China's Human Rights Countdown

Human rights China

Celebrations in Tiananmen Square on August 8th 2007 marked exactly one year to go until the opening of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. The square was host to top Chinese officials, more than 200 International Olympic Committee (IOC) representatives and 10,000 spectators who were treated to a traditional firework and light show and musical performances. Despite the jubilations, China is still facing harsh criticism from human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and accusations of not fulfilling promises of improving human rights in the country. Jacques Rogge, the president of the IOC has been quick to point out that the Olympic Games have had a positive impact on media regulations, education and environmental standards.

In 2001 the Beijing bidding committee pledged that hosting the games in 2008 would help the development of human rights in the country. These included the removal of restrictions on the media and the movement of journalists on the run up to and including the games. China has seen some progress in the reform of the death penalty system and the freedom of foreign journalists, yet, Amnesty International argues that the death penalty system lacks transparency, there is little freedom for members of the Chinese press and there is still continued use of ‘Re-education through Labour’ (RTL) programmes and detention without trial. Such serious concern over the state of human rights throws doubt over China’s ability to fulfil its pledge to help develop human rights in the country by the opening of Olympic Games 2008.

Despite criticism toward the state of human rights in China there has been some progress, be it limited. China has reformed its capital punishment system the result being fewer death sentences. In June 2007 the Chinese media reported that compared to the same six month period in 2006 there had been a reduction in the number of people executed. A spokesman from the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) stated that the number of people executed had fallen by 10% and this was due to more careful sentencing from the SPC and the lower courts. However, the legal system in China still lacks transparency. Amnesty International argues that the best way to conduct informed analysis of the capital punishment system and the development of the death penalty in China is to make all the data fully available to the public. Chinese officials often cite ‘public opinion’ as justification for retaining the death penalty, yet without transparency of the system the Chinese people are unable to make informed opinions on the subject. China is currently the biggest user of the death penalty in the world, estimates range between 8,000 and 10,000 executions per year.

One of the key pledges of the Beijing bidding committee was that restrictions placed on the media would be removed and that journalists would have far greater freedom of movement. This has been the case to a certain extent with foreign journalists experiencing fewer restrictions when working in China. However, Olympic Watch reports that members of the Chinese media still face severe restrictions on their movement and what they can report. International news also faces strict censorship in China. Reporters without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists claim that as many as thirty reporters and fifty internet ‘bloggers’ and activists are currently being detained in jail.

In contrast to the argument that the Olympic Games will help develop human rights in China, some human rights organisations have claimed that the Beijing Police have been using the games as a pretext to extend detention without trial. Many human rights activists and groups are concerned by the continued use of ‘Re-education through Labour’ (RTL) and ‘Enforced Drug Rehabilitation’ (EDR) programmes. Amnesty International also reports that on the run up to the Olympics the Beijing Police have increased the use of RTL for a number of petty crimes. These crimes included unlicensed taxi driving, unlawful advertising, vagrancy and begging. It is important that crimes are punished, but human rights activists strongly argue that punishments must be the result of the due process of law and that all trials are fair.

Many are concerned that if China fails to show development in human rights by the opening of the games in August 2008 this could tarnish the name and the legacy of the Olympics. It is possible that if the abuses of human rights in China do not cease there maybe a negative knock-on affect. The international image of China may not only be affected but also the IOC and the corporate sponsors of the Olympics who may have their corporate brands associated with violations of human rights. What is certain is that now with less than one year to go until the opening of the Olympic Games 2008 the clock is ticking for China achieve its human rights promises.

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