By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 29, 2008
Human rights advocates have dismissed as a ploy China's offer this week to renew talks on the issue with the Bush administration before the Beijing Olympics in August.
In a visit to Beijing this week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice welcomed Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi's offer to revive the long-stalled dialogue, saying that human rights were "near and dear" to the United States.
A day later, activists from some of the world's leading human rights organizations testified before the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, a panel set up in 2000 to monitor that country's progress on human rights, the rule of law and press freedoms.
China had pledged in 2001, when it was awarded the right to host the Games, that it would improve its record on those issues.
In their testimony Wednesday, however, the human rights advocates said the Chinese government was continuing to crack down on political dissent by jailing activists and harassing the news media.
Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, told the congressional panel that China was not honoring its pledge to the International Olympic Committee.
"Some abuses are taking place because of the Games," she said, calling the Chinese offer to resume human rights talks with the Bush administration a "cynical gesture."
In Wednesday's hearing, Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.), the commission's chairman, noted that China had committed in its Olympic bid to improve its human rights record, environmental regulation and access for the foreign news media covering the Games.
The panel's co-chairman, Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), said the aim of the hearing was "to hold up a mirror" to find out if those pledges were being respected. The commission comprises nine U.S. senators, nine House members and three Bush administration officials. It was created in October 2000 after Congress granted China permanent normal trade relations.
Speaking about trade and the environment, Dorgan said, "China will be a significant part of our future for good or ill."
The arrest in December of prominent democracy advocate Hu Jia, who has spoken out on pollution and the treatment of AIDS patients, was raised repeatedly in testimony. Hu's wife and two-month-old baby have been placed under house arrest. Human rights advocates say Hu's apparent crime was his address to the European Parliament last year, in which he pressed for more civil rights in China in light of the Olympic Games.
Rice lobbied Chinese officials for his release during her visit to Beijing.
Robin Munro, research director of the China Labour Bulletin, said China's official record makes a "mockery of promises made" and warned that the crackdown on dissenters might "become the new normal" once the Games are over. While China still bans independent workers' unions, there is an emerging grass-roots movement to create the social space to fight for rights, he added.
The plight of 1 million migrant workers, many toiling at Olympic sites for $5 a day with no vacations or health care, was a major concern of several of those who testified.
The human rights advocates said laborers are working 10 hours a day to build state-of-the-art stadiums with no assurance they will be paid and no recourse to pursue claims if they are injured or sickened on the job.
"China is at a special, historic stage of its development," said Wang Baodong, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington. "We do not deny that there are a lot of problems. That is a fact of life. But China is such a big country, and the actualities in various regions vary."
He said the hearing was "misleading, full of biased comments and unwarranted allegations against the Chinese government."
"This is ridiculous," Wang said. "People will draw the wrong conclusions."