(New York) - China’s dire human rights record and a renewed crackdown on media freedom may spoil the government’s hopes of a successful “coming out party” at the Beijing Olympics, which begin in a year, Human Rights Watch said today.
A year before the August 8, 2008 opening ceremonies for the Beijing Olympics, the Chinese government shows no substantive progress in addressing long-standing human rights concerns. Instead, apparently more worried about political stability, Beijing is tightening its grip on domestic human rights defenders, grassroots activists and media to choke off any possible expressions of dissent ahead of the Games.
“Instead of a pre-Olympic ‘Beijing spring’ of greater freedom and tolerance of dissent, we are seeing the gagging of dissidents, a crackdown on activists, and attempts to block independent media coverage,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government seems afraid that its own citizens will embarrass it by speaking out about political and social problems, but China’s leaders apparently don’t realize authoritarian crackdowns are even more embarrassing.”
China has a well-documented history of serious human rights abuses, including widespread torture, censorship of the media and internet, controls on religious freedom, and repression of ethnic minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang.
China continues to lead the world in executions. The government classifies the number of people executed as a state secret, but it is believed that China executes many more people than the rest of the world combined each year. Most trials are deeply flawed, as the accused often do not have access to adequate defense counsel, trials are usually closed to the public, evidence is often obtained through torture, and the appellate process lacks needed safeguards. China’s courts lack independence, as they remain controlled by the government and ruling Chinese Communist Party.
But the staging of the Olympics is exacerbating problems of forced evictions, migrant labor rights abuses, and the use of house arrests to silence political opponents. The government is continuing its crackdown on lawyers, human rights defenders and activists who dedicate themselves to rule of law and the exposure of rights abuses. Fear of citizen activism has led to government obstruction of local activists and grassroots organizations working to stem China’s HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Fears of harm to China’s national image have even led Chinese officials to stop prominent activists from leaving the country. Among them, Hu Jia and Zeng Jinyan, a husband-and-wife team of human rights activists, have been clamped under house arrest and travel restrictions since May on unsubstantiated suspicions of “harming state security.” Dr. Jiang Yanyong, a courageous surgeon who exposed the government’s cover-up of the 2003 SARS outbreak, has been denied permission to travel to the US in December to receive a New York Academy of Sciences human rights award.
The victims of government retribution against perceived “troublemakers” often include those who devote themselves to defending some of China’s most marginalized and vulnerable citizens. Chen Guangcheng, a blind, self-educated lawyer who documented abuses of China’s family planning law, was convicted in August 2006 of instigating an attack on government offices in a sham trial in which his lawyers were physically attacked and then detained by police to prevent them from attending. Gao Zhisheng, an outspoken advocate of the rights of human rights abusers said in April 2007 that he agreed to write a confession to charges of sedition leveled at him in December 2006 only after he had been tortured and security officials had threatened his wife and children.
“Political repression is not in keeping with the behavior of a responsible power and Olympic host,” said Adams. “The Chinese government shouldn’t waste this unique opportunity to use the 2008 Games to demonstrate to the world it is serious about improving the rights situation in China.”
Human Rights Watch said that China’s close relationship with dictatorships and rights- abusing governments in places like Sudan, Burma, Cambodia and Zimbabwe will also come under close scrutiny in the coming year.
With one year to go before the Olympics launch, “The starting gun has been fired on the assessment of China’s commitment to rights at home and abroad,” said Adams. “Just as Chinese citizens will be rooting for their athletes to win medals, we are rooting for the Chinese government to move up in the league tables on rights protection.”
More background on major areas for human rights reform in the Olympic run-up: