By Benjamin Kang Lim
REUTERS - 12:06 a.m. August 2, 2007
TAIPEI – A group of Taiwanese critics of China on Thursday announced a plan to launch a rival torch relay to highlight human rights abuses on the mainland, months after the island rejected the 2008 Beijing Olympic torch.
The announcement came as New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said China's dire human rights record and a renewed crackdown on media freedom may spoil the Chinese government's hopes of a successful coming-out-party at the Olympics.
Taiwan and China have been at loggerheads over whether to take the Olympic torch relay to the self-ruled democratic island, over which Beijing has claimed sovereignty since their split in 1949 at the end of the Chinese civil war.
'The (rival) human rights torch relay will expose the inside story of the bloody Olympics,' Lai Ching-Te, a deputy of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, told a news conference.
The human rights torch will be lit in Athens on Aug. 9 and the relay will cover about 100 cities worldwide.
'No human rights, no Beijing 2008,' read a banner on display at the news conference venue.
Abuses listed by Lai and other China detractors included the 'persecution' of Tibetans and adherents of Falun Gong, a spiritual movement banned by Beijing as a cult in 1999.
The Coalition to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong in China, a non-governmental organisation, quoted a Chinese Ministry of Public Security classified document as saying 43 types of 'hostile' people would be barred from the 2008 Olympics.
China has lumped Falun Gong followers, Chinese defectors, pro-democracy activists, religious 'extremists and infiltrators', exiled Tibetans and Moslem Uighurs together with 'terrorists' on its persona non grata list, a spokeswoman for the coalition said.
Chow Meili, president of Taiwan Friends of Tibet, an NGO, urged Taiwanese to show support for 14 exiled Tibetans on hunger strike to press China to stop human rights abuses.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry had no immediate comment when reached by telephone.
Human Rights Watch said Beijing is more worried about political stability and tightening its grip on domestic human rights defenders, grassroots activists and media to choke off any possible expressions of dissent ahead of the Games, the group said.
'Instead of a pre-Olympic 'Beijing spring' of greater freedom and tolerance of dissent, we are seeing the gagging of dissidents, a crackdown on activists, and attempts to block independent media coverage,' said HRW Asia director Brad Adams.
'The government seems afraid that its own citizens will embarrass it by speaking out about political and social problems, but China's leaders apparently don't realise authoritarian crackdowns are even more embarrassing.'