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Page last updated at 14:40 GMT, Friday, 1 August 2008 15:40 UK

China's Olympic Promise

Ahead of the Olympics, Panorama reporter John Sweeney travelled to China to test Beijing's pledge of openness towards the media

China has the world's fastest-growing economy. An industrial powerhouse, it is one of the world's top exporters and is attracting record amounts of foreign investment.

Its government claims that this success has lifted 300 million people out of poverty.

China's hosting of the 2008 Olympic Games this month confirms its standing as a world player.

Bird's nest stadium Beijing

The Olympic Games are special. The biggest show on earth - with an estimated global television audience of four billion people.

But hosting the Games brings extreme attention and extreme scrutiny.

Chinese Premier Wen Jibao promised that foreign media would be free to report on Chinese politics, economics and society in the build-up to the Games, a pledge at odds with the Western perception of China as a restrictive and secretive state.

In Panorama: China's Olympic Promise, reporter John Sweeney sought to put this assurance to the test as he travelled across China following the path of the Olympic torch.

Tiananmen crackdown

The signs of the economic boom China has been experiencing were clear, notably in the huge skyscrapers of Shanghai - the country's richest city.

As was people's pride in hosting the Olympics.

Panorama's problems began when trying to speak to those campaigning for democracy and human rights.

The government's brutal crackdown on students and other pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989 is still too sensitive an issue to be freely discussed.

However, Panorama also discovered that asking questions around more recent events can be just as problematic.

Quake zone visit

Whilst filming in China, Panorama wanted to visit the site of the Sichuan earthquake, which killed nearly 70,000 people after it struck on 12 May, but the visit did not have the express permission of the Chinese authorities.

Man sifting through school wreckage
Juyuan middle school collapsed in the quake killing nearly 900 pupils

For the two weeks immediately after the earthquake hit Western media were given access to the region to report on the immense rescue effort.

But as Panorama arrived, a phone call from Beijing to the state-appointed minder accompanying our team immediately questioned the validity of the trip.

As people on the ground spoke of poor building construction and local corruption, the minder intervened and people stopped talking - a sharp contrast with the promises of freedom offered by Mr Wen.

Activist beaten

With China's economic freedoms has come a desire for further political freedoms too.

Panorama examined its effect in the village of Tai Shi, near Guangdong. In 2005 villagers attempted to vote out the local party boss. In 2008 he is still in power.

An attempt to speak to the local villagers led to Panorama being followed. But, after giving officials the slip, the team was able to reveal the lengths the authorities were prepared to go to in order to keep dissenters quiet.

Guo Feixiong was a legal activist who tried to help the villagers of Tai Shi. He was arrested, beaten and convicted of writing subversive literature. He remains in Guangzhou prison where his wife says he suffered terrible torture.

The China that Panorama travelled through is changing and becoming more open, of that there is little doubt.

The hosting of the Olympic Games is for China another great leap forward, but it appears regardless of the claims of Mr Wen, real freedoms and democracy are, for the moment at least, just a leap too far.

Panorama: China's Olympic Promise will be on BBC One at 8.30pm on Monday 4 August 2008

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