Did Olympics improve human rights in China?

Updated: March 13, 2009, 3:08 PM ET
Associated Press

"The decision in 2001 to give the games to China was made in the hope of improvement in human rights and, indeed, the Chinese themselves said that having the games would accelerate progress in such matters." -- IOC member Dick Pound in his book "Inside the Olympics."


BEIJING -- One political issue overshadowed the rest when International Olympic Committee members voted in 2001 to award the Summer Games to Beijing -- human rights.

Tibetan activists demonstrated against the bid near the Moscow convention center where the secret ballot was held, and Russian police broke up small protests by free-speech advocates.

Inside the hall, however, there was a consensus that awarding the games to China for 2008 would moderate the country's authoritarian government. Francois Carrard, the IOC's director general at the time, was quoted widely as saying there was "one issue on the table ... and that is human rights."

"We are taking the bet that seven years from now, we sincerely and dearly hope we will see many changes," Carrard said.

Now with the games fading in the rearview mirror, human rights and free-speech advocates -- along with academics and others -- are skeptical that China is embracing human rights and civil liberties.

"The IOC, when it gave the Olympics to China, thought they could change China," said Luo Qing, who researches China's national image at Communication University of China in Beijing. "I think the Chinese government wanted only to change the world's image of China."

Luo is compiling a lengthy report this month for the IOC at its headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, detailing media coverage of the games in 13 countries.

Inside China, the Olympics were a huge hit, with 98.6 percent of Beijing residents saying the games were a "success," in a poll published by the Beijing Evening News. Chinese state TV still runs highlights of the 51 gold-medal triumphs, a reminder that under Communist rule China has arrived as a sports and political superpower.

Yet a BBC poll published last month, surveying 13,500 people in 21 countries, showed China's positive rating fell by 6 percentage points in 2008 to 39 percent from the year before. In explaining the results, the chairman of the polling company suggested "China has much to learn about winning hearts and minds in the world."

Take the "special zones" set up at the IOC's urging in three parks around the city for protests. None of the 77 applications filed to hold a protest was granted, and two elderly grandmothers -- aged 77 and 79 -- were given a year of re-education through labor for applying.

Their sentences were eventually revoked, but not before Chinese Olympic officials were badgered about it during combative news conferences at the games. Most applicants wanted to protest about labor, health care issues or social services.

"The Chinese government's handling of the political issues (during the games) such as human rights proved to some foreigners that the People's Republic of China was the same non-democratic and suppressive regime," said Xu Guoqi, a historian at Kalamazoo College in Michigan and author of "Olympic Dreams: China and Sports 1895-2008." He replied to questions by e-mail.

Human rights campaigners say the situation in China has worsened since the Beijing Games. They charge Chinese authorities with repression of minorities in Tibet and elsewhere, harassment of dissidents and extrajudicial torture and killing.

The prime example is Liu Xiaobo, the co-author of a statement calling for political and human rights and an end to one-party rule. The statement was released in December, and he's been detained by police ever since at an undisclosed location.

Some have faulted IOC president Jacques Rogge for the lack of overall progress, saying he seemed reluctant to press Chinese leaders on rights issues.

Sophie Richardson, a spokeswoman for the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, said the group repeatedly expressed its concerns to the IOC, but officials were unresponsive and hypocritical.

"Jacques Rogge loved to stand up and say that the Olympics are about sports and not politics," Richardson said. "But when it suits him to do so, he wants to try and take credit for claiming the Olympics have opened China to the world.

"If anything, I think the games effectively set the clock back on human rights."

In a statement to The Associated Press, the IOC declined to evaluate China's rights records since the games.

"We will leave those judgments to others," the IOC said. It predicted the games would help "drive positive social change in the years ahead" and prompt "progress going beyond the sporting arena."

It may be naive to believe that a sporting event -- even the Olympics -- would change China or its image. It's noteworthy that China declined to bid for soccer's 2018 or 2022 World Cups, perhaps a more complex logistical undertaking with games played at a dozen venues. The World Cup also lasts six weeks -- not two -- and could present a security nightmare -- even for an authoritarian state.

It's also a bad time for extravagance.

The economic downturn has called into question spending $42 billion to prepare the Olympics in a country that now has at least 20 million unemployed migrant workers -- they earn about $150-200 monthly -- prompting government fears of widespread unrest.

"China is changing, and I think the Olympics were a milestone," said Luo, the image specialist. "But we no longer believe that the image of China can be changed because of one Olympic Games."

Stung by foreign criticism, state-run broadcaster CCTV and the state-run Xinhua news agency are reported to be spending billions of dollars to beef up worldwide news operations to get out China's message.

"When I showed international criticism to Chinese people, they were surprised," Luo said. "They think the international community is demonizing China."

The games did lift some reporting restrictions on foreign journalists, though press watchdogs say domestic reporters have been hemmed in by an array of controls including government plans to create a blacklist of journalists with a bad records.

"The Olympics brought a lot of development to Beijing, but I don't see that there have been any changes to human rights as a result of the Olympics," said Rebecca MacKinnon, a professor at the University of Hong Kong who studies censorship in the Chinese media and on Chinese Internet sites.

During the Olympics, the Chinese government lifted blocks on some English-language Web sites. Meanwhile, government control of the Chinese-language media tightened before, during and, now, since the games.

Some blogs that pushed the envelope on political issues have been closed, and the government is becoming more sophisticated in trying to control public opinion. There are reports some bloggers -- nicknamed "50 Centers" -- are paid by the government to pose as ordinary citizens, posting comments that support government views. The same bloggers also monitor content.

Shen Dingli, director of the Center for American Studies at Shanghai's Fudan University, said the games might make China's communist leadership more tolerant of criticism, allowing for more robust reporting on social issues -- like last year's Sichuan earthquake. However, a scandal over tainted milk -- which killed at least six babies -- was widely reported to have been covered up by government officials and not reported until the Olympics ended.

Many hoped Beijing would mirror the 1988 Seoul Olympics, which were credited with bringing democracy to South Korea. The '64 Tokyo Games were also a model, signaling Japan's return to the world community 19 years after its surrender in World War II.

Others have likened Beijing to the '36 Berlin Olympics. In those games, Nazi Germany won the most medals, built spectacular venues, and German citizens were lauded for being friendly -- as Adolph Hitler's regime used the event for propaganda.

Barry Sanders, a lawyer who teaches a course in public diplomacy at the University of California, Los Angeles, has visited China frequently over 25 years, and is chairman of the Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games.

He suggested Beijing's legacy was in doubt, and drew two scenarios: the Tokyo Olympics, which signaled Japan's rise, or the '84 Sarajevo Winter Olympics, which foreshadowed Yugoslavia's civil war.

"If it happens that the current economic disaster causes China to fall into the very disorder that the games were meant to help avoid, then the Beijing games might be seen as a last hurrah," he said. "There is this continuing fear in the Chinese leadership -- certainly during the Olympics -- that things could always go out of control."


Editor's Note: AP Sports Writer Stephen Wade has spent 2½ years in Beijing covering the run-up to the 2008 Summer Games, the games themselves and their aftermath.

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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