Accessibility links

China Struggles to Cope With Foreign Criticism Ahead of Olympics


China wants to use the Beijing Olympics this summer to showcase itself as a modern world power. However, the games are drawing attention to the country's human rights record. Beijing's efforts to crush recent anti-government protests in Tibet are among the issues that are drawing fire not just from rights groups but also international celebrities in the lead-up to the Olympics. Claudia Blume in Hong Kong asked rights groups what kind of impact these protests have and how China is dealing with them.

Icelandic singer Björk caused controversy at a concert in Shanghai earlier this month, when during her song "Declare Independence", she repeatedly shouted "Tibet, Tibet".

China's Ministry of Culture was angered by the outburst, and announced it will tighten controls over foreign singers and performances.

Restrictions on foreign performers are not new in China. When the Rolling Stones played in the country in 2006, for example, authorities banned a number of their songs from the concert. But after Björk's Tibet comments, Beijing seems to be even more nervous.

American jazz pianist Harry Connick Jr. was forced to make last-minute changes to his concert in Shanghai last week because an old song-list had mistakenly been submitted to Chinese authorities. They insisted that Connick play the songs on that list, although his band did not have the music for them.

Sharon Hom, director of Human Rights in China, says while Beijing wants foreign entertainers to perform in China, authorities make it clear that certain issues are off-limits.

"They send a very clear message to the foreign entertainers as well as, I would say," she said, "generally foreigners that we welcome you, at the same time we want to make it clear that we are not going to accept certain red no-go zones. Obviously the 'three Ts' are going to be what they will not permit - you can not talk about Tibet, Taiwan or Tiananmen Square."

China considers the self-governed island of Taiwan a part of its territory and opposes any moves toward Taiwan's government formally declaring independence. Beijing also rejects calls for independence for Tibet, a region it seized control of in 1951. And it refuses to discuss the crushing of pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

In the lead-up to the Olympics, international activists have stepped up criticism of China's rights abuses. The issues they highlight include China's crackdown on dissent, its lack of media freedom and allegations of repression of Tibetans. In addition, activists criticize some of China's overseas policies - particularly its failure to help end violence in Sudan's Darfur region.

Phelim Kine, a Hong Kong researcher for Human Rights Watch, says he expects there will be increasing pressure on public figures worldwide to speak out before the Olympics. He says China's handling of protests in Tibet in the past few days could fuel concerns.

"We think that the Chinese response to what appears to be a crackdown against those protests, against this violence, may significantly impact international opinion about Chinese rule in Tibet and may sour international opinion towards the Olympics," he said.

Olympic guidelines forbid athletes from making political statements during competitions at the games. But Kine says there have been reports about heightened concerns among athletes about China's human rights record and that some have considered boycotting the games.

Rights groups such as Amnesty International urge the International Olympic Committee and the Olympic corporate sponsors to pressure China to improve its rights record.

"The International Olympic Committee did say when China was awarded the Olympics that it would be monitoring the situation and that at least, the human rights situation would improve," said Mark Allison, a researcher in Hong Kong for Amnesty. "Now in our view, certainly if you look at the situation for domestic activists, the situation has deteriorated and we would like the IOC to take a much stronger line on these issues."

Sharon Hom at Human Rights in China says protests by high-profile foreigners have an enormous effect on the government, which wants to protect its image.

"I think that any celebrity, any person with high visibility who makes a statement on a human rights issue or makes a decision of conscience like Spielberg did is going to be of great concern to the Chinese because what that does is it undermines the image that has been very carefully packaged and produced - it's undermining that image, which is a very glitzy image," she said.

Phelim Kine says the Chinese government also is worried about any disruptions to the Olympics. He says the government has made no secret that it plans to stifle protests related to the games.

"So there obviously are groups such as the Tibetans, such as Falun Gong, such as the Xinjiang Uighurs, such as Christian groups who will want to make the 2008 Olympics a platform for their grievances against the Chinese government," he said. "But against those plans is this security cordon which will make any type of protest difficult to begin and definitely very, very short-lived if they are lodged."

He says foreign athletes and celebrities coming to Beijing, however, will be in a more privileged position. Any type of protest that they may consider, he says, will be much more difficult for Chinese authorities to prevent.

XS
SM
MD
LG