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Petra Kolonko {*}

Peking Olympiad in 2008 and Human Rights

An Interim Balance


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 7/2007, P. 435-443
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


When in 2001 the People's Republic of China was awarded the Olympic Games of 2008, there was rejoicing in Peking, but mixed reactions outside China. Was it correct to award a communist State, a one-party dictatorship, in which substantial violations of human rights are known, the honour of holding the greatest sport event of the world? Critics referred to the Olympiad in Berlin in 1936, a propaganda event of Hitler's regime, which served to deceive the world opinion about the true nature of the Nazi rule. Can the Olympiad be celebrated in a country, while there political prisoners sit in prisons and internationally recognized citizen rights are withheld from the citizen? Supporters argue that the organisation of the Olympiad will just be an incentive for the Chinese government to permit more liberties, and for the critical citizens of the country it could be an opportunity they could use to demand from their government the respect of their rights. The Olympiad, so that hope, could work as a catalyst: admittedly it would not change the character of China's political system, but would nevertheless take the Chinese government upon the correct way into a more democratic and pluralist society.


Disappointed Hopes: Prohibitions and Taboos

After six years of preparation and one year before the sporty mass meeting it is obvious that the great hopes for an improvement of the human right situation before the Olympic Games will not come true. The Chinese government goes on taking hard actions against dissidents, it controls press and Internet, and it refuses the judicial authorities independence from the party and chicanes persons who fight for their rights and the rights of their fellow citizens. The officially registered religious communities are kept on a tight rein; the non-official ones are forbidden and persecuted.



At a first glance at the press landscape and Internet publications it is not noticeable that freedom of speech and freedom of the press are still strongly restricted in the People's Republic. Never before the press landscape was so multicoloured, never before the Chinese newspapers had so many society-critical reports, never before there were so many public discussions in China as now in the Internet forums. But one needs not search for a long time to come upon the limits of these discussions. The newspapers move within a framework exactly pre-set by the Propaganda Ministry. Matters that are allowed to be criticized are pre-set just as the topics that are taboo. So the newspapers at present can report a lot on social topics, for instance the troubles of migratory workers, because this corresponds to the new government politics of social reconciliation.

But the hardships of the farmers who are driven away from their land are taboo, because this question often concerns corrupt functionaries. The newspapers are allowed to report on individual cases of corruption, if these are already taken up by the discipline commission of the party. But to conduct one's own inquiries in the ranks of the party is highly risky and has already led to the closing of editorial offices and to the dismissal of editors. When in March 2007 the People's Congress was to pass a new "property law", in the weeks before the vote all articles on this topic disappeared from the press, although the law had been hotly discussed before in the Internet and in the newspapers. The censure had determined that the journalists had to be silent until after the vote. Completely taboo is finally public criticism of individual party leaders or of the party rule in all.


Internet Controls

Internet has become a large platform of discussions in China. There are 137 million Internet users in the People's Republic of China. Chat rooms and blogs are popular. But here too the party carefully watches that the discussions do not go too far, and that topics considered as politically explosive do not occur. All persons running Internet portals must promise not to publish any news or contributions that endanger the security of the country, the constitution, the rule of the communist party and the unity of the various ethnic groups. In case the self censorship should fail, each Internet portal has its censorship editors, who again are kept under surveillance by the all-powerful Propaganda Ministry. Time and again some people try to go beyond what is permissible, sometimes naively and unknowingly, sometimes on purpose. The party follows their activities in the Internet and imposes publication prohibitions. More than 20000 Internet policemen are brought into action to keep the Internet free of matters the party does not want to see circulated.



According to findings of human right organizations there are in China more than 100 persons who are in prison only because of forbidden publications in the Internet. E-Mail traffic is kept under surveillance and filtered. Since the party cannot completely watch the multitude of Mails and publications in the Internet, one tries - by an exact retracing of the sources - to hold the authors on the line. The fact that occasionally even western Internet operators help with it rightly caused indignation. The journalist Shi Tao was arrested and condemned after the Internet operator Yahoo had revealed his identity to the Chinese security authorities. Lately all Internet Blogs are to be enrolled with genuine name and address, bloggers are no longer allowed to hide behind an alias. At the beginning of this year the party leader Hu Jintao again ordered to "cleanse" the Internet and to give precedence to good socialist contents.

The party's control extends also to the treatment of historical topics. Thus the newspapers are forbidden to write for instance about the Anti-Right-Campaign in the fifties during which millions of people were tormented and humiliated. The Culture Revolution must not be examined. The merits of the state founder Mao Tse tung must not be questioned. The collapse of socialism and the Soviet Union is if possible to be played down. It is also forbidden to report on the activists who engage for rights of the disadvantaged. That there are time and again such activists Chinese learn at best by reports of foreign media, which can be found by creative Internet users in the censored net, or by those who are capable of reading a foreign language.

At the beginning of this year the Chinese government made a surprising concession to foreign journalists in China. According to the Olympic obligation to a free coverage for foreign media in China, the government loosened some restrictions for foreign reporters in China. So foreign journalists no longer need to laboriously get an official approval for interviews, and can travel to the provinces without the up to now necessary registration - a progress that had been demanded for a long time. But since some time it becomes apparent that the local authorities strive to make the access to foreign journalists more difficult for all those who have to report something or to chicane them after giving interviews.


Civil Rights Movements

In the last years in China a loose group of civil rights activists was established, which calls itself "Defenders of the Human Rights". To it people belong who look after the concerns of others, help persons deprived of their rights or try to make known cases of perversion of law and of arbitrary use of power by authorities and police as well as corruption. One of them is the blind civil rights activist Chen Guang sheng. He revealed abuses in the enforcement of the One-Child-Policy in his home province Shandong.



There farmers were compelled to abortions and enforced sterilizations although the state policy actually forbids coercive measures. Chen became the speaker of the people concerned and brought an action against the authorities.

Another courageous "defender of human rights" is the lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who engaged for cheated migratory workers and asked the party leadership in an open letter to stop the persecution of the Falun Gong sect. Also petitioners belong to the defenders of the rights: activists who take care for AIDS victims neglected in China, and activists of environment organizations, who help farmers to bring an action against ecologically harmful industries and authorities cooperating with them. Many help farmers whose land was expropriated for building projects, and who often get a too little or no remuneration at all, because the funds provided for it disappear in the bags of corrupt functionaries.

The Chinese government let those activists work for a while under exact observation, but now there are signs that it would like if possible to silence this group before the Olympic Games. Chen Guangsheng, the blind civil rights activist, was sentenced to three years imprisonment. Gao Zhisheng was sentenced to three years confinement on probation and has been isolated since his dismissal. He recalled his confession after the dismissal: in prison it had been forced out of him under pressure. Other activists are regularly kept under house arrest without any court order. Thus the helper of the AIDS victims Hu Jia was for six months detained in his Peking flat. Persistent petitioners are sent to labour camps; some disappear for months in a psychiatric hospital.

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On the Way to the Constitutional State?

The Chinese government likes to assert about itself that it was well on the way towards creating a state founded on the rule of law. Indeed as many laws as never before are enacted; they are also discussed among experts and sometimes even in parliament. But the most important condition for a true "rule of law" is missing: the independence of the law from the instructions of the party. In the year before the Olympiad the politburo member Luo Gan affirmed once more that all reforms in the system of justice only aimed at strengthening the leadership of the party and socialism. In China court decisions are ultimately imposed according to the will of the local party officials. In 70 per cent of all cases the accused have no defence counsel in court. The rights of the defence counsels are greatly restricted. In political cases an acquittal can - because of the sentences fixed by the party from the start - never be attained, at best a reduction of the detention.



According to findings of Dui Hua, an American donation that for years in deserving, laborious investigation has documented the cases of political prisoners in China, in 2006 altogether 3331 prisoners sat in Chinese camps and prisons because of political offences. Most of these sentences were passed because of government-critical publications. Only in 15 per cent of the cases there was a charge of the attempt to create an oppositional organization.

What is more, these are only the cases that became known because a sentence on the crime "endangerment of public security" was passed. It is to be assumed that there are quite more "political prisoners", who were either without any sentence sent to the camps for "re-education by work" or sentenced for other offences.

The prison conditions are hard for all who serve a prison sentence in Chinese prisons. In 2005 the UN-correspondent for torture was for the first time allowed to travel to China, to visit prisons, and to talk with prisoners and their relatives. Although his discussion possibilities were limited and pressure had been put on some interlocutors, the correspondent after his discussions came to the conclusion that torture is still widely spread. All activists who have spent time in Chinese prisons confirm that prisoners are beaten, hung up at handcuffs, tormented by withdrawal of sleep or for days have to stand against a wall. Particularly in prisons for people awaiting their trial maltreatments are the order of the day. The Chinese court system sets great store on a confession, and so the police tries every means to extort one from the prisoner.

The People's Republic of China executes more people than all other states of the world together. The number of executions is a state secret. According to estimates of Chinese lawyers there might be about 8000 per year. Not only crimes of violence, also corruption and fraud are punishable by death. Altogether there are 68 offences in China for which the death penalty can be inflicted. The Chinese government objects to appeals, particularly from Europe, to abolish the death penalty. The conditions for it were not yet ready. There are nevertheless efforts now to reduce the number of death sentences. That's why all death sentences must be confirmed by the highest Court of Justice. Its president called upon all province courts to proceed with more caution in passing death sentences. But he too calls the death penalty a means to protect the security of the state and the citizens.

Also the Chinese system of "re-education by work" is a flagrant offence against the individual's civil rights. This system allows the police to send accused without trial up to three years into a labour camp. Human rights groups and democratic governments that with China lead human right dialogues have for years been demanding the abolishment of this system, with which smaller offences are to be punished, but which is also used for political offences.



Particularly followers of the forbidden Falun Gong sect have been sent to those camps. The Chinese government has now announced that it will change the system into "institutions for re-education", which should be rather schools than prisons. Human rights organizations have already reprimanded that such a change will not protect yet the rights of the individual, if the accused are still sent into these institutions without judgment of the court.


Religious Communities

In view of the Olympiad also the religious communities had cherished hopes of more areas of free activity and of more recognition. It was noticed that the Communist party for the first time adjudicated the religions a positive role, when in 2005 it declared the religious communities could make a contribution to the "building of a harmonious society". But of the five religious communities Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, Catholic and Protestant Church which are officially registered in the People's Republic of China so far only Buddhism and Taoism profit from the pre-Olympic tolerance. In summer 2006 the People's Republic for the first time in its history invited to China to a world meeting of Buddhists. The state's high attention to and support of this meeting of Buddhist monks and faithful from all over the world show the effort of the Chinese government, to foster Buddhism not as originally Chinese but nevertheless as religion for centuries spread in China. In accordance with the guideline of the party the Buddhists prayed for a "harmonious world", which fits well together with the present party politics of a "harmonious society".

The party's new kindness to the Buddhists did of course not go so far that also the Dalai Lama as head of the Tibetan Buddhists had been invited. Tibetan Buddhism gets a special treatment, since with the Dalai Lama the religious head stays in Indian exile and the Tibetan question for the People's Republic is a question of "separatism". For the Chinese government the Dalai Lama is a separatist. Tibetan Lamaism is painstakingly observed; monks and monasteries are bound to exact regulations, and the Chinese government does everything possible to wipe out in Tibet the Dalai Lama's influence and to establish a hierarchy of its own in the monasteries.

In 2007 now the only doctrine originally spread in China, that of Taoism, also experiences state promotion. In April China invited to an international meeting of Taoists, which was jointly organized in the central Chinese city Xi´an and in the special administrative region Hong Kong. There are 5000 Taoist temples and monasteries, which are much frequented again and renovated.



Wealthy businessmen build new temples. Buddhism and Taoism, so the message, are supported by the Chinese government. Chinese religion scientists say, the party could afford this tolerance because these two groups were so "obedient" and could easily be controlled.

In this regard the three remaining religious communities are suspect to the government. On the part of the Chinese government neither control nor supervision has let up. There are even signs that control of the Muslims and the Christian churches is intensified. In the case of Islam, which in China has about 20 to 30 million followers, the Chinese government is afraid of the influence of Islamism and the promotion of separatist tendencies, for instance in the peripheral province Xinjiang. The influence from the Muslim world is feared. The Chinese government regards Islam as dangerous religion, since China has a long border with the Central Asian states, where Islamic groups are strong.

In the Chinese heartland the Muslims, who mostly belong to the people of the Hui, are assimilated and have not yet stood out by radical behaviour. But in the Chinese province Xinjiang the problem of Islam turns out to have many different forms. Here some Uigur groups fight for an independent East Turkistan. In the nineties also assassination attempts and acts of sabotage of Islamic groups happened here. The Chinese government used these actions as opportunity to bring - in the name of the fight against terrorism - the mosques and Imams in Xinjiang with educational campaigns and propaganda under its control. Human rights groups deplore that here - under the pretext of the fight against independence efforts - also the freedom of religion and the legitimate rights of the Muslim minorities are limited.

The Chinese government is afraid of unwanted influence from foreign countries also with the Christian churches. The communists regard the connections of the Christians with the world church as threat. Under the cover of religion hostile foreign forces came into the country, is said in the party jargon. The party already early insisted that the official Protestant Church in the "Three-Self Movement" bound itself to be independent of foreign countries and the Catholic Church had to break with Rome. While the splitting-off of the Catholic underground church from the official "Patriotic Church" already happened in the 50ies, there is in the last years a Protestant movement away from the officially registered church. It has developed dynamics about which the Chinese government is obviously worried.

Whereas according to official data the official Protestant Church has 17 to 20 million faithful, according to unofficial estimations between 50 and 70 million Protestant Christians belong to the so-called "house churches". These are small groups of Christians, who usually meet without minister in private flats and houses for prayer and service.



There have been house churches in country regions for a long time already. In the last years they also grew in the cities and find followers in the urban middle class and among the students. Despite the official prohibition many Protestant missionaries are active in China. One reason for the turning away from the official Protestant Church is a practical one: There are much too few places of worship in China, on Sundays the churches are overcrowded, and the ministers have hardly any longer personal contact to their parishioners. Compared with that, the house churches offer space, personal contact and Christian community, as one often does not find it within the official church. Some of the house church Christians do not want to have dealings with the official church, because it is too much influenced by the party and its theology is too much adapted to the political requirements. Time and again it is reported that ministers of the official church are secretly also party members.

The party demands of the house churches to register themselves or to join an official church. To what extent the house churches are tolerated differs from province to province. The American organization "China Aid", which observes the Protestant Churches in China, nearly every month reports the closing of house churches, the arrest of ministers and faithful, and chicaneries. There have also cases become known where churches built by house churches were demolished. In Peking the house church minister Cai Zhuohua was sentenced to three years imprisonment for printing Bibles. At any rate increasing tolerance before the Olympiad is certainly out of the question.


Tensions with the Vatican

The situation remains difficult for the Catholic Church as well. Only some years ago there were speculations whether a rapprochement between the Vatican and the Chinese government and the establishment of diplomatic relations were possible before the Olympiad. Discussions took place, but there is no stir whatsoever on the part of the Chinese government. It insists on its old demands, the Vatican was to give up the relations with Taiwan and its "interference into internal affairs". With 'interference' above all the appointments of bishops are meant. Pope Benedict XVI criticized the appointment of bishops in the official Chinese church without papal agreement as serious interference into religious freedom. The "patriotic church" has nevertheless consecrated bishops without the Pope's agreement.

The splitting of the church into an underground church faithful to the Pope with estimated seven to ten million faithful and the official church with five million faithful makes the position of the Roman-Catholic Church and its faithful opposite the Chinese state more difficult.



In some provinces the underground church and the patriotic church are still ill disposed towards each other. The patriotic church criticizes the underground church. Many priests and bishops of the underground church endured long detention years and suffered for their faith and their loyalty to the Pope, and do not want to have any dealings with the national church. Many of them are chicaned and kept under house arrest. As steps of progress is to be reported that the official Catholic Church now maintains also more contacts to the world church, the Pope is present also in the official churches and most of the official bishop candidates strive for an acknowledgment by the Pope. But it is still questionable whether diplomatic relations between Peking and the Vatican will be established before the Olympic Games.

Positively is to be noted that the churches do not have to hide any longer, but can self-confidently appear in public. Meanwhile the best-seller "Stories from the Bible" can be found almost in all book shops. Internet too is a help: Dioceses have their own Internet sides, which promote the exchange and the outward representation, even if missionary work still remains forbidden. The government also begins to estimate the charitable activities of the churches. Churches run hospital wards, orphanages and other social services.

Thus something similar applies to freedom of religion as to the entire development of human rights questions: The Chinese society has become more pluralist and world-open, and the Communist Party has withdrawn from the direct control in many sectors of the social life. But all freedom finds its end at the party's claim to supremacy. Of that also the forthcoming Olympic Games have not changed anything.


    {*} With the Olympic Summer Games in Peking in 2008 hopes are connected for an improvement of the human right situation in China. PETRA KOLONKO, Sinologist and correspondent of the Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung in China, draws up an interim balance: Admittedly the Chinese society has become more open and pluralist, but all freedom ends at the Communist Party's claim to supremacy.


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