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Page last updated at 11:10 GMT, Sunday, 3 August 2008 12:10 UK

Limits to China's pledge of change

China promised an open Olympics for the media, and to promote human rights and democracy, in its bid for the Games. To see if it was true to its word, BBC Panorama reporter John Sweeney spent five weeks criss-crossing the country, following the torch relay.

John Sweeny in China
John Sweeney still found it hard to find those willing to speak out

Fang Zheng is the kind of person who sums up the Olympic ideal. He lost his legs in what was, officially, a "traffic accident" and subsequently won golds in an all-China competition.

But when the torch came through his home town of Hefei, he was not there.

Fang's story tells you something about just how open modern China is.

"It wasn't a traffic accident," he told me. "The truth is that on June 4th 1989 when I was withdrawing from Tiananmen Square, I was chased from behind by a tank and both of my legs were crushed."

The 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre is still officially taboo in China. Hundreds died - nobody knows how many - but effective censorship means that millions of Chinese know nothing about it.

Fang, 41, continued: "When the tank crushed me, I was still conscious and I could see the white bones of my legs."

At this Yang Meng, our official "co-ordinator" - foreign journalists based in Beijing do not usually have a minder, but because we were following the torch we did - interrupted the filming, saying "this is a sensitive issue" and asking if we could skip the subject of how exactly Fang came by his injuries.

Fang says he was disqualified from ever competing for the Olympics because he lost his legs at Tiananmen Square.

Social protests

When challenged about human rights, the Chinese Communist Party says it has taken 300 million people out of poverty - the most basic right of all.

Shanghai business district skyline
Shanghai - one of the symbols of China's economic boom

Evidence of China's amazing economic boom is all around you in the big cities like Beijing, Guangzhou (Canton) and Shanghai.

And in rural China, people who can remember starving as recently as the mid-1970s now go well-fed.

China is changing, but still there are no free, national votes, the internet is censored and, according to Amnesty International, the number of journalists and dissidents in jail in the run-up to the Olympics is rising.

We did hear a former, provincial Communist Party leader in Shaanxi openly question the centre over compensating local farmers for his area's environmental clean-up - something that would never have happened under Chairman Mao.

And there have been steps towards basic, village democracy in rural areas.

I knocked on the window of one of the cars: "Why are we being followed? Is this an attempt to intimidate me?"

But there are limits. In Tai Shi, a village on the edge of Guangzhou, people tried to vote out their local party boss, Chen Jingshen, in 2005, after accusing him of corruptly stealing their land.

The outcry led to massive social protests followed by a brutal police crackdown on villagers and activists who had supported them.

Three years on, we went to Tai Shi to see how much progress towards grass roots democracy had taken place.

An official said we could not interview Mr Chen, checked my passport and, when we told him we planned to talk to the villagers, said: "No, no, no."

We left and were followed by two unmarked cars with blacked-out windows. We did a U-turn and passed the two cars in the other direction.

They also did U-turns. We did another U-turn. So did they. I knocked on the window of one of the cars: "Why are we being followed? Is this an attempt to intimidate me?"

Prison ordeal

We were advised that with our tail no-one in the village would be properly free to talk to us.

We gave the slip to our minder and fixer when we went to see the wife of democracy activist Guo Feixiong, who helped the villagers of Tai Shi.

He is in jail. It took great courage for his wife, Zhang Qing, to speak to us.

"While in Guangzhou prison, his hands were tied to his feet for 42 days. His arms were twisted backwards and he was then hung up so all his weight was on his two twisted shoulders.

"In February 2007, the police used electric shock batons on his genitals. After all this torture, Guo Feixiong confessed. The government is absolutely disgusting."

Boy examining wreckage of collapse Juyuan Middle School
There are no official figures for children missing in the Sichuan quake

It is rare in China to find someone who is willing to speak out against the Communist Party.

We travelled to Sichuan, two weeks after the earthquake that left 85,000 dead or missing. By that time, the relief effort to save victims trapped under the rubble was over and people were asking questions about why so many schools had fallen down.

Juyuan Middle School was 48km (30 miles) from the epicentre of the earthquake.

Here, no other tall building fell down and a properly constructed school with a steel skeleton should have withstood a shock muted by 30 miles of distance. The rubble told its own story. Not a single steel beam was to be seen.

Within minutes of arriving, our minder's boss was on the phone, uneasy that we had arrived at the earthquake zone.

Parents gathered around, signing up to a petition complaining about the collapse of the school. I asked one parent how many children were missing and he choked as he replied: "Based on our figure, it's more than 280."

To this day, the Communist Party has not published official figures showing how many schoolchildren died in the quake across Sichuan or how many schools fell.

A grandmother started explaining to me: "I blame the people who did the construction. It was very poor quality, like 'tofu dregs' (the scum at the bottom of bean curd soup). We villagers blame those responsible for using poor quality concrete."

Our minder, Mr Yang, stepped in: "I'm from the state administration for TV. They haven't got authorisation to film here. I know you have lost your loved ones and I am very sorry for you. They are not here as journalists. Talking to them won't be good for the country, particularly before the Olympics."

But however many medals China wins at the Beijing Games - the country remains one where once an official has spoken, a parent dare not publicly speak out about the loss of their child.

Panorama: China's Olympic Promise, will be shown on BBC One on Monday 4 August 2008 at 2030 BST.


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