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China's thin veil of compliance

26 Aug 2008
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A BURNING question for the media and the international public before the 2008 Olympic Games was whether the holding of the Olympics might improve China’s human rights performance - as its leaders had promoised - and, if so, whether improvement would continue once the Olympics were over. Suppression in Tibet, executions in Xinjiang, the detention of Chinese petitioners and would-be protesters, the harassment of lawyers assisting dissidents, the house arrest of those dissidents, and the empty official protest zones, have put paid to that question. Foreigners have also been affected by restrictions on press freedom, by the repressive behavioural guidelines for foreigners published by the Beijing organising committee on June 2nd, by the harassment of journalists, the heavy security precautions at the Olympics sites and in China generally, and strict visa requirements. Indeed, the ubiquitous security operation, in particular the move against peaceful Chinese petitioners, has been used to deepen and perfect methods of social control seen as critical to the survival of the Party. As Bill Keller pointed out recently in the International Herald Tribune, "The Chinese have made their Olympics an exultant display of athletic prowess and global prestige without having to temper their impulse to suppress and control." To that extent, the international community particularly the IOC has failed in its attempt to encourage a human rights Olympics. Nevertheless, the holding of the Olympics in China has had some beneficial effect on human rights, if not for the reasons intended. Many foreigners have now had a personal taste of China’s human rights policies. It is now no longer just a matter between the Chinese people and their government. From about 1992, three years after the crushing of the Democracy Movement in Beijing, and especially since 1995, human rights in China began to slip from foreign agendas. Monitoring of China’s human rights by the UN and individual states was deflected into toothless bilateral human rights dialogues. Because of the lure of the market, China was reconstructed as a one-dimensional entity, an economic miracle. Otherwise, as one commentator put it, “this other place wasn’t just any-old-where. It was China. Exotic China. Distant and mysterious China.” Exotic, distant and mysterious no longer. As a result of the Olympics, China has been recognised to have a more complex persona. The international gaze has now been redirected to some of the less agreeable “externalities” fuelling the economic miracle. And these externalities are not just problems for people in China, in Tibet and Xinjiang. They are also a problem for the rest of the world. Who were the foreigners suffering the most from China’s lack of concern with the rights of human beings? Not the journalists and the visitors. It was the subjects of the Games, the international athletes themselves. Why were they forced to give of their all in August, the hottest month in Beijing and China generally? Just to pander to the superstitions of some hardened Chinese political leaders and bureaucrats about 08.08.08. Foreigners outside China also suffered from China’s denial of the right to freedom of expression and the right to freedom of association. Officials and citizens of the many countries through which the Olympic flame passed in April were forced, under considerable Chinese government pressure, to defend their own right to protest against the opposition of Chinese citizens studying abroad who were rallied against them to deny that right. Such was China’s determination to protect the flame, in a manner that identified it with the Chinese nation rather than with the Olympic movement, that it even allowed a wave of anti-foreign xenophobia to penetrate China itself. In a country adept at controlling internet communications, bloggers and email writers were allowed free rein to protest against the writings of foreign journalists and scholars all in the name, ironically, of freedom of expression. How could this have been officially encouraged when thousands of foreigners were due to arrive in the country within weeks? Ironically again, the tragedy of the Sichuan earthquake appeared to save the day. Outpourings of international support were gratefully received by shocked Chinese leaders, and internal unity was achieved by encouraging all Chinese citizens to offer help to the devastated Sichuanese, thereby diverting negative anger into positive giving. Extreme manifestations of anti-foreignism within China thereupon eased. There are, however, always the exceptions. Then it does not matter what the colour of your flag or your athletic garment, you are still a foreigner deserving of hatred and retaliation. Why the official paranoia, why the theatre, why the intense security which made life so difficult? The need for security against international terrorism, while legitimate to a degree, was exaggerated to become the official cover for manifestations of extreme xenophobia. To many conservative Chinese leaders, status is more important than goodwill; form more meaningful than substance; the perfect theatrical performance, the technically perfect Games, more important than the individual spectator’s sense of wellbeing and enjoyment. This is particularly a feature of those bodies involved in the Olympics organisation, the Ministry of State Security, the Bureau of Public Security and the People’s Liberation Army. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, normally the cosmopolitan, enlightened and diplomatic leader or intermediary in international events, was less in evidence. But it was more than just a conflict between organisational cultures. The Chinese government is struggling to maintain its rule and at the same time guarantee social cohesion without political rights. This is particularly difficult now when leaders perceive a need to balance rising inflation against the requirement to create more jobs. In a country where unemployment is now endemic, inequality a source of rising discontent, and corruption and land seizure are a daily scourge, the government is engaged in a two-line struggle to maintain popular support. It is allowing its citizens “freedom of expression” on discrete issues decided by the government on the basis of their potential to promote a unifying chauvinism. In other words, the rights of foreigners before and during the Olympics were abused because it was more important for China’s leadership to send a message to its own citizens: That the international community recognised the legitimacy of its rule over the whole country, including Tibet. That China was now a country with sufficient international status and power to put on the most technically impressive Olympics ever. That, in the process, no foreign or domestic political dissent would be tolerated. Nevertheless, the benefit of the 2008 Olympics is that the reality of China, warts and all, is now laid open to the world. What difference does this make? First, we now know from the difficult passage of the Olympic flame that China is prepared, under certain circumstances, to put pressure on other countries to compromise their own human rights standards and even to risk its own good international reputation. If this new preparedness is not checked, China may well opt to emphasise the nationalist, militarist side of its persona in its foreign policy, rather than its positive, cooperative side, with dire results for the world. Second, we also now know that China is not going to improve its domestic human rights record, and alleviate its peoples’ suffering, without much more international persuasion and input. Third, we are aware that, unless China’s human rights situation, like its environment, improves, its economic progress could be undermined by domestic social unrest. What is to be done? States should engage in a multilateral diplomatic dialogue with China, impressing on its leaders the danger that such manifestations of chauvinism pose for its good international reputation and status; they should also pressure it to move not towards democracy but, in the first instance, towards a genuine rule of law rather than the existing, instrumentalist, “socialist rule of law,” or rule by law that benefits the state but not its citizens. Here, the international press could also make a contribution. States, particularly Western ones, should strengthen and unify their human rights policy towards China, and refuse to be involved in its “divide and rule” bilateral human rights dialogue. They should also keep pressuring it to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. States that are members of the UN Human Rights Council should begin to take China to task in that forum. Greater emphasis should be now placed more generally on the multilateral monitoring of China’s human rights. Only then can we ensure that the benefits of the 2008 Olympics flow not just to the Chinese state but also to the Chinese people and, finally, to the international community.

Ann Kent is Visiting Fellow at the Centre for International and Public Law, College of Law, Australian National University and the author of Beyond Compliance: China, International Organisations and Global Security (Stanford University Press, 2007). This article first appeared in the Canberra Times.

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2008
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