One Year Out From Olympics, A Test of Openness in Beijing

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By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 7, 2007

BEIJING, Aug. 7 -- China's Olympic organizers said Monday that they will not allow the 2008 Beijing Games to be turned into a sounding board for foreigners with a political agenda. But even as they spoke, foreign demonstrators demanded the release of political prisoners and unfurled a banner depicting the five Olympic rings as handcuffs.

The protest, staged by the international press freedom advocacy group Reporters Without Borders, was a rare open expression of anti-government sentiment in the heart of the capital. Although it involved only a handful of people, it dramatized official concerns here that protests could cast a pall over what the country's political leaders intend to be a joyful coming-out party for modern China and its Communist Party government.

The warning Monday and the brief protest were both timed to the start of an elaborate one-year countdown of ceremony and civic events, scheduled to end with the Games' opening ceremonies on Aug. 8, 2008.

In recent days, international human rights groups have accused the government here of reneging on promises of press freedom and other rights that it made to gain the International Olympic Committee's approval to host the Games.

Reporters Without Borders' secretary general, Robert Ménard, said during Monday's demonstration that the group fears there has been little change in China's attitude toward access to the Internet, free expression in print and broadcast media and imprisonment of dissident journalists.

"It is the Chinese government that has taken hostage the Olympic Games, because it does not respect its own commitments," Ménard told the Reuters news agency at the protest across the street from the Beijing Organizing Committee's headquarters.

Some U.S. and European entertainment and political figures have also called for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics unless China brings more pressure on Sudan to resolve the conflict in its western region of Darfur. China is Sudan's largest oil customer and has provided weapons to the Khartoum government.

Closer to home, Chinese officials have expressed worry that anti-government groups such as separatists in Tibet and Xinjiang province or the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement could use the international focus on China during the Olympics to promote their causes. This would be particularly difficult to handle, analysts said, in the case of sympathizers holding foreign passports who arrive during the Games to stage demonstrations like the one held Monday.

Jiang Xiaoyu, one of the organizing committee's executive vice presidents, told reporters Monday that China welcomes intense foreign news coverage, including criticism, before and during the Olympic Games. But he added that Beijing organizers will not accept attempts by rights groups and others to inject into the mix political agendas unrelated to the competition.

"We are absolutely opposed to politicization of the Olympics," Jiang said. "This is against the Olympic spirit and against the Olympic charter."

The Foreign Ministry issued new regulations beginning Jan. 1 that say foreign reporters have the right to report without interference by authorities. But despite the new rules and Jiang's pledge of openness, Beijing police forced several foreign reporters who were covering the Reporters Without Borders protest to remain at the site for more than an hour. Some were pushed and shoved, they reported, before being released without explanation.

The protesters were escorted by police to Beijing's international airport Tuesday morning for a previously scheduled flight out of the country, the group reported.


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