critique of China at which point Wang shut down the conversation with: "This is not a debate, you have your turn and I have mine."

It's fair to say, that approaching halftime the media have been hot on attack but the great defending of Wang has kept the score to a 1-all draw.

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