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Experts Wonder If China's Open Door Policy Closes With Games

The International Olympic Committee praised China's newfound openness when it hosted the 2008 Olympics. With the Games over, many wonder if these new freedoms will be extinguished along with the Olympic flame.

An activist protests holding a banner with a circle of what looks like blood making the red Olympic ring

Protests began before the Olympics and are likely to continue after the Games

During the last two weeks, the world has watched in awe as athletes from around the globe broke records, leapt to new heights and swam faster than ever.

Along with its record number of gold medalists, host country China likewise had its shining moment as countless news features reported on the billion-dollar polishing of the communist nation's image. From the uniquely-designed Birds' Nest stadium to the efforts to eliminate smog in the one of the world's most polluted cities, nothing -- not even China's approach to human rights issues -- was left undiscussed.

Despite efforts to bring the world's focus onto positive developments in the nation, however, the Chinese government faced stream of criticism about its policies, most notably from journalists frustrated by a lack of press freedom.

Small success for free speech

After stories appeared lamenting the censorship of certain Web sites, including the Chinese language version of DW-WORLD.DE, in the Olympic press center, restrictions on foreign journalists seemed to loosen. Bans on several Web sites were lifted in the press center and requirements for registering interviews with government authorities were theoretically removed.

Man looking at laptop computer

Web censorship had many journalists up in arms

Human rights activists applauded this step toward transparency.

"We had a small success," said Annette Hartmetz, campaign coordinator for Amnesty International Germany, whose Web site was one of those banned by Chinese officials. "We hope it stays that way after the Games."

Liu Binjie, responsible for the Administration of Press and Publications, told the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders that the newly "open door" for foreign journalists "would not be closed even after the games," he said.

The popular Beijing Youth Daily took Binjie's sentiments one step further.

"Even though the Beijing Games have ended, China's opening up and exchanges with the world will not cease, and the Chinese people's participation in the development and improvement of mankind will not change," it wrote.

Cracking down in the background?

But while the world watched Michael Phelps achieve an Olympic first, Chinese security forces instituted a crackdown in the country's separatist Xinjiang region. Representatives of the Muslim Uighur minority group, the exiled Uighur World Congress, said over 500 activists were detained there.

The remote Himalayan prefecture of Garze, one of China's most volatile and isolated Tibetan regions, likewise saw an increase in oppression as armed soldiers set up checkpoints throughout the province and plainclothes policemen monitored Buddhist temples for signs of dissent.

Policeman grabbing woman wearing Free Tibet T-shirt

Authorities arrested 10 Pro-Tibet demonstrators during the Games

Those are just two in a laundry list of accusations human rights groups have leveled at the socialist regime, begging the question of just how much the government has changed.

One foreign journalist working in Beijing told Reporters Without Borders she was surveyed very closely in the run-up to the Games.

"They constantly follow me, taking photos and video," she said. "I have to think twice about who I speak with about delicate issues because I'm afraid afterward they'll be arrested."

Reporters Without Borders reported that this year 31 journalists, bloggers and free speech activists have been arrested or put in jail.

Public protests quashed

Though the government established three protest areas in public parks to respond to the IOC's concerns that public speech against the government would be quashed, no protests were held. Potential protestors were made to register with the authorities, who then denied all of the 77 applications.

Two of the applicants, women in their late 70s, were sentenced to re-education camps for trying to protest a land dispute.

"Of all the ways in which we tried to game out what rock bottom would look like, even we would not have anticipated that two septuagenarians would be sentenced to re-education through labor while the Games were going on," Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

Stadium light up and reflected in water

Olympic venues like the Birds' Nest stadium led to the relocation of 1.5 million residents

With such developments taking place while the cameras were still rolling, some are concerned about what will become of the human rights issues when the international spotlight isn't on Beijing.

"As happy as we may be about the progress that was made, the Olympics have also created new human rights problems and that makes for a lousy balancing of accounts," said Hartmetz. "But China has always been a big place for us to continue our work and of course we'll carry on."

Herta Daeubler-Gmelin, head of the German parliament's human rights committee, reaffirmed her commitment to continuing the discussion about China's human rights in an interview with DW-WORLD.DE.

"We'll be in Beijing in October and carefully observe the human rights situation," she said. "But I'm against lecturing people. We should clearly and unequivocally demand human rights, and we have to keep doing so, also as human rights activists and politicians. ... It's very important to me that the question of human rights doesn't get taken off the agenda."

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