What human rights legacy for the Beijing Olympics?

The Beijing National Stadium, also known as the Bird's Nest for its architecture, is being built for the 2008 Summer Olympics

The Beijing National Stadium, also known as the Bird's Nest for its architecture, is being built for the 2008 Summer Olympics

© Tee Meng


1 April 2008

Liu Jingmin, Vice-President of the Beijing Olympic Bid Committee, said in 2001 that allowing Beijing to host the Games would “help the development of human rights". Seven years on, China’s human rights record shows little sign of improvement, according to an Amnesty International report.

It was hoped that the Games would act as a catalyst for reform but much of the current wave of repression against activists and journalists is occurring not in spite of, but actually because of the Olympics, according to the report China: The Olympics countdown – crackdown on activists threatens Olympics legacy.

Positive changes such as a reform of the death penalty system and a greater reporting freedom for foreign journalists have been overshadowed by stalled reform of detention without trial, repression of human rights defenders and internet censorship.

The report also highlights the Chinese authorities’ recent crackdown on protesters in Tibet, which has led to serious human rights violations since 10 March 2008. Chinese authorities have resorted to measures that are reported to have included unnecessary and excessive use of force, including lethal force, arbitrary detentions and intimidation.

Hundreds of people have been detained in response to the unrest. They could face torture and other ill-treatment by China’s security forces, especially those accused of “separatist” activities.

The near total media blackout on Tibet and the surrounding areas has not only made it difficult to confirm reports, but is a betrayal of official promises to ensure “complete media freedom” in the run-up to the Olympics.

In China too, many activists are held as prisoners of conscience after politically motivated trials. Growing numbers are kept under house arrest. Broad and vaguely defined crimes against national security, such as “separatism”, “subversion” and “stealing state secrets”, are used to prosecute those engaged in legitimate and peaceful human rights activities.

Land rights activist Yang Chunlin was sentenced to five years in prison on 25 March for “inciting subversion” after he spearheaded a petition campaign under the banner “We don’t want the Olympics, we want human rights”. He was initially denied access to lawyers on the grounds that his case apparently involved “state secrets”. He was also reported to have been tortured by the police in detention, but was denied the opportunity to raise these allegations in court.

Housing rights activist Ye Guozhu is serving a four-year prison sentence after he applied for permission to hold a demonstration against forced evictions in Beijing. He was convicted in December 2004 of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble” because of his opposition to the seizure and demolition of property to make way for new construction projects for this year’s Olympic games.

In May 2006, Beijing extended use of a form of detention without trial called Re-education Through Labour (RTL), to “clean up” the city’s image before the Olympics. The system targets those who have committed minor offences but are not legally considered criminals. They are forced to work for long hours, and can be detained for up to four years. RTL is much criticised in China. Long heralded - but now stalled - reform of the system would be a major human rights improvement.

Beijing housing rights activist Wang Ling was reported to have been sentenced to 15 months RTL in October 2007 for signing petitions and making banners in protest against the demolition of her property to make way for Olympic construction. She is believed to be held at Daxing RTL facility in Beijing.
Despite official promises of “complete media freedom” made in July 2001, the authorities are continuing to use the crime of “inciting subversion” and other state security offences to prosecute and imprison writers and journalists exercising their fundamental human rights to freedom of expression.

The internet is being heavily censored too. Cartoon police icons now warn many of China’s 210 million internet users to stay away from “illegal” websites. These virtual police appear to encourage self-censorship by reminding users that the authorities closely monitor web activity. China is also believed to operate the most extensive, technologically sophisticated and broad-reaching system of internet censorship and filtering in the world.

Text messaging is also being monitored. In December 2007, the Beijing city authorities issued a notice stating that those who use text messages to “endanger public security” or “spread rumours” will be investigated.

China is the world leader in the use of the death penalty, despite official statements that the restoration of Supreme People’s Court (SPC) review led to a significant reduction in the number of executions in China in 2007. But publication of full national statistics and other detailed information on the death penalty in China is essential to support such assertions. The drop in executions may be partly due to a growing “backlog” of prisoners awaiting execution as their case is reviewed by the SPC.

Amnesty International’s report calls on the Chinese authorities to: give immediate access to Tibet and surrounding areas to UN investigators and independent observers; cease arbitrary detention, intimidation and harassment of activists; end punitive administrative detention; allow full and free reporting across the whole of China for all journalists; free all prisoners of conscience and reduce the number of capital crimes as a step towards abolition.

China: Olympics countdown - Time running out for improvement in human rights (Press release, 31 March 2008)

Read more about human rights in China and the Beijing Olympics

People’s Republic of China: The Olympics countdown – crackdown on activists threatens Olympics legacy

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Index Number: ASA 17/050/2008
Date Published: 1 April 2008
Categories: China

With little more than four months to go before the Beijing Olympics, few substantial reforms have been introduced that will have a significant, positive impact on human rights in China. This is particularly apparent in the plight of individual activists and journalists, who have bravely sought to expose ongoing human rights abuses and call on the government to address them.


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People’s Republic of China: The Olympics countdown – crackdown on Tibetan protesters

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Index Number: ASA 17/070/2008
Date Published: 1 April 2008
Categories: China

Since 10 March 2008, serious human rights violations have been reported in the Tibet Autonomous Region and Tibetan areas of neighbouring provinces in connection with the police and military crackdown on Tibetan protesters. Initial protests by Tibetans appear to have been peaceful but later turned violent. Amnesty International is concerned that in restoring order, the Chinese authorities have resorted to measures which violate international human rights law and standards. These have reportedly included unnecessary and excessive use of force, including lethal force, arbitrary detentions and intimidation.


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