U.S. Delisting of China Upsets Rights Activists

By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 13, 2008

BEIJING, March 12 -- Human rights activists on Wednesday decried the U.S. State Department's decision to drop China from its list of the world's worst human rights violators, saying that China's crackdown on dissent is getting worse as it prepares to host the Olympic Games in August.

"We and others have documented a sharp uptick in human rights violations directly related to preparations for the Olympics," said Phelim Kine, Asia researcher with New York-based Human Rights Watch. The decision comes at the worst possible time for activists seeking to pressure Beijing to relax restrictions on free speech, release political prisoners and improve human rights protections, Kine added.

In the past week, Chinese police clashed with monks demonstrating for independence in Lhasa, capital of the remote mountainous region Tibet. Human rights activist Hu Jia, jailed after organizing a petition saying that Chinese wanted "human rights, not the Olympics," was informed that his trial on charges of subverting state power could begin as early as this month. A prominent human rights lawyer, Teng Biao, was abducted by the Beijing Public Security Bureau and then released two days later.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, while not commenting directly on the State Department report, told reporters Wednesday that foreign leaders, including President Bush, have expressed support for the Beijing Olympics by committing to attend the opening ceremony. He warned that activists who wanted to tarnish China's image "will never get their way."

State Department officials in Washington on Tuesday sidestepped questions about why China was dropped from the worst-offenders list, where it has appeared in each of the previous two years. Jonathan Farrar, acting assistant secretary of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, said only that China's "human rights record remains poor" and that the report gives a "very frank appraisal" on the status of human rights in the country.

The U.S. report, prepared every year as a compendium of the human rights situation in dozens of countries, has a 63-page section on China that describes reports of brutality against prisoners, sometimes resulting in death, and executions of defendants without due process.

It documents tightening controls on religious freedom in Tibet, where many monks view the exiled Dalai Lama as their spiritual leader, and in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, with its mostly Muslim population. It noted that the Chinese government continues to harass and arrest activists, writers and defense lawyers seeking to exercise their rights under Chinese law. It cited reports that 29 journalists and 51 cyber-dissidents and Internet users were in jail at the end of 2007.

International activists have seized on the Olympics as a rallying point to pressure China to ease its restrictive policies, and many feel undercut by the timing of the U.S. decision.

"U.S. authorities are depriving themselves of yet another effective way to pressure China, without having achieved any goodwill gesture from Beijing," Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said in a statement. "The human rights dialogue between the two countries is set to resume, but shouldn't the U.S. have waited for a massive release of prisoners and an end to censorship before dropping China from the list?"

China also uses the Games as a rallying point, for national pride and international respect, and officials warn that anyone who disrupts their plans for a smooth-running Olympics will be dealt with severely.

"I want to make it clear that the Olympic Games in Beijing is to serve the Olympic spirit," Liu Jingmin, Beijing's vice mayor and executive vice president of the city's Olympics organizing committee, told reporters Wednesday. "We don't hope to see too much politics in this sport event."

A Web site that organizes expeditions to Mount Everest posted a notice this week that China was barring climbers from the north face until after May 10, when a runner carrying the Olympic torch is to reach the summit en route to Beijing. Last April, Chinese expelled five Americans after they unfurled "Free Tibet" banners at the Everest base camp.

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