China Falls Short on Vows for Olympics
'Long Way to Go' On Rights, Pollution And Press Freedom

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.

In the past decade, China has passed laws to better protect the rights of the disabled, elderly, women, employees and migrant workers. Although enforcement of those laws is often lacking, rights experts say, the government has allowed a broader public discourse about these areas.

Li Shi'an, a history professor at Renmin University in Beijing, said China has fulfilled its commitment to Olympic officials on human rights, arguing that the country would not be as stable if people did not have rights.

China, which denies that widespread protests by Tibetans for more autonomy are a human rights issue, recently rejected a request by U.N. human rights experts to travel to Tibet. Chinese President Hu Jintao said last weekend that Tibet "is not an ethnic problem, not a religious problem, nor a human rights problem." In his first public comments on the issue, Hu said, "It is a problem either to safeguard national unification or to split the motherland."

Press Freedom

Wang Wei, executive vice president of the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee, told reporters in 2001 that the news media would have "complete freedom to report on anything when they come to China."

Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, last year signed temporary regulations to allow foreign journalists to travel domestically without advance permission until the Games are over. Reporters would still need permits to travel to Tibet, officials said, although that was not specifically mentioned in the regulations.

But recently foreign journalists have been detained while reporting sensitive stories and escorted by police out of several provinces that border Tibet, which is closed to foreign journalists and tourists. Chinese officials say foreign journalists are being excluded from the areas for their safety. Meanwhile, government spokesmen have accused international news media of biased reporting and some foreign journalists have received death threats.

"If there were no Tibetan issue, the Chinese government would follow their promises very well," said Zhan Jiang, journalism dean at China Youth University for Political Sciences in Beijing. "But with the Tibetan issue, they will not keep their commitment."

Chinese writers can publish on a broader range of topics today than in years past, domestic media watchers say, but criticizing the government or the Communist Party can still mean time in jail or a labor camp. Dissident writer Hu Jia was sentenced recently to 3 1/2 years for subverting state authority by giving interviews to foreign media and posting articles on the Internet that compared the Communist Party to the Mafia and called for greater autonomy for Tibet.

"China is suffering from its policy of suppressing press freedom," said Cheng, the editor who tracks Olympic preparations. He was editor in chief of Southern Metropolis Daily before he was arrested for publishing information in 2003 about the severity of the deadly SARS epidemic. He was cleared of corruption charges and is now deputy publisher of Sports Illustrated China.

"The government is suffering from its own propaganda system, which has been rigid for a long time," Cheng said. "China is lifting a rock only to drop it on its own feet."


The Olympics have been used both within China and internationally as an urgent prod to clean up pollution. "Deliver Clean Energy Towards a Harmonious World," declares a giant billboard in downtown Beijing.

China has spent about $20 billion over the past decade to clean up Beijing's air, government media have reported. Du Shaozhong, deputy director of Beijing's Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau, said the government has shut down 200 heavily polluting factories since 1998. Another 19 heavy polluters will be forced to reduce emissions between now and the Aug. 8 start of the Games. Work must stop on construction sites starting July 20, Du said, and Beijing has warned motorists that sometime this summer private cars will be allowed on the road only on alternating days.

China had pledged that by 2008, measurements of carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide would meet World Health Organization standards and airborne particle density would be reduced to the level of major cities in developed countries. But the IOC said last month that Beijing had so far met only WHO 2005 interim guidelines, which are significantly less restrictive.

"Official data during the Aug. 8 to Aug. 24 Olympic period indicates air quality was actually worse in 2006 and 2007 than in 2000 and 2001," Steven Q. Andrews, an independent environmental consultant, said in an e-mail interview. His analysis of August 2007 data found that Beijing's air registered 123 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter, more than double the WHO guideline of 50 micrograms per cubic meter for short-term exposure.

Du said there are contingency plans to take more stringent steps if needed to improve air quality during the Games. "We will do everything possible to honor the promise," he said.

Staff researcher Robert E. Thomason in Washington and researchers Zhang Jie and Liu Songjie in Beijing contributed to this report.

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