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China's thin veil of compliance

August 26, 2008

The Canberra Times (Australia)
August 25, 2008

Aburning question for the media and the international public before
the 2008 Olympic Games was whether the holding of the Olympics might
improve, as the Chinese had promised, their human rights 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 June2, 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.

Bill Keller pointed out recently in the International Herald Tribune
that ''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.

Dr 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).
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