China Falls Short on Vows for Olympics

A haze of pollution hangs over China's National Stadium, known as the bird's nest, the main venue for the Beijing Olympics beginning Aug. 8.
A haze of pollution hangs over China's National Stadium, known as the bird's nest, the main venue for the Beijing Olympics beginning Aug. 8. (By Greg Baker -- Associated Press)
By Jill Drew and Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 21, 2008

BEIJING, April 20 -- China has spent billions of dollars to fulfill its commitment to stage a grand Olympics. Athletes will compete in world-class stadiums. New highways and train lines crisscross Beijing. China built the world's largest airport terminal to welcome an expected 500,000 foreign visitors. Thousands of newly planted trees and dozens of colorful "One World, One Dream" billboards line the main roads of a spruced-up capital. The security system has impressed the FBI and Interpol.

But beneath the shimmer and behind the slogan, China is under criticism for suppressing Tibetan protests, sealing off large portions of the country to foreign reporters, harassing and jailing dissidents and not doing enough to curb air pollution. It has not lived up to a pledge in its Olympic action plan, released in 2002, to "be open in every aspect," and a constitutional amendment adopted in 2004 to recognize and protect human rights has not shielded government critics from arrest.

The two realities show that when China had to build something new to fulfill expectations, it has largely delivered. But in areas that touch China's core interests, Olympic pledges come second.

"To ensure a successful Olympic Games, the government did make some technical and strategic efforts to improve the environment, human rights and press freedom. They did make some progress. But in these three areas, there's a long, long way to go," said Cheng Yizhong, an editor who tracks China's Olympic preparations.

With the Games less than four months away, the International Olympic Committee is scrambling to nail down specifics of how China will treat criticism of its actions during the event. Pressed this month, IOC President Jacques Rogge clarified that athletes would be allowed to speak freely in Beijing's Olympic venues, calling it an "absolute" human right.

"I can't help but feel cynical about all this," said David Wallechinsky, an Olympic historian, who said the IOC should have been more forceful with China earlier. "What are they going to do, take away the Games?"

Human Rights

China's commitment to improve human rights has always been vague. Its strongest public statement came from Beijing's mayor, the head of the country's bidding team, on the eve of the IOC vote in July 2001 to select the host city for the 2008 Olympics. Awarding the Games to Beijing, said Liu Qi, would "benefit the further development of our human rights cause."

Rogge says China made a moral commitment to improve human rights, but did not sign a contractual agreement. In 2002, he told reporters he was convinced the Games would improve human rights in China. The IOC, Rogge said, would confer regularly with Amnesty International, a human rights group, to monitor China's progress.

T. Kumar, Amnesty's Asia advocacy director, said meetings did take place, but mostly between low-level staff members of the two organizations. He said the IOC did not solicit ideas about how to press the Chinese on the problems Amnesty was raising. Two weeks ago, an IOC official publicly dismissed an Amnesty report that said China's crackdown on activists had intensified because of the Olympics.

"The IOC silence all these years is one of the reasons China felt no need to improve human rights in a meaningful way," Kumar said. "The IOC behaved in a very indifferent way."

China rejects global anger over its human rights record. Lifting 400 million people out of extreme poverty in recent decades, as the World Bank reports the government has done, is an overarching human rights achievement, Chinese researchers say.

"It is most important to compare human rights to the past to see if there is progress, not to compare it with other countries," said Luo Yanhau, professor of international studies at Peking University. Even with a fast-rising economy, she said, about one-tenth of the population still lives on $1 a day or less, according to 2006 World Bank statistics. "We have to fulfill the right to subsistence and development," she said.

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