Before Olympics, a Call for Change

After this banner was posted on the Great Wall of China, six people, including three Americans, were detained. Some groups say China has not kept promises it made to secure the 2008 Games.
After this banner was posted on the Great Wall of China, six people, including three Americans, were detained. Some groups say China has not kept promises it made to secure the 2008 Games. (Students For A Free Tibet Via Associated Press)
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 8, 2007

BEIJING, Aug. 7 -- A group of prominent Chinese dissidents and intellectuals called on the Communist Party government Tuesday to honor its human rights commitments out of respect for the Olympic spirit and next summer's Beijing Games.

The unusually blunt appeal, in an open letter to the party's top three leaders, added respected Chinese voices to a chorus of foreign complaints over human rights abuses as China begins the one-year countdown to the Olympic Games scheduled to open here Aug. 8, 2008. The letter came as government officials are striving to make the Games an international endorsement of China's swift development under Communist Party rule.

The human rights group Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based press freedom organization, issued separate reports Tuesday lengthening the list of foreign criticisms. Both charged that the Chinese government had not carried out the pledges it made in 2001 to secure the Games, including improving human rights practices and loosening restrictions on press freedom.

"Unless the Chinese authorities take urgent measures to stop human rights violations over the coming year, they risk tarnishing the image of China and the legacy of the Beijing Olympics," Amnesty warned.

"In fact, since the games were awarded, media restrictions ordered by the government and the Communist Party have grown," said Paul Steiger, chairman of the Committee to Protect Journalists, in a preface to the group's 79-page report, titled "Falling Short."

The criticisms, including two protests by foreign activists, overshadowed what officials here intended to be a cheery celebration, including ceremonies Wednesday on Beijing's Tiananmen Square, to mark the one year remaining until the Games begin. The statements tended to confirm the fears of Chinese officials that foreign-based groups could use the Olympics as a platform to promote political causes in front of the world's television cameras.

Six activists were detained Tuesday after displaying a large banner on the Great Wall calling for a "Free Tibet," according to the London-based Free Tibet Campaign. Three of the six were U.S. citizens, the group said, identified as Leslie Kaup of St. Paul, Minn., Nupur Modi of Oakland, Calif., and Duane Martinez of Sausalito, Calif. Their protest followed a Reporters Without Borders demonstration Monday in which foreigners unfurled a banner across the street from the Beijing Olympics headquarters depicting the Olympic rings as handcuffs and urging that jailed reporters be freed.

The open letter posted Tuesday on the Internet represented a different -- and perhaps more difficult -- challenge for Beijing. Signed by 40 Chinese men and women widely known for scholarly work or anti-government agitation, the appeal seemed harder to dismiss than complaints lodged by foreign groups.

Chinese of all persuasions have endorsed the choice of Beijing as a venue for the Games, happy to show off the progress here over the last 30 years. Most also have taken pride in the opportunity to see their country embraced as a normal nation by an expected flood of foreign visitors. In that light, even those who yearn for political change often have been reluctant to question the government's legitimacy as Olympic host.

The letter, organized by two longtime democracy activists, Ding Zilin and Liu Xiaobo, was addressed to President Hu Jintao, who also heads the Communist Party; Wu Bangguo, head of the National People's Congress, or legislature, who is the second-ranked party leader; and Premier Wen Jiabao, who ranks third in the party hierarchy. It said the slogan for the Beijing Olympics, "One World, One Dream," should be expanded to include "Equal Human Rights." Otherwise, it asked, "what kind of world, whose dream" are being promoted by holding the Games in Beijing?

The Chinese government has violated promises it made to secure the Olympic Games, the letter said, by jailing dissidents, pushing poor people from their homes to build stadiums and keeping censorship in place for Chinese journalists and artists.

"All this violates the Olympic spirit," the writers said. "It makes the world distrust the Chinese government and it makes the Chinese people distrust the Chinese government. So people complain more and more and the crisis grows, hurting the image even of political leaders who are close to the people."

The result is what the writers called "a crisis of rule," suggesting broad disenchantment with the party's monopoly on power. "In a situation like this, how can you indulge yourself to believe the citizens are going to have one dream?" they asked.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company