Friday, July 25, 2008

Olympian PR bout under way in Washington


WASHINGTON (AP) — In an air-conditioned room in the Chinese Embassy, a vice minister from Beijing chastises Americans for their "very limited" understanding of violent anti-government protests in Tibet.

Hours later, hundreds of supporters of the banned-in-China Falun Gong spiritual movement kneel in the hot sun near the U.S. Capitol as lawmakers and activists rail against what they say are Chinese atrocities.

The Olympic Games begin in Beijing on Aug. 8, but already the competition to sway public opinion in the United States is heating up between anti-China activists and Chinese authorities. It is transforming the run-up to the global sports gathering into a public relations marathon in which China's national pride is pitted against claims that Beijing abuses its citizens and unquestioningly supports nefarious governments.

Once slow to address criticism, China has responded aggressively to what it sees as unjust condemnation by Western media, rights groups and officials that could tarnish the Olympics. An increasingly media-savvy Chinese Embassy has held briefings meant to provide China's point of view on contentious issues in the news. Ministers and academics have been flown in from China for news conferences and to meet with U.S. officials and lawmakers.

Meanwhile, China's opponents have been relentless. Uighurs, Tibetans, Falun Gong practitioners, activists for Darfur and Myanmar, and groups championing religious freedom and human rights are all delighted that the Olympics might shine a spotlight on a country they say has failed to follow through on pledges to improve human rights that were included with its bid to host the games.

They have gathered at rallies in Capitol Hill parks and at congressional hearings, where powerful lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and celebrities like actor Richard Gere have faulted Chinese rights abuses. At the Falun Gong rally, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, issued a warning to Beijing that has become a popular refrain by China critics in Washington: "The world will be watching."

For all the celebrity and congressional attention, however, it is unclear how much of a difference the efforts will make.

Ralph A. Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS think tank, says what will matter more is how China handles any protests at home during the Olympics, when reporters will be searching for signs of dissent. Some sort of protest, he says, "seems inevitable, and this will give China a black eye internationally if it overreacts, as it almost always does."

In Washington, the Chinese Embassy is working hard to counter criticism ahead of the games.

Spokesman Wang Baodong said it is the embassy's duty "to try to reach out to various circles of this country, to let them know the whole picture and to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the situation in China." Wang said that if Americans base their judgment of China only on the criticism of vocal opponents, "they will be misled, because it does not reflect the whole picture." He added, "The mainstream opinion of the international community is wishing good for the Beijing Olympic Games."

A large rallying point for protesters in the United States has been China's tight grip on Tibet, which China has governed since communist troops invaded in the 1950s. China says 22 people died in March anti-government violence; foreign Tibet supporters say many times that number were killed during demonstrations and a subsequent government crackdown.

China also has been criticized for not using its economic leverage to apply more pressure on the Sudanese government to stop violence in Darfur, where more than 300,000 people are said to have died over the past five years.

While some lawmakers are quick to blast China over these and other issues, the Bush administration has been careful not to anger Beijing ahead of the Olympics, wary about running the risk of hindering a host of international efforts the U.S. needs China's help to solve.

Still, a swirl of activity continues in Washington. On Wednesday, at a House hearing focusing on China "on the eve of the Olympics," Beijing was criticized for suppressing dissidents and activists. Then, on Thursday, lawmakers on the House foreign affairs panel passed a resolution that calls on China to immediately stop abusing minority rights and to end its support for Myanmar and Sudan so that the games will "take place in an atmosphere that honors the Olympic traditions of freedom and openness."

Cossa says that, with the protests and the scrutiny it is facing as the Olympics approach, "one wonders if there is not a certain amount of 'buyer's remorse' in China right now."

OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008

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