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Beijing Truths Smothered in the Smog of Conflicting Views

It is hard to ascertain whether China's human rights record has improved ahead of the Beijing Olympic Games. Conflicting voices only add to the confusion and contradiction.

The opening ceremony for the Olympic Village in Beijing

Human rights groups say China's record has worsened in the lead up to the Games

The Beijing Summer Olympics begin on Aug 8 and while the International Olympic Committee (IOC) hopes that most eyes will be on the sporting prowess on the track and field, no-one is under any illusion that the focus will also be on events outside the glittering arenas.

The Beijing Olympics have already become synonymous with China's human rights record; the build-up to the global sporting spectacle has been dominated by the on-going debate over China's suitability as host, its record on human rights and the growing protest movement the situation has attracted.

But attempting to get a clear view of the current state-of-play is as difficult as peering through the Beijing smog on a hazy summer morning. Those looking for evidence of change, whether positive or negative, must rely on the statements of the various parties involved in the human rights debate.

Don't take China's word for it

China itself is hardly an impartial source; the People's Republic strives to promote a sunny view while shielding hard facts behind a blanket of state secrecy. The IOC and the national Olympic committees also have a vested interest in presenting an optimistic view while the rights organizations have their own agendas.

Indians protest the Olympics

The build-up to the Beijing Olympics has been marked by protests around the world

There are tangible examples of minor improvements, however. After increasing pressure from world leaders and the United Nations, China reintroduced the Supreme People's Court death penalty review in 2007 which means that every death sentence must now be heard by the top court.

Before that, it was left to the local courts to decide and without strict judicial review there were many miscarriages of justice. China -- which hands down more death sentences than any other country on earth -- says this review has reduced the number of death sentences by 15 percent but no-one knows for sure if this is correct because the figures are covered by state secrecy laws.

However, in China, there are still around 70 crimes which carry the death sentence, which include many non-violent crimes such as economic and drug-related offences.

This reform may not have been a direct result of the Olympic Games coming to Beijing. But the media glare that has accompanied China's Olympic preparations has also brought its record on executions to a wider audience.

Olympic pressure played a role

Improvements resulting directly from pressure associated with the Olympic Games are harder to define. For these, one has to rely on the testimony of the IOC.

In July, President Jacques Rogge stated that after what he called the IOC's “quiet diplomacy,” China had been persuaded to pass three news laws to protect child labourers, media rights and the environment. Another measure secured compensation for residents made homeless to make way for the Games.

Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang holds the Olympic Torch at Tiananmen Square

China hopes the focus will stay on the athletic prowess at the Games

"We have obtained a new law on the media which is perhaps not perfect, but is a remarkable step forward for China," Rogge said in a statement. "For the first time, foreign media will be able to report freely and publish their work freely in China. There will be no censorship on the Internet." Rogge explained that foreign journalists can now travel around the provinces without having to apply for special permission or arrange interviews through the authorities.

"We also realised that there were abuses in the factories making mascots and material for BOCOG (the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad)," he added. "The Chinese reacted very well. They arrested those responsible and had a new law passed.

"The third thing was to obtain proper compensation for people dispossessed by the Olympic building projects. The fourth was new legislation for protecting the environment. On these four points we achieved satisfaction."

Journalists being stymied

Members of Reporters Without Borders protest

Human rights groups have stepped up criticism of the Chinese regime

All of these measures sound like definite progress has been made, until one hears from the other side of the argument.

“This increased freedom of movement for foreign journalists sounds good but the reality, what we've heard, is a very different story,” Verena Harpe, the China expert at Amnesty International Germany's Asia desk told DW-WORLD.DE.

Harpe said increased mobility for foreign journalists was likely to last only last until after the Paralympics in October. She pointed out that correspondents have been complaining about harassment, arrests, restrictions of movement and detention without charge for pursuing stories on sensitive issues.

"While the claim that journalists can travel where they like and talk to who they like sounds good and is celebrated by the IOC, this is not being implemented," she said.

Harpe also explained that the people that journalists most want to talk to, usually those most interesting in terms of the situation in China, are being intimidated by the authorities and even detained.

Reports of harassment

Pro-Tibet demonstrators shortly before the Olympic torch passed through San Francisco

The Olympic torch relay met with protests

Amnesty also challenges Rogge's claim that the IOC had helped bring in a law for compensation payments for persons displaced due to Olympic construction.

Harpe gave the example of a man who had his house and business demolished in 2003 to make way for some Olympic construction. "He was jailed for four years for protesting against forced evictions,” she said. “He was due to be released in July but the authorities have put his release date back to October -- after the Games."

The reason is that foreign journalists would want to talk to him, Harpe said, adding that intimidation and harassment as well as house arrests and the detention of undesirables have been especially severe in the Olympic neighborhoods.

Internet censorship continues

Foreign journalists works inside the Olympic Main Press Center

Some Internet sites in the press center are blocked

Rogge's claim that there would be no censorship of the Internet in China also doesn't hold water.

“The IOC stated that there was no censorship of the Internet in China when there most clearly was,” Harpe said. “Even foreign journalists in the Olympic press centers have no access to ‘sensitive' websites, although the Chinese authorities had promised full media freedom for them."

These so-called “sensitive” sites which have been shut down include independent new services, blogs attempting to get uncensored news out of China, and international broadcasters which have been deemed dangerous by the Chinese government, DW-WORLD.DE's Chinese page included.

Situation not getting any better

Amnesty's Harpe believes that behind these claims of progress, the human rights situation has actually worsened, not in spite of the Olympics but because of them.

“In the run-up to the Olympics the crackdown on human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists has intensified, the authorities have stepped up repression against critical voices speaking out about the Games and other sensitive issues,” she said.

Chinese paramilitary police officers stand guard

Will Chinese police lay low during the Olympics?

To obtain lasting human rights reforms, Amnesty International says that governments and Olympic committees should move away from the “quiet diplomacy” promoted by the IOC and publicly criticize China; despite claims that to do business with China it has to happen behind closed doors.

“It is unlikely that the change in the death sentence review would have come about if the subject hadn't been addressed by the UN and others, so in this case it looks as though public pressure has worked,” Harpe said.

But with the IOC and world leaders like French President Nicolas Sarkozy unwilling, or unable, to confront China publicly, further improvements -- however minor -- seem unlikely as the Games approach.

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