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Running Rings around Beijing

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
Updated: February 22, 2008

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Even as China released two jailed reporters (Reuters) this month, it seized another on charges of “inciting subversion of state power,” a charge that Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch calls “the weapon of choice to silence dissent ahead of the [Olympic] Games.” After winning the bid to host the games, Beijing pledged in its Olympic strategy “to be open in every aspect to the rest of the country and the whole world.” In January 2007, Beijing even loosened regulations (China Daily) for foreign journalists, allowing them to report throughout the country without the permission previously required.

But China has failed to live up to that promise. According to Reporters Without Borders, a respected international press freedom watchdog, a total of 180 foreign reporters were arrested, attacked or threatened in China in 2007. The number of journalists imprisoned in China actually has risen dramatically in recent years, it says, from just fourteen in 2001 to at least thirty-two today. And that doesn’t include more than fifty individuals jailed for saying proscribed things on the Internet—so-called cyber-dissidents. In fact, Beijing has been clamping down on dissent (Newsweek Int’l) and has condemned what it regards as a politicization of the games at home and abroad. “A few organizations are attaching some topics to the Olympic Games to slur China’s image (Xinhua) and to put pressure on the Chinese government,” said a Chinese official.

Activists clearly view the 2008 Olympics in Beijing as an opportunity to ratchet up pressure on China in a variety of realms. Reporters Without Borders launched a website dedicated to the games, as did Human Rights Watch. Some human rights activists have dubbed the 2008 summer games “the Genocide Olympics” because of China’s financial involvement with the Sudanese government. U.S. filmmaker Stephen Spielberg resigned (BBC) recently as an artistic adviser to the Olympics, citing concerns that China is not doing enough to prevent conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region. In response, the state-run People’s Daily called the director naive and simple-minded and stated that the crisis in Darfur was not created by China.

A recent statement from Human Rights Watch noted that a host of “serious and uncorrected problems are linked to the preparation of the Games.” Some of the accusations include forced evictions, land seizures, suppression of petitioners, closure of migrant children schools, heightened Internet censorship, and eviction from Beijing of undocumented rural migrant workers, beggars, vagrants, and sex workers.  

Jeffrey A. Bader, a China expert at the Brookings Institution, says that a positive human rights record is not a prerequisite for hosting the Olympics. Virtually every Olympics since 1956 has been overwhelmed by politics in some fashion, including the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. “I think we should understand that no nation, including China, is going to revise its core interests and its assessment of its core national interests just because of the Olympics,“ he says.

A watchdog organization comprising three academic institutions, the OpenNet Initiative, calls China’s system of filtering out political content it deems questionable “pervasive.” But experts say Chinese authorities may find it harder to clamp down on information with over 200 million internet users, including over 45 million bloggers, many of whom know how to circumvent what is commonly known as the great firewall of China. Global Voices, a site that aggregates blogs from around the world, announced the launch of the China Netizen Party this month by a former associate professor at Nanjing Normal University. The party says it is not political and states its objective as: “To expose and denounce lies, with all internet communities, forums and websites in China as our battle positions. Networks are our weapons, netizens are our troops!” It warns the country’s leaders: “Where there’s doubt, we’ll investigate.” At this recent CFR meeting on digital openness in closed societies, panelists discussed how the blogosphere and new technology is helping more and more users obtain access to censored information. But one of the main difficulties, they pointed out, remains the dilemma of non-Chinese internet or software companies of whether to give in to the authorities in order to have access to the huge Chinese market.

Some experts are optimistic that the presence of over twenty thousand reporters at the games may test the Chinese government’s ability to control information. At a media conference earlier this month in Bangkok, Thailand, sponsored by the Hawaii-based research organization East-West Center, journalists headed to the Olympics said “they fear China’s preoccupation with making the games an absolute success will lead to aggressive but ultimately futile attempts to control what is reported.”

But Guy Sorman, a French author and philosopher, argues in the Jordan Times that “the regime’s true ambition is to invent an alternative to Western democracy: an enlightened despotism under the tutelage of a meritocratic Communist Party. The Olympic Games are being designed to promote this alternative model.”

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