Confusion through the Beijing smog

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

Western critics of Beijing should be careful what they wish for during the Games, writes Antony Loewenstein

Amnesty International’s latest report on China’s human rights record makes for depressing reading.

“We’ve seen a deterioration in human rights because of the Olympics,” said Roseann Rife, a deputy programme director for Amnesty International. “Specifically we’ve seen crackdowns on domestic human rights activists, media censorship and increased use of re-education through labour as a means to clean up Beijing and surrounding areas.”

The New York Times demanded that US President George W. Bush express his concern on the declining situation. Fat chance.

Beijing’s pollution remains shocking (photo evidence here) and authorities are rightly fretting about the international reaction (though surely this is something that could have been predicted months ago.)

Leading American journalist James Fallows has issued a plea to anybody in the West wishing that the Games be a disaster for China and a PR debacle for the Communist regime. “Outsiders who think that a pollution emergency or a spiralling protest would focus domestic blame on the Chinese government are dreaming”, he blogs.

Writer Matt Steinglass disagrees, however, and echoes the feelings of many of us about China’s coming out party. His message? Let good and bad stories emerge from the Games:

“I don’t think such self-censorship would be good, and I don’t think it’s possible. There will be 22,000 journalists in Beijing next week. There is no way to shut up a journalistic mob of that size, each clambering over the next to get the story. China decided to invite the world in, to host the Olympics, in the expectation that it would receive a big boost in global respect and affection. It is about to find out what happens when you invite the world in. If Chinese don’t want foreigners viewing their country with a critical eye, they should kick the foreigners out. But you can’t throw an event to win the world’s respect and affection, screw up the event, and then complain that the world is biased against you.”

Of course, they’ll always be security concerns – one leading Israeli anti-terror expert fears for the safety of the Jewish state’s team – but such issues are paramount at every Olympics.

China has spent an incredible amount of money on the August event. According to Foreign Policy, “at least $40 billion total, including $35 billion for new roads and subway lines, $1.8 billion for venue construction and renovation, and a $2 billion operating budget.” Beijing is even starting to crack down on the country’s rampant nationalism, concerned it may frighten foreign investment and interest. Many citizens of Beijing are now being walled away from public view to keep the city “clean.”

Away from the headlines remains the story of individuals fighting a daunting system. Take Woeser, a prominent Tibetan blogger in Beijing, currently struggling to obtain a passport. It’s been more than 1150 days since she applied and she’s now planning to sue the authorities.

“For so long now, many Tibetan people have met difficulties applying for a passport”, she told the Independent. “Some people will walk for a long time, climbing snow-capped mountains to arrive in Nepal to get their right as a citizen.”

Let’s hope the Western media doesn’t ignore such stories during the August Games.

The Olympics are a unique opportunity for the global community to listen to China and not berate them. The people are not the regime. Furthermore, a great number of Chinese are undoubtedly excited about the event and want to tell the world about it, including through rap.

Individuals can do a multitude of things to show their solidarity with those suffering human rights abuses in China and Tibet.

What are you doing?

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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