Smog, Rudd and Hu Jia

My following article appears in the Amnesty International Australia’s Uncensor campaign about human rights in China:

The international outcry over China’s human rights abuses was temporarily disrupted this week with news from Beijing that the regime was determined to manage the city’s pollution problems by halting building construction after July for two months. Unfortunately, many of the Games’ venues are not yet finished and it remains to be seen whether they will be completed in time. The exact plans remain a state secret, but at least half of Beijing’s 3.3 million cars will probably be banned during the Games.

The real story, however, remains the growing international calls for action on China’s belligerence. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s recent trip to Beijing highlighted the difficulties of this position. The British press fawned over him. London’s Independent praised him for speaking “unpalatable home truths” about the troubles in China. “The world needs more leaders like this”, they gushed. “We hope he has started as he means to go on.”

The Guardian warned China not to parade the Olympic torch through Tibet, calling it “cultural imperialism”. Murdoch’s Sun tabloid, however, appeared unwilling to upset the Chinese. At least Olympic organisers finally admitted the protests were a “crisis” and Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon, announced he would boycott the opening ceremonies.

Leading Australian Sinologist Professor Geremie Barme explained that the Chinese people were aware that Rudd had spoken Mandarin at Peking University, “but all mention of Tibet, apart from Tibet being part of China’s sovereign territory, has been expunged from the record.” One brave Chinese dissident even challenged the Chinese people to seriously examine the country’s record in Tibet. “I urge the Chinese people to take a long, hard look at themselves”, Jonathan Li said, “and stop being so uptight”.

Rudd was walking a fine line, of course. Amnesty International Australia has called on the Australian government to engage in a “strong and robust dialogue” between Australia and China, especially the promotion of human rights and minority rights. Human Rights Watch’s position is similar.

The expected backlash against protestors is starting to occur – and not just Chinese President Hu Jintao defending his crackdown in Tibet as “a problem of safeguarding national unification”. One leading human rights campaigner, Liu Xiaobo, warns demonstrators that: “If the Games fail, human rights will suffer. The government would stop paying attention to the rest of the world. I personally think: We want the Games and we want human rights to be respected.” One Chinese-American woman, Helen Zia, explained why she wanted to carry the torch in San Francisco, in a show of solidarity towards a “changing” China.

The global outrage over the torch relay has sparked a dormant nationalistic surge in China. “Tibetans have a strong case against Beijing”, wrote Philip Bowring in the International Herald Tribune, “but mixing it in with the Olympics and Darfur is a red rag to a wounded, young bull”. Some Chinese bloggers are calling for a blacklist of French goods after the recent scuffles in Paris. Chinese hackers are targeting pro-Tibetan websites and remain unforgiving of perceived slights against their Olympic moment.

A former Beijing chief for the New York Times explained the majority of Chinese youth have been beneficiaries of massive economic growth and “can’t imagine why Tibetans would turn up their noses at rising incomes and the promise of a more prosperous future. The loss of a homeland just doesn’t compute as a valid concern.” Perhaps the Tibet protests have backfired?.

The most moving news of the week was the words of Zeng Jinyan, the wife of recently imprisoned dissident Hu Jia. “I feel great pain and hopelessness”, she wrote. “But no matter what, I will do my best to protect my family, and do all I can to allow Hu Jia to come back home as soon as possible.”

Text and images ©2023 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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