Page last updated at 15:57 GMT, Friday, 29 August 2008 16:57 UK

Did the Games improve rights in China?

By Jill McGivering
Asia analyst, BBC News

Pro-Tibet protester
China still finds it hard to brook dissent
When China was awarded the Olympic Games, the International Olympic Committee promised the granting of the Games would be "a force for good".

So what impact did the Games really have where China's human rights are concerned?

The immediate impact was both positive and negative.

On the plus side, tough restrictions on foreign journalists were lifted in the run-up to and during the Games, giving much greater media access. (Those more liberal rules expire in October and an important question is whether they are renewed.)

Also, the looming Games made China more sensitive than usual to international criticism. That eagerness for the Games not to be "spoiled" may have contributed to progress in other, more general, areas.

It may have influenced, for example, the introduction of a new process for better overseeing criminal convictions that result in the death penalty. It may have stiffened China's resolve in its on-going battle against pollution.


But there were obvious negatives. The forced evictions which made the Olympic construction possible. The bolstering of security forces throughout the country and especially in Beijing.

The pressure on dozens of activists, who, according to reports, were forced to leave Beijing for the summer, confined to their homes or even arrested as part of the general suppression of dissent.

At times, China's attempts to conform to international expectations on human rights - without always understanding the spirit of these expectations - led to absurdities.

It was extraordinary for the authorities to designate three municipal parks as protest zones - and then refuse permission to any of the people who applied to protest there. Even worse, some of those who applied were promptly arrested.

In a sense, this was China struggling to pay lip service to an international idea of human rights without breaching its own boundaries.

Staging post?

Some commentators find this outrageous. They see these failures as further evidence that China broke its Olympic-related promises on human rights.

Hai Mingyu and his son, who were chased out of one of Beijing's protest parks. The sign reads: "Shandong Huimin county government illegally sold my grandmother"s house and took away the money!"
Would-be protesters found designated "protest parks" off-limits

Others say it was misguided from the first to expect the Olympic Games to deliver greater political openness. That also raises a broader question: whether the Olympic Games should be a measuring stick for human rights at all.

Some say not. China is pursuing its own independent path. The Games may be a staging post along the way but it was never supposed to be the destination.

And although China clearly has many criticisms to face concerning aspects of human rights, it has - just as clearly - come a long way already.

Political threats to the omnipotence or authority of the Communist Party will not be tolerated

Many social and economic freedoms in today's China are vastly greater than a decade ago. People have more freedom of movement, of employment, more opportunity. Millions have been lifted out of poverty.

The media explosion has brought more entertainment, more information and more choice in everything from TV and radio to magazines and the internet.

It is clear to any foreign visitor that people across China have a new confidence, new pride, new wealth and a new dynamism. Much of this has come from the country's extraordinary economic growth but it relates too to China's authoritarian but generally efficient governance.


But these freedoms are limited and exist as long as certain lines are not crossed.

Political threats to the omnipotence or authority of the Communist Party will not be tolerated.

Criticism of officials and of political policy - whether by individuals, organisations or the media - is not seen as acceptable and is likely to be dealt with in a heavy-handed way.

China's leadership sees it as a priority to defend and maintain its sovereign territory, whether that entails the bloody suppression of protests in Tibet or the security crackdown on Muslim separatists in Xinjiang.

Test to come

So, as a result of the Olympics, how has China's image been affected? It has left the rest of the world in no doubt that China is a rising power; a power which is modern, efficient and dynamic.

But it is equally clear that, when it comes to political and some civil rights, China is still repressive.

Perhaps the biggest question is: what happens next? Now the Games are over, will China be spurred further along the path of reform? Or, now the pressure has eased, will it be even less inclined to accept criticism from the rest of the world?

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