Rise of human rights consciousness

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

We don’t need American, mainstream journalists telling us that something is wrong in China, writes Antony Loewenstein

Chinese dissidents will continue to push for democratic change. This is certain in an Olympic year, but these voices are undoubtedly stronger in the West than in their own country. Reformers have regularly experienced similar battles throughout history, from Eastern Europe during the Cold War to anti-Castro activists in Cuba.

I remember speaking to some of these dissidents in Cuba last year and being told that they wished to be better recognised in, say, Havana, as productive members of society rather than threats to national security.

Chinese bloggers are achieving small victories against authoritarian rule, but the struggle for truly alternative voices to be heard in the West is a constant challenge. For example, how willing are Western audiences to hear stories about Chinese netizens not being oppressed?

Propaganda against Tibet and the Dalai Lama continues with an exhibition at Beijing’s Cultural Palace of Nationalities and authorities are warning the Tibetan leader not to disrupt the Games.

Citizen media is gearing up for the August 8 start-date, despite the onerous restrictions. The International Federation of Journalists launched in late June a helpline and website to support thousands of foreign journalists in Beijing.

To clarify the reality of China’s current state for Western audiences, however, sometimes takes the calming words of an American media giant such as Ted Koppel to provide perspective. “The U.S. relationship to China is so intricate and so deep that Americans need to know that it’s more than cheap labour at Wal-Mart or tainted toys,” Koppel said. “We’d have a hard time extricating ourselves from it.”

Well, yes, but who has been creating those stereotypes in the first place? Koppel’s colleagues in the mainstream media.

But the scale of August’s spectacle, and the political risks in doing so, was perfectly realised by McClatchy Newspapers’ Tim Johnson:

“These will be no ordinary Olympic Games. They will be the most extravagant ever put on, designed to dazzle the world and display China’s reclaimed status as a major world power.

“Reaching into its deep pockets, China has erected awe-inspiring new buildings and sports venues, spending an estimated $40 billion, or three times as much as Athens did four years ago.”

China will be expecting some global respect for its efforts. Even taxi drivers are nervous about the event. The BBC reports that gold, silver and bronze have been brought to China from mines in Australia and Chile. Nothing is being left to chance.

Human Rights Watch this week provided a sobering reflection on the challenges facing activists in the Communist country:

“The Chinese government has prohibited local Chinese-language media from publishing unflattering news ahead of the Games, leaving foreign media as the only source of factual reporting about a wide range of crucial issues in China today. But systematic surveillance, obstruction, intimidation of sources, and pressure on local assistants are hobbling foreign correspondents’ efforts to pursue investigative stories.”

Minky Worden, the editor of “China’s Great Leap: The Beijing Games and Olympian Human Rights Challenges” and media director at Human Rights Watch told IPS news service that although the organization doesn’t back a boycott of the Games, they hoped world leaders would act accordingly and “condition their attendance at the highly political opening ceremony on specific human rights improvement.” She went on:

“The year 2008 is also the 30th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms and opening policy which transformed the country by allowing economic freedoms – but not allowing political freedom or basically human rights. So you could say that the next leap forward for China needs to be in the area of press freedom, the rule of law and basic human rights.”

Will Australian, Mandarin-speaking Prime Minister Kevin Rudd speak honesty to the Chinese leadership?