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No gold medals for human rights

By Mike Steketee, The Australian
August 21, 2008

IF great power status is determined by the gold medal tally, China has just become the greatest nation on Earth. China has advanced from 16 golds in Atlanta in 1996 to 28 in Sydney, 32 in Athens and 44 in Beijing, as of yesterday; the US has slipped from 44 in Atlanta to 39 in Sydney, 35 in Athens and 26 so far in Beijing.

(For Australian patriots, our markers of national progress are nine, 16, 17 and 11.)

There are other yardsticks, such as the total medal count, on which the US still leads - just. And the US may make up ground in the remaining days. There also is the reality that the US, militarily and economically, remains a vastly more powerful nation than China. Not to mention that the haul of Olympic medals depends significantly on the money countries are prepared to spend on elite sports, including the international expertise for sale to the highest bidder.

But China will not dwell too much on such qualifications.

Its people are bursting with pride, despite the disappointment of athlete Liu Xiang's achilles injury. It is a patriotism that strengthens the hand of the Chinese Government against both internal and external critics.

Things have not panned out as many expected when Beijing was awarded the Olympics. The argument then was that the Games would promote greater openness and democracy and the Chinese encouraged this belief. "By allowing Beijing to host the Games you will help in the development of human rights," Beijing bid committee vice-president Liu Jingmin said in 2001. "China will certainly pay more attention to human rights."

The International Olympics Committee was happy to chime in. "We are convinced that the Olympic Games will improve human rights in China," president Jacques Rogge said in 2002.

The opposite has happened. Preparation for the the Games saw China become more repressive.

Public Security Minister Zhou Yongkang said last year: "We must make efforts to create a harmonious society and a good social environment for successfully holding the 17th Communist Party Congress and the Beijing Olympic Games ... We must strike hard at hostile forces at home and abroad, such as ethnic separatists ... and heretical organisations like the Falun Gong."

The US State Department said in its annual review of human rights released in March that controls were tightened on religious freedom in Tibet and against Muslims.

As well, there were more restrictions on freedom of speech and the media, including censorship of the internet. The Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions estimates that 1.5 million people were forcibly displaced in Beijing, and not just to make way for new buildings and beautification: they included unlicensed taxi drivers, street vendors, vagrants and beggars, who were put into "re-education through labour" programs, which amount to imprisonment without charge.

Falun Gong practitioners and others regarded by the Chinese as undesirables have been banned from travelling during the Olympics and subject to restrictions such as regular reporting to police stations. UN Special Rapporteur Manfred Nowak estimated in 2006 that two-thirds of those tortured in Chinese prisons were followers of Falun Gong, the spiritual and exercise movement whose followers can be seen in Australia silently demonstrating outside Chinese embassies and consulates.

Former Canadian minister David Kilgour and human rights lawyer David Matas concluded in 2006 that thousands of Falun Gong practitioners had been killed so that their organs could be harvested and sold for transplants. The evidence is circumstantial, but many who have read the report have found it compelling, as then Opposition backbencher and now Assistant Treasurer Chris Bowen put it in 2006. "If these allegations aretrue, it would represent evil the likes of which we have not seen in the world in the last 60 years," he told federal parliament.

China so far has defied predictions that economic freedom and development lead inexorably to democracy. US Naval War College professor of Asian and Pacific studies Jonathan Pollack, who has been visiting China for 30 years, told me in Sydney this week that there was significant social ferment in China but this did not automatically represent a challenge to the Chinese Government.

"The social composition of their ruling elites is undergoing major transition," he said. "It used to be that they were all engineers in the politburo. Now you have lawyers and people from commerce and they reflect much more the cultural composition of their society. Whatever China is becoming, it is not going to be a carbon copy of American-style democracy. They are likely to find their own way on this."

Pollack takes a mainly benign view of China's rapid military build-up, even though the US Defence Department, among others, has expressed concern. A Pentagon report in March said that, in the 10 years to 2006, China's annual defence budget grew by an average of 11.8 per cent after inflation, ahead of the 9.2 per cent increase in gross domestic product.

For 2007, China announced a 19.5per cent increase in defence spending. But we need to keep this in perspective. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute calculates that the US accounted for 45 per cent of global defence spending last year, compared with 4 per cent to 5 per cent for China.

The Pentagon report quotes US intelligence estimates that it will take at least another few years before China can defeat a moderate-sized adversary, that it will not be able to project and sustain small military units far beyond China before 2015 or do the same with large forces until well into the following decade.

Pollack thinks it unlikely that China will become a military threat, pointing out that it has not gone to war for 30 years. Its economic interests also are increasingly tied up with those of the rest of the world.

Of course, circumstances change. If the US is any indication, then countries that develop powerful military forces get an urge to use them at some point. China's military power will bring with it increased influence, particularly in the region it shares with Australia.

In the meantime, it is happy to use the Olympics to advertise itself as a great power.

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