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Was it worth it?

The question remains: Did Olympics improve human rights in China?

March 15, 2009|Associated Press

BEIJING — "The decision in 2001 to give the games to China was made in the hope of improvement in human rights and, indeed, the Chinese themselves said that having the games would accelerate progress in such matters." -- IOC member Dick Pound in his book "Inside the Olympics."

-- One political issue overshadowed the rest when International Olympic Committee members voted in 2001 to award the Summer Games to Beijing -- human rights.

Tibetan activists demonstrated against the bid near the Moscow convention center where the secret ballot was held, and Russian police broke up small protests by free-speech advocates.

Inside the hall, however, there was a consensus that awarding the games to China for 2008 would moderate the country's authoritarian government. Francois Carrard, the IOC's director general at the time, was quoted widely as saying there was "one issue on the table ... and that is human rights."

"We are taking the bet that seven years from now, we sincerely and dearly hope we will see many changes," Carrard said.

Now with the games fading in the rearview mirror, human rights and free-speech advocates -- along with academics and others -- are skeptical that China is embracing human rights and civil liberties.

"The IOC, when it gave the Olympics to China, thought they could change China," said Luo Qing, who researches China's national image at Communication University of China in Beijing. "I think the Chinese government wanted only to change the world's image of China."

Luo is compiling a lengthy report this month for the IOC at its headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, detailing media coverage of the games in 13 countries.

Inside China, the Olympics were a huge hit, with 98.6 percent of Beijing residents saying the games were a "success," in a poll published by the Beijing Evening News. Chinese state TV still runs highlights of the 51 gold-medal triumphs, a reminder that under Communist rule China has arrived as a sports and political superpower.

Yet a BBC poll published last month, surveying 13,500 people in 21 countries, showed China's positive rating fell by 6 percentage points in 2008 to 39 percent from the year before. In explaining the results, the chairman of the polling company suggested "China has much to learn about winning hearts and minds in the world."

Take the "special zones" set up at the IOC's urging in three parks around the city for protests. None of the 77 applications filed to hold a protest was granted, and two elderly grandmothers -- aged 77 and 79 -- were given a year of re-education through labor for applying.

Their sentences were eventually revoked, but not before Chinese Olympic officials were badgered about it during combative news conferences at the games. Most applicants wanted to protest about labor, health care issues or social services.

"The Chinese government's handling of the political issues (during the games) such as human rights proved to some foreigners that the People's Republic of China was the same non-democratic and suppressive regime," said Xu Guoqi, a historian at Kalamazoo College in Michigan and author of "Olympic Dreams: China and Sports 1895-2008." He replied to questions by e-mail.

Human rights campaigners say the situation in China has worsened since the Beijing Games. They charge Chinese authorities with repression of minorities in Tibet and elsewhere, harassment of dissidents and extrajudicial torture and killing.

The prime example is Liu Xiaobo, the co-author of a statement calling for political and human rights and an end to one-party rule. The statement was released in December, and he's been detained by police ever since at an undisclosed location.

Some have faulted IOC president Jacques Rogge for the lack of overall progress, saying he seemed reluctant to press Chinese leaders on rights issues.

Sophie Richardson, a spokeswoman for the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, said the group repeatedly expressed its concerns to the IOC, but officials were unresponsive and hypocritical.

"Jacques Rogge loved to stand up and say that the Olympics are about sports and not politics," Richardson said. "But when it suits him to do so, he wants to try and take credit for claiming the Olympics have opened China to the world.

"If anything, I think the games effectively set the clock back on human rights."

In a statement to The Associated Press, the IOC declined to evaluate China's rights records since the games.

"We will leave those judgments to others," the IOC said. It predicted the games would help "drive positive social change in the years ahead" and prompt "progress going beyond the sporting arena."

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