“How will China’s pervasive censorship and control of domestic and international media and the Internet play out when thousands of international journalists descend on Beijing? How are the Olympic Games being used to justify the violent forced evictions of thousands of people from their homes? As international businesses reach out to the world’s largest consumer market, how do China’s restrictions on labor rights affect workers on the ground? Human Rights Watch hopes that the 2008 Olympics will be an impetus for China to demonstrate greater respect for the human rights guaranteed to all under international law."
So wrote Human Rights Watch on August 24, 2004, a few days before the city of Athens, host to the 2004 Summer Olympic Games, handed the Olympic flag to Beijing, the 2008 host city. During the intervening two years, as our concerns have deepened, we have continued to ask ourselves, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and China’s leadership the same questions.
Will there be censorship at the Bejing olympics?
Chinese laws and regulations narrow the space for free expression by domestic and foreign press. Contrary to international law, which calls for “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers,” news (Article 19, 1976) reports must largely repeat the government’s factual account and analysis, e-mail is selectively monitored and courts regularly sentence Chinese editors, webmasters, reporters and bloggers alleged to have leaked “state secrets,” “incited subversion,” or “colluded with hostile foreign forces” to prison terms as long as 12 years. Members of the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC) may not be charged with those offenses but they risk harassment and detention every time they try to cover what Chinese authorities consider a sensitive story, which can include a major traffic jam or an ozone-filled atmosphere (“Widespread Detentions of Foreign Journalists…”, 2006). Existing regulations already restrict where journalists can go and what stories they can cover.
For the 20,000 foreign journalists expected to cover the Beijing Olympics, the most pressing issue will be their freedom to report and analyze the Games without government interference (Kahn, 2006; Wu, 2006). Official accreditation of journalists for the Olympics might be used, as in the past, to reward journalists uncritical of Chinese government policies and to punish critics. Government ownership of almost all Olympic-related media infrastructure – outgoing and incoming wire-line and wireless communications, including telephone and Internet connections, international radio and television signals for broadcasting rights holders and transmission hardware for all television and radio broadcasts destined for international rights holders – will enable Chinese editing of offending broadcasts and interference with their transmission.
During an August 10, 2006 meeting, Liu Qi, president of the Beijing Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games, stressed that China would, as promised, make it “convenient” for foreign journalists to cover the Games. However, he added that in 2007, China would define policies related to foreign media coverage and to employment of Chinese citizens as assistants, both of which could restrict international journalists’ ability to report freely. To date, the most specific guideline restricting media coverage of the 2008 Games is the Press Commission of the Chinese Olympic Committee’s insistence that it vet all requests to interview Chinese athletes (“China to Issue Regulation…”, 2006) .
The IOC has not been especially critical of China’s censorship with respect to the 2008 Games, thus lending credibility to Chinese authorities’ actions. In May 2005, Kevan Gosper, chair of the IOC press commission, suggested that foreign media should respect the way “China manages its communications.” A year later, Hein Verbruggen, head of the IOC’s inspection team, emphasized that the media must respect Chinese law. “If it’s in the law, then it is in the law,” he said. Most recently, IOC Communications Director Giselle Davis admitted that media freedom has a way to go. “No one’s denying,” she said, “that here and now this is a challenge.” Her remarks made particular mention of press freedom in the days before the Games officially open (“IOC Working to Ensure…”, 2006).
Will olympic project workers have their rights protected ?
There are no independent trade unions in China; there is no right to collective bargaining. All unions are affiliates of the Chinese Communist Party’s All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). They do little to ensure healthy and safe working conditions, adequate wages and regular pay, or robust grievance mechanisms. There are high rates of occupational illness, innumerable instances of workers paid below the minimum wage, late, or not at all, and, too often, unemployment or imprisonment for those who protest (“Unions Launch Campaign…”, 2006). Migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to these kinds of abuse.
Large numbers of migrant workers have been contracted for Olympics-related projects. In 2004, when the Hebei provincial department of construction signed an agreement on behalf of more than 120,000 new migrant workers headed for Beijing to work on such projects, the city promulgated a series of regulations to ensure that migrant workers would be paid regularly. But in September 2005 workers at the National Conference Center, an Olympic site, refused to leave the site after the sub-contractor they worked for was replaced, fearing that they would lose the three months’ wages owed them. In 2006, the Supreme People’s Court ordered that lower courts speed up settlement of migrant workers’ law suits and assist contractors to collect from the government (“China's Circular Instructs Courts…”, 2006).
Will there be redress for forced evictions and inadequate compensations ?
Construction of Olympic sites and attendant upgrading of Beijing’s infrastructure has caused widespread forced evictions; few who have been evicted have received adequate compensation (Ang, 2005). Lack of transparency on the process and restrictions on media make it difficult to assess the full extent of the impact. Nevertheless what reports there are, combined with official information on the process, gives great cause for concern. China is also a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which guarantees a right to housing. These evictions, without adequate compensation or safeguards, would violate those international commitments.
In March 2004, the head of the Beijing Municipal Administration of State Land, Resources and Housing (SLRH) stated that 5,000 of a projected 6,000 households had already been moved to accommodate Olympic sites (Li, 2004). Several projects have involved the destruction of entire neighborhoods. One such project involves homeowners moved from the site reserved for the Shunyi Olympic Aquatic Park. Another involved the eviction of hundreds of peasants from their homes and fields on the north side of Beijing. Their farmsteads were bulldozed to make way for Olympics-related landscaping and development projects. New jobs were promised, as the residents could no longer farm there, but not delivered, according to one of the residents, a subsistence farmer. A media report from the Nanyingfang section of Chaoyang district in November 2004 describes demolition crews piling residents’ belongings into vans while some 100 police officers watched. Journalists were warned not to photograph residents being sprayed with foam from fire extinguishers or being taken away by police (“Families Dragged From Their Homes”, 2004).
In addition, official plans to “beautify” the city in time for the start of the 2008 Olympic Games, has created new projects likely to result in further forced evictions. Reports indicate many, if not most, victims of these evictions have been, and will be, left without compensation. In June 2005, when the some 1,000 residents evicted for the Aquatic Park blocked the site and demanded compensation, they were advised that local authorities had already received payment. A local spokesperson said: “The land belongs to the village as a whole, so the money should not go directly to the people. The village is entitled to make a decision on how to use the money” (Ang, 2005). The SLRH head, in admitting that 300,000 people would be relocated to accommodate beautification plans, disputed claims that relocations were forced or that those associated with illegal demolitions would go unpunished. Authorities also suggested that compensation rates and new accommodations favor the displaced. However, the system authorities suggest is in place to address the compensation and redress needs of the victims makes such a claim implausible. First a top court ruled that compensation or resettlement disputes are not a matter for the judiciary and instead litigants are to be referred to “relevant government departments” for arbitration. There is no evidence that this government-administered scheme of arbitration is to be independent, transparent, or capable of reaching fair determinations between the interests of the dispossessed and the government. Given China’s weak record in this area, expectations of fairness from the system are low. In addition, victims are not to be allowed seek injunctions against demolitions but are restricted to seeking compensation if their homes are unlawfully or improperly destroyed (“China curbs court access…”, 2005).
Ang, A. (2005, June 14). Farmers stage land protest at Beijing Olympic venue. Associated Press Newswire.
Article 19. (1976). International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force, March 23, 1976, signed by China on October 5, 1998, but not yet ratified.
China curbs court access in house demolitions. (2005, August 12). Reuters News.
China's circular instructs courts to help migrant workers recover unpaid wages. (2006, 9 August). BBC Monitoring Asia Pacific.
China to issue regulation on foreign media's coverage at 2008 Olympics. (2006, July 10). People Daily. Retrieved from http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/200608/10/eng20060810_291821.html.
Families dragged from their homes. (2004, November 16). Straits Times. Retrieved from http://straitstimes.asia1.com.sg/sub/asia/story/0,5562,285174,00.html.
IOC working to ensure free media coverage ahead of Beijing Olympics. (2006, 9 August). Kyodo News.
Kahn, J. (2006, July 4). Beijing official says curbs apply to foreign journalists. New York Times. Retrieved from http://select.nytimes.com/ gst/abstract.html?res=FB0C10FF39540C778CDDAE0894DE404482
Li, L. (2004, November 3). City denies reports on large-scale evictions. China Daily. Retrieved from http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/english/doc/2004-03/11/content_313666.htm
Unions launch campaign to safeguard migrant workers. (2006, June 14). People Daily. Retrieved from http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/ 200606/14/ eng20060614_273873.html
Widespread detentions of foreign journalists show China unprepared to host Olympic press corps in 2008. (2006, August 10). Foreign Correspondents Club.
Wu, V. (2006, April 13). Watchdog says no foreign reports: TV stations told to stick to state-run news services. South China Morning Post. Retrieved from http://www.asiamedia.ucla.edu/article.asp?parentid=43020.