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(Geneva) -- The Chinese government urgently needs to make human rights, labor rights and press freedom reforms ahead of the 2008 Olympic Games, Human Rights Watch said today. On Sunday, August 29, at the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games, the city of Athens officially hands over the Olympic flag to the city of Beijing, the 2008 summer host.

“Responsibilities come with the international prestige China receives by hosting the 2008 Olympic Games,” said Brad Adams, executive director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch said today. “An embarrassing record of continuing human rights abuses is no way to welcome the world to Beijing.”

On its “China Olympics Watch” website, launched today, Human Rights Watch is monitoring issues of censorship, unlawful evictions, and labor rights abuses occurring in the run-up to 2008.

Human Rights Watch said China should end media and Internet censorship, allow Chinese workers to organize independent trade unions, and ensure rights protections for people evicted from their homes in Beijing to make way for Olympic venues or related development. The International Olympics Committee should press for free expression, not just for visiting international journalists, but for all Chinese citizens before, during, and after the Olympic Games. Olympic sponsors and partners should press China to uphold International Labor Organization standards.

“The spotlight that comes with the 2008 Olympics gives China a major opportunity to improve its standing in the international community,” Adams said. “But that will not happen unless China begins to take human rights as seriously as image building.”

Tens of thousands of domestic and international journalists will descend on Beijing for the 2008 Olympics. They will face pervasive state censorship and the reality of closed-down Internet sites and jailed editors, journalists, and web activists. Many will learn for the first time of growing numbers of Chinese web users who risk arrest by emailing censored news and exchanging ideas. Human Rights Watch’s new Olympic website is collecting posts by Chinese web users and translating them into English to alert readers to the kind of information China’s citizens seek and the government tries to ban.

An August 7 incident following the Asian Cup soccer final in Beijing does not bode well for press freedom during the Olympics. During a clash between the police and crowds protesting the match results, several plainclothes police officers beat with baton and kicked an Associated Press photographer, destroying his camera equipment, and shoved an Agence France-Presse photographer. Both journalists were reportedly photographing the incident from well behind the riot line and identified themselves as members of the press.

“Allowing reporters to do their work without interference will be central to the success of Bejing’s games,” said Adams. “The IOC should also be prepared to respect its own Charter and ensure full news coverage.”

The Olympics are sparking rapid national development and international investment. Businesses that sponsor the Olympics benefit by being linked with the prestigious international event. But in China, Olympics investment is tainted by the restrictions imposed by Chinese law on the rights of Chinese workers. China’s national laws prohibit workers from organizing independent unions. As a result, they have no opportunity for redress when working conditions are dismal, minimal health and safety protections absent, and wages inadequate.

“Olympic sponsors should be pressing the Chinese government now to respect labor rights and freedom of association,” said Adams.

In Beijing, rapid urban development, fueled by preparations for the 2008 Olympics, is leading to the forced eviction of tens of thousands of homeowners and tenants in violation of Chinese law and international standards on the right to housing. Evicted homeowners and tenants have little legal recourse. Many are taking to the streets to protest, where they have met police repression. The Chinese leadership must see to it that peaceful protester’ rights are respected and attended to in a timely fashion.

“The world will be watching to see whether China is able to open up and allow its citizens basic freedoms,” said Adams. “Otherwise, the games could well showcase repression in China instead of progress.”

For more background on human rights in China and the Beijing Olympics, and for information on how you, too, can be an activist, please see Human Rights Watch’s new “China Olympics Watch” website.

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