The Beijing countdown continues

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

It is time for Western human rights activists to pressure China in new ways, writes Antony Loewenstein

With less than one month until the start of the Games, Beijing is trying to make itself more beautiful. Pollution is still rampant but supposedly improving. Ironically, tourism and business travel are down due to the onerous visa restrictions implemented by authorities.

Officials are nervous about what to expect. “It’s like they’re getting ready to throw a great party and then trying to restrain the partygoers,” said Bob Dietz of the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists, who couldn’t get a visa despite 20 years of travelling to China. “They’re not ready to welcome the world.”

Lindsey Hilsum, China Correspondent for Britain’s Channel 4 News, writes that party apparatchiks fail to understand what is truly needed in pleasing an international audience:

“The Chinese government prizes stability above all else, hence the strict instructions to provincial party bosses to ensure that no one with a grievance makes it to Beijing to ”˜petition’ during the Games. Any protest would be regarded as a loss of face, an unspeakable embarrassment.

“But the bureaucrats have failed to understand what the rest of the world might regard as a successful Olympics. Quite apart from the sport, people want to have fun. The Sydney Olympics of 2000 are widely regarded as one of the best, because those who didn’t have tickets gathered in parks where they could eat, drink, make merry and watch the events on huge screens. Then they went out and partied. Everyone had a great time.”

Of course, China is not Australia and the comparison is slightly bogus. Chinese society is not conditioned like the West and doesn’t want to be.

In a recently released book, China’s Great Leap, by Minky Worden, the media director at Human Rights Watch, executive director of HRW, Kenneth Roth, asks: “Is there anything that outsiders can possible do to help the people of China change their country?” (One hopes that Roth isn’t suggesting that the West impose its values on a people who probably don’t want them.) He explains his thesis:

“Human rights activists should move beyond simply protesting the suppression of demonstrations or the arrest of lawyers. We should always note that Beijing, by tolerating such repression, is tacitly endorsing the abusive activity that is the subject of protest. Stop farmers demonstrating against the corrupt seizure of their land? That means that Beijing in effect supports seizure. Arrest lawyers challenging environmental degradation? That means that Beijing effectively sides with the polluter. By connecting human rights violations against protestors to the abuses being challenged, human rights activists can refocus popular discontent toward the top, and raise the cost of repression.”

The cost of repression remains alarmingly high. The Communist Party plans to continue terrorising the Tibetans and accepts that “final victory” is far off. Zhang Qingli, the hardline party secretary of Tibet, makes it clear that talks between the Dalai Lama and Beijing are a charade. The London Sunday Times writes:

“Zhang’s words make it plain the talks are a diplomatic mask to conceal China’s actual policy. His speeches, which are remarkably frank, show the government’s chosen response is a classic Marxist-Leninist propaganda and re-education campaign backed up by armed force.”

Despite the internet continuing to stimulate great social change, China faces great challenges ahead, not least the ever-growing gender imbalance, with 37 million more men than women and almost 20 percent more newborn boys than girls nationwide. The result of this in years to come is likely unrest, even greater violence.

Shanghai-based writer Mara Hvistendahl muses on this largely unreported issue:

“”¦Others are coming up with more practical outlets to exploit China’s new cadre of unstable young bachelors. Two years ago in Nanjing, Jiangsu’s capital, businessman Wu Gang opened the Rising Sun Anger Release Bar in a cheap hotel near the bank of the Yangtze River. The bar featured staples of Chinese entertainment like big-screen karaoke and plates of sunflower seeds but also a central catwalk where, for 100 yuan ($15) per minute, customers paid to assault the waiters, single young migrants from poorer cities to the north. If a customer preferred, his victim would dress in drag. Men “are under too much pressure,” Wu explained to me one day, as the waiters high-kicked Pepsi bottles in the storeroom. “They need a way to release it.”

The August Games are just the beginning of Beijing’s challenges.

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

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