Saturday, July 7, 2007

Olympics highlight human rights in China

By JUSTIN PRITCHARD, Associated Press Writer
Fri Jul 6, 2007

Child labor. Forced abortions. Religious persecution. Jailed dissidents. Cultural cleansing in Tibet and ethnic cleansing in Africa. For China, the run-up to next summer's Olympics in Beijing is looking like a marathon through a human-rights minefield.

It's been decades since the games focused on which athletes were faster or stronger. But the Olympics have not been this politicized since the U.S.-Soviet boycotts of the 1980s.

China sees a chance to wow the world as it hosts its first event watched by billions of people. The increasingly image-conscious country will measure success both with medals and whether the 2008 Olympics burnish its rising star. That gives activists, governments and celebrities with a cause an opportunity to influence policies they've long assailed.

The games raise a difficult question for a government famously dismissive of outside pressure: What accommodations might be made without losing face?

Even China's sharpest critics don't anticipate major shifts before the games begin Aug. 8, 2008. Cosmetic changes are possible on issues such as free speech and labor conditions. Concessions on Tibetan autonomy or the Falun Gong spiritual movement are off the table.

"Everyone I've talked to about China policy is focused on the Olympics," said Michael Green, a former Bush administration Asia specialist now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Beijing knows this and I think they are trying to take minimal steps now to not have to fundamentally change their policies in 2008."

China insists its approach to free speech and other rights held sacred in the West fits its own culture. Falun Gong is a cult, Beijing says, and Tibet has long been under Chinese sway.

One issue China has budged on is Darfur, the region in Sudan where militias allegedly backed by the government have slaughtered hundreds of thousands of civilians. China is the African nation's diplomatic patron and its biggest trading partner.

After resisting calls for intervention, China dispatched a special envoy and lobbied Sudan to accept a United Nations peacekeeping force.

Observers disagree whether those moves were motivated by external pressure or self-interest, pointing out that China continues to shield the regime from U.N. economic sanctions.

In the campaign to save Darfur, Hollywood is leading the charge.

Opening ceremonies consultant Steven Spielberg urged Chinese President Hu Jintao to change Sudan policy after the director was publicly branded a collaborator by Mia Farrow. The actress and U.N. goodwill ambassador has labeled these the "genocide Olympics" and last month announced an Olympic-style torch relay through countries with histories of mass atrocities.

"Whatever their motivation is, they can, I think, be channeled to being a much more constructive actor going forward," Darfur activist John Prendergast said of the Chinese.

Prendergast, who co-authored the book "Not on Our Watch" with actor Don Cheadle, cautioned that the opportunity is limited and China would never acknowledge that it's reacting to pressure.

There are other signs that China is attuned to international opinion the same way a host worries whether guests at a housewarming get the right impression.

The past month brought two gestures. For the first time, the activist mother of a man who was killed during the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators was allowed to publicly mark the anniversary. And Olympic organizers launched a child-labor investigation after the advocacy group PlayFair 2008 reported that four official souvenir makers were using workers as young as 12.

Exposing conditions is just one tactic. Some groups have planned protests surrounding Aug. 8, the one-year mark before the opening ceremonies.

Amnesty International is considering a demonstration at the Chinese embassy in Washington. The International Campaign for Tibet plans actions at Major League Baseball Games and will formally launch a Web site focusing on the Olympics.

Chinese officials promised reforms before winning the right to host the games. The current secretary general of the Beijing organizing committee said then that he thought a Chinese Olympics could "promote" human rights. In a May interview with The Associated Press, Wang Wei said human rights were improving and dismissed the issue as "an old topic."

Other efforts to enlist the Olympics have drawn rebukes, as have calls to boycott because of Darfur. Several celebrities as well as presidential candidates in the U.S. and France have suggested withholding athletes, a drastic move that made headlines when the United States dropped out of the Moscow Olympics of 1980 and the Soviets shunned the 1984 games in Los Angeles.

"There are a handful of people who are trying to politicize the Olympic Games," Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said this spring. "This is against the spirit of the games."

It's more than a handful — it's just about everyone with a gripe against China. Most have modest goals.

Perhaps the government might abolish its system of "re-education" through labor, said T. Kumar, a Washington lobbyist for Amnesty International.

Maybe Beijing would let the Dalai Lama, the leader of Tibet's Buddhists, make a pilgrimage to holy sites in China, said Mary Beth Markey of the International Campaign for Tibet.

Several labor advocates said not to expect fundamental reforms in a country where galloping economic expansion is a priority and growth depends on a cheap, pliable work force.

Other groups don't voice specific hopes, but still see opportunity.

The Olympic rings logo and Beijing mascot offer a chance to underscore the importance of copyright protection in a country where DVD piracy is rampant, said Dan Glickman, head of the Motion Picture Association of America. The government wants to protect the logos from counterfeiters, he said, so why can't it bring that focus to movies?

"It's an opportunity," Glickman said, "for them to show how they can become legitimate members of the community of nations."

No comments: