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Breathless in Beijing

Workers having a rest in their accommodation after a day’s work on the construction site of the Beijing National Aquatics Centre, also known as The Water Cube. The centre is being built in the Olympic Green for the 2008 Olympic Games.


The news was met with spontaneous jubilation. The streets of Beijing came alive on a scale that had not been seen since the democracy protests of 1989. The trigger was the International Olympic Committee’s 2001 decision to host the 2008 Games in the capital.

But controversy was not far behind. People soon began to ask how the Olympic movement could choose as its host a one-party state which every year executes more people than the rest of the world combined. The answer was unequivocal. ‘We are convinced that the Olympic Games will improve the human rights record [of China],’ said Jacques Rogge, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) President. This August he will be hoping his words do not come back to haunt him.

China’s emergence as a world power has been extraordinary. Since embracing economic reforms in 1980 the country has had the highest sustained rate of economic growth in the world. This has been matched by some equally remarkable social achievements. China has lifted over 200 million of its people out of poverty, accounting for three-quarters of global poverty reduction. A younger generation, now keen consumers with an eye for daring fashions, lines the shopping districts of the biggest cities, redefining a culture that until recently was marked by austere uniformity.

Extreme capitalism

But the embrace of extreme capitalism has its downside. While China Inc now reportedly boasts 345,000 US-dollar-millionaires and 108 billionaires, the muscle behind its growth is an underclass of impoverished labourers leaving the countryside in their millions for urban areas, where they are denied access to social services, rarely given labour contracts and paid very little, if at all.

Between now and 2015, half of the world’s construction will take place in China; a fact that makes scenes of slave labourers in Chinese brick factories all the more terrible. Farmland is being rapidly encroached by cities and deserts. Environmental accidents are frequent; a serious water pollution incident occurs once every two or three days. Sixteen of the world’s twenty most polluted cities are in China. Rising demand for fuel has helped to rank the country’s coal industry as the deadliest in the world. Official figures state that in the first 10 months of 2007 alone, accidents killed over 3,000 miners.

Social discontent is acute outside the big cities, where the rural poor are disenfranchised by corrupt local governments, over which Beijing has little sway. Cases of popular unrest – known as ‘mass incidents’ – were said to number 74,000 in 2004, an average of 200 a day. Some commentators put it more bluntly. ‘China is sitting on a powder keg,’ says Phelim Kine, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch.

‘The Beijing Olympics offer the Chinese Government an unparalleled opportunity to demonstrate that its rising diplomatic and economic power is being matched with developments in greater tolerance for human rights and movements towards democracy,’ he adds. ‘To date, the initial promise... has been rather badly betrayed.’

One such promise was made in 2006 when the Government – the world’s biggest jailer of journalists – agreed that from 1 January 2007 to 17 September 2008 (the end of the Paralympics) foreign journalists would have an unprecedented degree of freedom. The 30,000 foreign reporters who are expected to visit China during the Olympics would no longer need advance permission for interviews or visits away from the capital.

Security in English

But then the security agencies quietly published Olympic Security English, a phrasebook for police officers to use during the Games. In a practice dialogue called ‘How to Stop Illegal News Coverage’, an officer confronts a foreign reporter covering a story about the outlawed spiritual movement Falun Gong. The officer tells the journalist his report is ‘beyond the limit of your coverage and illegal’.

‘The IOC has been extremely vocal about the toxic pall that covers Beijing, but they have nothing to say about this’

Events then take a more sinister turn.

‘May I go now?’ asks the reporter.

‘No. Come with us,’ the officer replies.

‘What for?’

‘To clear up this matter.’

On 6 August 2007 more than a dozen foreign journalists reporting on a demonstration calling for greater press freedom were held by Beijing police for up to two hours.

‘The scenario put forward by the IOC and the Chinese Government was that, buoyed by Olympic ideals, China would grow away from government control of the flow of information,’ Bob Dietz, Asia programme co-ordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists, recently observed. Critics say the situation has actually worsened.

In June 2006 Fu Xiancai, an opponent of China’s Three Gorges dam project, was left paralysed after a beating by unknown assailants. He had granted an interview to German television. According to advocacy group Human Rights in China, Fu had been repeatedly warned by police and local officials that he would be severely punished for talking to the foreign press.

Many now fear the officer in Olympic Security English may be all too realistic an indication of what people can expect. But the IOC does not yet seem concerned. ‘The IOC’s response to violations of this key Olympic pledge has been deafening silence,’ says Kine. ‘The IOC has been extremely vocal about the toxic pall that covers Beijing, but they have nothing to say about this.’

Clearing up

That fictional police officer did have at least one thing right – Beijing is set on ‘clearing up’. ‘There is an urban renewal taking place that is sterilizing the city of any potential source of unrest,’ says Kine.

The Communist Party has held a monopoly of power since the 1949 revolution. Its 17th National Congress – a key conference that meets every five years or so – gathered in Beijing in October 2007. Liu Jingmin, Executive Vice-President of the Olympics Organizing Committee, said at the time: ‘I believe that the preparations for the Olympics have tremendously boosted the development of human rights in China.’

Even as he spoke, police in Beijing were busy ‘clearing up’ after the demolition of a ‘village’ of rural citizens looking for redress – over 12,000 petitioners had reportedly signed an open letter calling for political reform. Petitioning is a centuries-old practice in China. Citizens – mostly poor rural residents – travel to Beijing to lodge complaints about official misdeeds. Since graft has become something of a national sport for local officials, petitioners could in theory provide a much-needed independent review of local government workings.

The clear-up came in the wake of the letter, as part of an unusually harsh crackdown. Says Kine: ‘We’re concerned that this is the template for how the Chinese Government is going to approach handling the dissenters, dissidents, petitioners and journalists who refuse to toe the Party line.’

‘Any group or individual who stages a gathering, parade or demonstration during the Beijing Olympic Games period must respect Chinese law,’ Public Security Ministry press officer Wu Heping is reported as saying in November. The catch is that protesting legally rests on being granted approval, which in practice is only given to government-supported protests, such as the anti-Japanese rallies of 2005.

This summer the world will see if Beijing’s strategy works. For Phelim Kine, a repressive approach will bring greater problems. ‘They are only adding to the pressures, to the stresses and strains on a system which cannot continue for the long term,’ he says. ‘China has got to address these human rights issues or its hard-fought economic growth and stability, which has lifted millions out of poverty, will all be for nought.’

*Sam Geall* is a journalist and China expert based in London.

New Internationalist issue 408 magazine cover This article is from the January-February 2008 issue of New Internationalist.
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