The Beijing Olympics were an “indisputable success” that brought change to China in areas as diverse as press freedom, the environment and public health, according to an assessment released by the International Olympic Committee this week that activists criticized as ignoring human-rights violations that occurred during the Games.
“I think the I.O.C.’s fact sheet is missing a lot of salient facts,” said Minky Worden, media director for Human Rights Watch. “What is missing in this document is the extent to which the International Olympic Committee lowered its standards on human rights around the Beijing Olympic Games.”
Thousands of people were evicted from their homes to make way for construction of Olympic venues, and some activists were detained before the Games began. Although authorities set up “protest zones” during the Olympics, no demonstrations took place, and several people who applied for protest permits were detained, including two elderly women who were initially sentenced to up to a year of “re-education through labor.” The sentence was later rescinded.
Despite promises by the Chinese that foreign journalists would have unfettered access to the Internet, authorities initially blocked access to several Web sites at the main press center. Although some of the restrictions were loosened, it led the I.O.C. member overseeing press operations, Kevan Gosper, to accuse the Olympic committee of betrayal. In addition, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China logged more than 60 incidents of “reporting interference” during the Olympic period, including several cases where foreign journalists were physically harassed.
“I think in the end, the government’s approach to the media hasn’t changed that much,” said Bob Dietz, Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. Dietz said he and other members of his group traveled to the Olympic committee’s Swiss headquarters in 2006 and met with officials, then again in Beijing in 2007 to express their concerns about press freedom in China. He called the I.O.C. response “tone deaf.”
“They just didn’t get it,” he said. “They didn’t understand the importance of our concern.”
Sam Zarifi, the Asia Pacific director for Amnesty International, said while the Chinese government has made some strides in recent years, it has hardened its stance on other issues, such as Tibetan autonomy. “China has moved forward, but not at the pace that we had hoped,” Zarifi said. “Certainly for the I.O.C. to pat itself on the back I think is not really a fair evaluation of all that they accomplished.”
The I.O.C. report also applauded the Games for improving public health in China, saying that authorities “took new steps to improve food and water safety” and quoted a World Health Official, Hans Troedsson, as saying the public-health legacy of the Games is a “long-term gift to China.”
There was no mention of the tainted-milk scandal that broke just after the conclusion of the Games and which has led to the death of four infants and sickened more than 50,000 others. Worden pointed to reports that a Chinese journalist’s blog post about the contaminated milk was removed from a Web site just as the Games were beginning. Chinese reporters were also prohibited from reporting on food-safety issues during the Olympics, she said.
“I think it has to be said that the news was there of the toxic baby formula,” Worden said. “Censorship in China is a matter of life and death.” (more)