In six months time, China will be hosting the Beijing Olympics. Regretfully, these Olympics are not likely to only be about excellence in sportsmanship and the coming together of all nations in a spirit of good will.
The Olympics will be also about China’s world status and politics. In fact, the Chinese Communist authorities hope that the Olympics will showcase her economic achievements and consolidate China’s status as a world super power. To this extent, massive amounts of money have been spent and will continue to be spent to create a vision of Beijing as a city of harmony and social peace.
Looking back, Nazi authorities held the same hopes for the 1936 Berlin Olympics which they saw as an occasion to showcase the so-called German economic miracle and to assert Germany’s world power status. And let us not forget that in 1936, Nazi dictatorship was already well established, with political executions without trial, censorship of the media, abolition of the freedom of association and the racist Nurnberg Laws of September 1935 taking away all civil liberties from Jews. Despite this, the Western democracies decided to overlook these developments in the name of unity of Olympic spirit.
Olympics and the Politics
People who mention human rights in context of the Olympics are often accused of mixing politics with sport. So what is the legitimacy of this linkage being made in case of 2008 Beijing Olympics?
To start with, China, in lobbying the IOC to host the Olympic Games, had argued over the years, that it had become modern global society and that the human rights situation of its citizens had markedly improvement.
The world was told “trust us” - the abuses of the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square massacre were a thing of the past -- to be banished to the annals of history.
We were told that the Constitution of the People's Republic of China included freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to a fair trial, freedom of religion, universal suffrage and property rights and that the authorities were doing everything in their power to implement these fundamental rights. China also went on record when making the bid promising that the Beijing games will be the ”greenest” Olympics ever.
We were further told that the Chinese Communist Government would use the Beijing Olympics to advance the human rights of its people. The Seoul Olympics were often quoted as an example to be followed as they contributed to democratisation of South Korea.
Then, when China was granted the right to host the Olympics, the government again reaffirmed its promise to live up to the Olympic spirit and uphold human rights.
In fact however, the major complaint made by Amnesty International and other watchdog groups is that China has failed to keep the promise they made in 2001 when Beijing was a finalist for the games in regards to improving their human rights record
Since then however, China's record on human rights has continued to cloud its Olympic preparations. International human rights groups, celebrities and politicians question if any major improvements have in fact been made to Beijing’s human rights record and some activist groups have even asked for countries to actively boycott the Games.
There are also those of us who believe -- or hope -- that such improvements, as promised to us, are still possible. According to USA Today of 9 February 2008 a US State Department spokesman, Mr Rob McInturff stated recently that "Our current position is we don't support calls for an Olympic boycott. This is an opportunity for China to step up and show the world an open and tolerant face of China ", acknowledging world concern about China's human rights record, but, at the same time challenging the government to step up to the plate and deliver on promises made.
This paper will examine briefly to what extend China is meeting its solemn assurances and promises to improve human rights. Will the 2008 Beijing Olympics adhere to Olympic spirit and advance human rights?
The Olympic spirit
Second, for centuries the Olympic spirit has been linked to human rights, civility and peace. This is expressed in the Olympic Charter which specifically prohibits any form of discrimination.
In ancient Greece, a truce was announced before and during each Olympic festival. During the truce, wars were suspended, the carrying out of death penalties was forbidden and safety of visitors travel guaranteed.
So the question that needs to be asked is: Will China honour that ancient tradition of declaring and enforcing the truce in the Olympic year 2008?
Obligations under the International Human Rights Law
And third, China has definite human rights obligations under the international human rights law.
Since the early 80’s China has actively sought to increase its participation in multilateral affairs. In fact, contemporary China had become party to a range of over 273 international treaties, of which 239 had become applicable to China only after 1979. These watershed decisions decisively showed China’s acknowledgment the universal applicability of international law. Since then, international law has even been used by Chinese authorities to modify some of its domestic standards -- in particular in economic governance through accepting membership and the rules of, for example, the International Monetary Fund or the World Trade Organisation.
Although in the Chinese record of participation in international human rights regime has been largely negative, China has managed to enter a range of human rights obligations in international law.
As early as 1947 China was a member of a Drafting Committee of UN Commission on Human Rights developing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). This declaration adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948 has established a list of “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations” which, until today, constitutes the listing of most basic human rights standards for all.
In fact, according to Eide and Alfredsson book on The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A Common Standard of Achievement, published by Martinus Nijhoff Publishers in1999: The performance of governments, and even their legitimacy, is being measured against the standards of the UDHR. No government can afford to ignore these standards, and all governments are bound to feel their impact at home and in external relations.
Allow me now to quote here few principles from this Declaration:
Article 2. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
Article 18. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion…. this includes freedom to manifest religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
Although, following the adoption of the UN resolution2758 (XXVI) of 25 October 1971 that admitted the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations, China stated that “ with regard to the multilateral treaties signed, ratified or acceded to by the defunct Chinese government before the establishment of the Government of the People’s Republic of China, (the PRC) Government will examine their contents before making a decision in the light of the circumstances as to whether or not they should be recognised.”, it needs to be noted that this qualification did of course not apply to the Universal Declaration, because it was adopted prior to of the PR of China on 1 October 1949.
However, subsequent to this note China has signed and ratified most of the principal international human rights treaties including:
Regarding the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights adopted by the UN General Assembly on 16 December 1966 and China had signed in 1998 but it is yet to ratify it.
In addition, China plays an important and active role in the UN human rights structures and, for example, continues to serve on the UN Commission on Human Rights as well as currently playing a very active role in the development of the Disability Convention.
Finally, China participates in a range of bilateral human rights arrangements such as the human rights dialogue with the European Union established in 1997 or with Australia, Canada and some other countries.
The People’s Republic entered these human rights international law obligations voluntarily and, as a result, is now subject to international accountability as to its human rights performance. Further, by ratifying these conventions it has ceded part of its sovereignty and its human rights performance has became a legitimate subject of international scrutiny.
The current Human Rights Situation in China
The above three reasons gives us the right to ask the Chinese authorities about how these international human rights standards have been implemented by their government. It certainly does not constitute “interference into Chinese domestic affairs” or mixing of the politics with sport.
In order to answer the question wether China is meeting its human rights promises made to the international community, I have examined a range of documents by the Chinese and other governments (such as the recent US Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices in China), information generated by UN (for example, the 2006 report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Nowak) and by a range of international human rights NGO’s (for example, by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch) and by individual experts.
I regret to conclude that since China was granted the right to host Olympics, China’s civil and political rights record has not improved and but it has instead grown progressively worse. Furthermore, I regret to say that some human rights violations have directly resulted from China being granted the right to host the Olympics.
Below I list both the on-going human rights violations as well as the additional violations which emerged since the Olympic bid was made by China.
The on-going brutal occupation and colonisation of Tibet, that started 60 years ago and which continues to this day.
The denial of Chinese citizens of their basic civil and political liberties. For example:
There is no freedom of speech; and censorship by the Communist Party apparatus dominates every aspect of life. Censorship of political speech and information is openly and routinely used to protect what the government considers national security interests. In particular, press control is notoriously tight. In the Reporters Without Borders' Annual World Press Freedom Index of 2005, the PRC ranked 159 out of 167 places. PRC journalist He Qinglian in her 2004 book Media Control in China documents government controls on the Internet and other media in China.
Citizens are arrested and sent to jail simply because of the content of their private e-mails, sometimes courtesy of yahoo dob-ins. According to Amnesty, today, there are over 80 cyber-dissidents and journalists behind bars in China, hundreds international Web sites blocked from being accessed by citizens and sophisticated systems of filtering and monitoring political information. The situation was much better in 2001 when the games were awarded to Beijing.
Amnesty International recently reported a crackdown on journalists and human rights activists. For example, at the end of January civil rights defender and campaigner for rights of AIDS patients Hu Jia, 34, was charged with "inciting subversion of state power" – a catch-all charge frequently used against dissidents. On the same charge, Lu Gengsong, an online dissident in Zhejiang province, was sentenced to four years in prison. Other names include Liu Jie, a long-time protester of land issues in Beijing and Gao Zhisheng, an outspoken lawyer and Yang Chunlin, a factory worker arrested last July after circulating an online petition calling for “human rights not the Olympics”. And these are just a few names on a long list.
Recently the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern at the extensive use of the death penalty, including for offences that do not meet the international standard of "most serious crimes". In fact, China leads the world in capital punishment, accounting for roughly 90% of total executions in 2004.
In particular the oppression of Falun Gong practitioners which started in 1999 has all the hallmarks of genocide.
As it was well documented in a report by David Kilgour, former Canadian MP and Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and human law lawyer David Matas, Falun Gong practitioners are murdered so their corneas, hart and lungs, livers, kidneys could be stolen for sale to commercial customers.
Furthermore, the Chinese government exports its human rights abuses to other countries such as:
Darfur - where China supports a genocidal regime in Sudan and blocks the UN Security Council resolutions aiming at peace. Furthermore, it provides effective financial and diplomatic protection of the first genocide of 21 century in exchange for access to Sudanese oil. In fact, China continues to be a key arms supplier to Sudan. According to Amnesty International, in 2005, China sold $83 million worth in weapons to Sudan providing it with bomber aircrafts, helicopter gunships and other weapons used in the recent proxy invasion of Chad.
To sum up, Chinese authorities are clearly breaching international human rights standards. At present they perpetuate double genocide – one domestically against its own Falun Gong practitioners and the other by proxy in Darfur. This is happening in addition to well documented and on-going systemic abuse of civil and political liberties of Chinese people.
The PRC government usually responds to the criticisms such as above by arguing that the notion of human rights should factor in standards of living; rise in the standard of living for some Chinese is seen as an indicator of improvement in human rights. I agree with the Chinese authorities’ statement that progress has been made in securing economic rights of some Chinese. I am however of the view, that we cannot overlook the Chinese officials blatant disregard of basic political and civil rights.
Furthermore, the exclusion of Falung Gong practitioners, independence for Tibet supporters and other categories of people by Chinese authorities from participation in the Olympics is in clear breach of the non-discrimination clause of the Olympic Charter
Public Concern about China’s Human Rights Abuses
There is growing world-wide concern about continuing human rights abuse in China.
This concern is not always reflected by our democratically elected governments as tend to give higher priority to pragmatic economic objectives and are afraid of retaliation. In fact, in many countries it is politically correct to discuss political independence of Kosovo, but not that of Taiwan or Tibet. To put it simply, this political correctness is best explained by a massive difference in power between Serbia and the People’s Republic of China.
There is, however, growing people’s movement focussing on the human rights in China. China is no longer regarded by some as a dream state of social justice, equality and people’s power. Today’s China is rather seen as a major world economy run by an autocratic government and many regard the human rights situation in China as a legitimate subject of conversation.
And this public awareness has helped us to build coalitions of people of good will with similar interests who are not afraid of intimidation by Chinese authorities. And here I am talking of emerging world people’s power movement that is able to articulate its demands for improvement and starts to impact on public opinion around the world and on China itself.
The World Organisation to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong Practitioners emerged as a grass root movement aiming to stop a campaign of abuse and murder inflicted on Falun Gong practitioners by Chinese authorities. This organisation relies on people power and has undertaken many pioneering initiatives. It recently organised the first ever Olympic Human Rights Torch Relay which visited many countries including Australia. This has created new tradition and informed the public about the fate of Falun Gong practitioners in China around the world.
There are also many other non-government organisations around the world which take direct action to improve human rights in China.
For example, the New York-based campaign Olympic Dream for Darfur has staged Olympic-style torch relays to bring attention to China's role in Darfur. Campaign director Jill Savitt says the relays have gone through countries affected by genocide: the Chad-Darfur region, Rwanda, Armenia, Germany and Cambodia. She says there are plans for protests in other cities, including San Francisco, as the Olympic torch travels from Athens to Beijing in March.
Recently Stephen Spielberg withdrew as artistic adviser to the 2008 Olympic Games because of China doing nothing to end Sudan’s attacks in the Darfur region.
On 11 February 2008 a London paper The Evening Standard reported that after “a storm of protest” the British Olympic Association agreed to look again at the wording of the contract handed out to all prospective competitors. The contracts banned the UK competitors at Beijing Olympics from commenting on "politically sensitive issues", that is China’s human rights record. The move also conjured up the spectre of 1938, when the England football team was told to make Nazi salutes in the Berlin Olympic stadium before playing Germany. May I add here, for the record, that America, Canada and Australia are explicitly saying that their athletes can say what they want when they go to Beijing
Last but not least, people power is starting to develop in China. The official Chinese statistics indicate enormous growth in citizens’ protests since 1999 – there were 2007 public protests (some with violence) in 2007; according to unofficial calculations the number was closer to 130,000 protests in 2007. There are also mass desertions from the Communist Party. Recently, for example, despite enormous personal risk some 60 intellectuals have signed a public petition calling for immediate release of human rights advocate Hu Juanita was also reported that a large number of Chinese bloggers have taken Mr Hu’s cause demanding his immediate release.
The recent sending of the Human Rights Torch Rely to mainland China will add to development of peoples’ power where it counts the most.
The Way Forward
The 2008 Beijing Olympics provide a historic occasion to positively impact on human rights situation in China. In fact, we have a unique window of opportunity until the Olympics to improve the human rights for one third of the world’s population. And let us be clear. The boycott of the Beijing Olympics is not an aim itself. Improvement in human rights in China is the objective.
As Edmond Burke, an English philosopher once said “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” And our action can achieve much.
And there are some signs that Chinese officials are starting to respond to political pressure. For example, as reported by David Kilgour, the Chinese Medical Association recently agreed that “organ tourists” will no longer be eligible to obtain transplants in China.
Weeks ago, China released two journalist prisoners, Yu Huafeng, a senior editor of the Southern Metropolis Daily and Ching Cheong, a Hong Kong reporter for the Straits Times of Singapore, after having served half of a five-year sentence.
Remember not that long ago peoples’ power crumbled the Berlin wall and brought an end to the Soviet empire. People’s power abolished apartheid in South Africa. Looking further back it took Christians about 300 years to stop prosecution by the Roman Empire and declare it to be state official religion.
But let us be realistic. In my view it is impossible to have the Chinese political system fully reformed to embrace democracy and to comply with international human rights within the next few months. So, what are the minimum demands to be complied with by Chinese authorities prior to the 2008 Olympics?
I like to put forward the following four demands which are realistic and achievable within the next six months, namely:
The cessation of the prosecution of Falun Gong practitioners and the release of all practitioners from prisons and labour camps.
The withdrawal of economic and political support for the Sudanese regime and cooperation with the UN to end the Darfur genocide.
The granting of amnesty to all political prisoners and the release of all political prisoners from prisons. And last but not least:
Put a moratorium on the death penalty in 2008 to comply with the ancient Olympic tradition and international human rights standards.
And let’s remember – this is doable, because they only depend on executive decisions of Chinese officials, It requires only a simple administrative decision by the same people who are responsible for running the Olympics.
And this is an important point to remember. The same Chinese officials are responsible for both the current deterioration of human rights in China and for running of the 2008 Olympics.
Full democratisation of China and in particular better protection of civil and political rights will take longer to deliver. How long? It is difficult to be precise in estimation. But the fact is that 1980 Moscow Olympics did not save the Soviet Union. It collapsed ten years later in 1990. The Nazi regime only lasted 9 years following the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
But many Chinese believe that democratisation of China is inevitable. One academic quoted to me an old saying when referring to the future of Communist system in China – “regardless weather you are a slim or fat pig, your destiny is to be slaughtered”.
Let us however aim that the Beijing Olympic slogan “One world, one dream” reads as Chinese dissidents suggested: “One world, one dream -- same human rights”. The best long term legacy of 2008 Beijing Olympics should be not only new world records in different sporting disciplines, but also a lasting improvement in human rights of Chinese citizens.