Migrant workers at the construction site of Beijing’s National Stadium ("Bird’s Nest"), one of the venues built for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

© 2007 Kadir van Lohuizen/NOOR

(New York) – The International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) new requirements that host cities commit to human rights reforms will be tested when its Evaluation Commission visits China on March 24-28, 2015, Human Rights Watch said today. China is bidding to host the 2022 Winter Games.

The Olympic Charter has long contained commitments to human dignity and to upholding press freedoms. But after criticisms of its failure to uphold these commitments during the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2014 Sochi Olympics, both marred with widespread rights abuses, the IOC has made a series of pledges, including its December 2014 “Olympic Agenda 2020.” Taken together, these oblige host governments to sign a contract with an explicit antidiscrimination clause, and to protect human rights, labor, and the environment.  

“The Chinese government has pledged, through its constitution as well as international treaties and instruments, to uphold and defend human rights, but that has provided little protection against worsening abuses,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “Instead of the promised improvements, the 2008 Summer Olympics prompted a crackdown. Seven years later, civil society is again enduring an extraordinary assault. It will be hard for the IOC to reconcile its new standards with the Chinese government’s track record.”

The Chinese government and Communist Party under President Xi Jinping have unleashed the harshest campaign of politically motivated investigations, detentions, and sentencing in the past decade, marking a sharp escalation in intolerance of criticism. The government has imposed still-tighter curbs on the media and universities, prosecuted several high-profile peaceful activists such as lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, and moved to further strengthen the domestic security apparatus. In late January 2015, China blocked access to most virtual private networks (VPNs), which many journalists and others in China use to circumvent the country’s online censorship, known as the “Great Firewall.”

China’s hosting of the 2008 Summer Games spurred multiple human rights abuses, including blocking access to and censoring the Internet, abuse of migrant construction workers, forced evictions, and silencing of civil society activists. The international torch relay prompted protests and counter-protests around the world, particularly in response to the relay’s passing through Lhasa, Tibet, shortly after the city was rocked by unprecedented protests in March 2008. No one succeeded in obtaining a permit to protest in zones the government agreed to establish for the games, and at least one who tried was imprisoned for trying to get a permit.   

Principle six of the Olympic Charter, which requires host cities to secure the “rights and freedoms” set out in the charter “without discrimination of any kind,” was recently revised to include “sexual orientation” in line with recommendation 14 of the IOC’s Olympic Agenda 2020. Yet discrimination – on the basis of sex, gender, ethnicity, disability, and sexuality, among others – remains rampant throughout China:

  • In its 2014 review of China, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women expressed concerns with “the persistence of deep-rooted stereotypes regarding the roles and responsibilities of women and men in the family and society”;
  • In its 2009 review of China, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination detailed obstacles faced by ethnic minorities in accessing health care, services, education, and employment;   
  • China’s officially estimated 83 million people with disabilities face significant hurdles in accessing both education and employment, with over one in four children with disabilities out of school at a basic education level; and
  • To date there is no law protecting people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. There is no legal recognition of same-sex partnership.

Discrimination is particularly blatant in employment. Advertisements for jobs often stipulate candidates of a specific sex, and reflect and reinforce socially-constructed gender norms. For example, postings with a stated preference for females, typically in tourism, administration, and retail, often specify that candidates must be young, tall, and beautiful.

Some advertisements for positions in the 2008 Beijing Games contained such language. An advertisement looking for flag-bearers circulated by Beihua University required that candidates be male. Others posted by the Communist Youth League in universities in Beijing and Shanghai recruiting “etiquette volunteers” to escort athletes and guests required females “born between July 1, 1983 and June 30, 1990, with a height between 168cm and 178cm.” These women have to “have a nice face with well-positioned features; a slender and well-proportioned body” as well as being “graceful and attractive.”

In addition, respect for migrant workers, press freedoms, and environmental protection remain problematic. Migrant workers – who are frequently hired for major infrastructure projects – continue to face difficulties ensuring enforceable contracts and accessing social services, such as health care and education for their children despite gradual reforms to the hukou (residency registration) system. China continues to keep a tight rein on the domestic and international press, and currently imprisons 44 journalists. Pollution remains endemic despite the enactment of the new environmental law and official pledges to address the problem. A documentary film on the country’s hazardous environment was recently censored by the government. 

In order to meet the IOC’s requirements, governments should be expected to vigorously enforce antidiscrimination laws, particularly for government positions, but should also take reasonable steps to combat discrimination in the private sector. Although China prohibits discrimination in various laws including its constitution, it has no definition of discrimination or penalties for public or private entities that discriminate. In China’s case, meeting IOC requirements will entail reviewing and revising current laws and vigorously enforcing them.

“Host selections can no longer be made based on promises of flashy infrastructure or glitzy opening ceremonies, but now must require respect for fundamental human rights,” Richardson said. “Will the IOC enforce its own standards?”