Friday, April 11, 2008


Beijing Olympics: democracy is still the issue

Leaving the hotel, and passing the slogans that adorn this central area of Beijing, I engage a patrolman by the road. The man is friendly, speaks briefly in Mandarin to my companion and fetches a small booklet from his garment. He appears ready to show me its contents, but then his superior walks by, gives me a disapproving glance and the patrolman a sterner one still. The booklet quickly disappears and the patrolman stares steadily ahead. My companion, who first visited Beijing in 1994, says Beijing officials are much friendlier today. Perhaps my police interlocutor had taken the new policies rather too much to heart for his commander’s liking.
We reach Tiananmen Square. Expanded in the early 1950s to its current giant size, it’s like a vast, grey parking space. Whilst the high culture of Paris, Tokyo’s technological innovation or Chicago’s muscular Americana are in some sense celebratory and inclusive, Tiananmen Square is antiseptic, cold, purely and exclusively a testament to power. The excess of national flags, arranged on the Great Hall of the People, can only denote the Party’s deep feelings of insecurity in a changing world. The vast space is broken only by the Mao Zedong Mausoleum and the Monument to the People’s Heroes, which became a focal point for the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. On this bright day or on any other, there is no sign of the killing; the significance can only be carried in memory. The square is monitored by numerous video cameras. Plain-clothes police circulate while uniformed personnel stand guard, all overlooked by Mao’s giant portrait. Tim Clissold in Mr. China aptly describes the dictator as appearing ‘serene and expressionless’. The square is a clinical, forbidding place.

Yet, elsewhere, in places like Zhongshan, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and Foshan, there is a vibrant industrial revolution. Everywhere seems alive, vital: the energy lifting millions from poverty. In every town and city are ugly Party headquarters, and passing propaganda, but the presence seems less pronounced. In 2004, a few days after landing in Hong Kong, I found myself sitting on the floor one evening in a traditional Japanese restaurant in Zhongshan, barraged by culture shock. Later, after adventures in the darkness, I returned - somewhat dazed - to my hotel room and turned the radio dial for some familiarity, but the BBC is still banned in most places. I awoke the next morning to a rendition of the national anthem - a local school was opening.

Democracy for all
Arguments about Tibet often get bogged down in a discussion about independence and China’s sovereignty. The key issue is freedom and democracy in China, including for Tibetans, Han and everyone the CCP routinely oppresses. Tibet’s struggle is part of that wider battle.

Britain’s Labour government fully and openly backs Communist China. China's human rights record is appalling, despite some improvements. The British government's record on China is actually worse than some other European governments. Genuflection has become an art form. In the last decade alone, two state visits have been organised for Chinese dictators under Labour auspices. One took place in 1999, when Jiang Zemin was honoured. On that occasion transit vans were used to screen protestors from the communist leader, and there were allegations of police heavy-handedness. In 2005, it was Hu Jintao’s turn for British flummery. Hu was party chief in Tibet when martial law was declared in a crackdown on protestors.

In the run up to the Olympics, the British Olympics Association inserted a clause into athletes’ contracts forbidding them from commenting on “any politically sensitive issues”. After protests from Jonathan Edwards and Matthew Pinsent, this gagging clause – which went further than IOC restrictions – was withdrawn. In February, Olympics minister Tessa Jowell condemned a boycott of the games, but said it was “reasonable” to use the Olympics “to encourage China to act as a responsible global citizen.” However, her naive remarks that the freedoms granted to journalists by the Chinese authorities during the Olympics "should not and cannot be taken back” are now hopelessly dated: the CCP blocked journalists from vast swathes of China, as a military crackdown ensued. As part of its bid for the Olympics, China promised to improve human rights, including granting freedom to journalists to report without restrictions. The Chinese authorities confirmed to the IOC "that there will be no restrictions on media reporting and movement of journalists up to and including the Olympic Games." This commitment has already been broken.
The Olympics mean a great deal to the CCP. It's an all consuming obsession. As such, it’s a golden opportunity to hit the CCP hard where it hurts, without actually damaging the people (from my and other observations in Beijing, the people seem quite divorced from the process anyway. Celebrations and functions leading up the games are tightly controlled, with the people kept well back). The Olympics will continue, but they shouldn't be allowed to succeed purely on the CCP's terms - a ‘Communist Success’, more fodder for slogans in Beijing. They shouldn't be entirely co-opted as an element of communist propaganda. Let’s take every opportunity to make it known that the CCP's shoddy standards are not acceptable to those that regard human rights and freedom as important.

However, the British government won't even make the smallest of stands - like not attending the opening ceremony. Francis Bayrou, of France’s Democratic Movement, called for France to boycott the Games. Donald Tusk, Poland’s Prime Minister, and Václav Klaus, President of the Czech Republic, have decided not to attend the opening ceremony, as has Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel. The Japanese royal family has refused to attend. The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, will not attend. French president Nicholas Sarkozy and his foreign minister Bernard Kouchner have suggested that a French boycott of the opening ceremony is a possibility. However, the British government has always ruled out a boycott of the opening ceremony. Gordon Brown will happily lap up the propaganda on his arrival in Beijing. He won't tour the prisons, the re-education and forced labour schemes, witness those under house arrest and surveillance, listen to those forcibly evicted and treated shoddily, or learn about those slaughtered by China’s liberal use of the death penalty. His Foreign Secretary David Miliband talked grandly about the ‘Democratic Imperative’ at a recent lecture, but is publicly muted about the CCP, despite it being deeply implicated in the suffering of Burma and Darfur. There’s less of an imperative to fully support democrats in Hong Kong and China, or put real pressure on the CCP.

This is not the time to relent – it’s time to apply pressure vigourously. There has been some progress in the human rights situation in China, such as some improvements in prison conditions and the death penalty process, limited experiments in democracy, and the 2004 recognition of property rights and very brief mention of human rights in the constitution. Whilst there is no full and real democracy as such, critical views – with boundaries set by the party – are tolerated to a greater extent than they were before: the situation is indeed greatly improved since Mao’s time. Whilst opposing the monopoly power of the CCP, and campaigning for democracy and human rights, it does a disservice to China to simply portray it as purely a brutal regime with leaders as “new emperors who ride roughshod over their own people” who have “almost total power” and that they “abuse to oppress and exploit the Chinese nation”, as Peter Tatchell says. Whilst true in many ways, especially regarding Mao, that is an over-simplistic statement to describe the current situation, because it ignores the real and positive changes.

The key is to keep the pressure up to continue the process of reform. There is much still to be done. There is endemic corruption. “The Chinese Communist party has become one of the most corrupt organisations the world has ever witnessed” says Will Hutton. There is a lack of workers rights; strikes are banned, and there are no free trade unions. Moreover, with a deeply flawed and highly politicised legal system, China regularly imprisons people unjustly. There is constant battle with hardliners and engrained police attitudes, and recent developments are not encouraging. Here are just two cases of many:

On 3 April 2008, democracy activist Hu Jia - whose family suffered under Mao - was sent to jail for 3½ years for “inciting subversion of state power”. Hu, who also worked in the environmental and AIDS awareness campaigns in China, told a European hearing in November 2007: “It is ironic that one of the people in charge of organising the Olympic Games is the head of the Bureau of Public Security, which is responsible for so many human rights violations. It is very serious that the official promises are not being kept before the games.”

Shi Tao was sent to prison for ten years in 2005 for emailing a summary of a government order to a US based pro-democracy website. Yahoo Hong Kong Ltd, a subsidiary of Yahoo Inc, divulged details of his email account without asking questions. Amid lawsuits against the company from dissidents, the US Congress condemned Yahoo which later paid damages to the family suffering because of its policy of easy collaboration. Tom Lantos, then chairman of the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said: "It took a tongue-lashing from Congress before these high-tech titans did the right thing and coughed up some concrete assistance for the family of a journalist whom Yahoo had helped send to jail. What a disgrace."

Useful links:
Reporters without Borders
Amnesty International
Human Rights Watch
Internet censorship in China
Power, Corruption and Lies
Free Tibet