Saturday, 8 March 2008

No Medals for Beijing



Why on Earth did they choose Beijing for the next Olympics? Perhaps they hoped that exposure to the worlds press would help China get its act together for 2008. Unfortunately the problems they have always had are still present, and now some athletes are worrying about their health in the polluted air. I visited China in 1990 (by train from Europe, trans Siberian Express) and was amazed to see factory chimneys spewing out next to flats. It sounds like not much has changed.


This piece is by Reggie Littlejohn, for Human Rights Without Frontiers

Beijing is likely the most polluted city in the world. With smog sometimes measuring five times the World Health Organization's safety level, pollution in Beijing is of huge concern to the health and performance of the Olympic athletes. Concern about pollution has thus far been overshadowed by consternation over China's abysmal human rights record. It is now, however, emerging to the forefront: both British and American athletes have been urged to wear air-filtering masks in Beijing, even at the risk of offending the host country. In addition, world-record holding marathoner Haile Gebrselassie has said that he may skip the Games, fearful of the long-term consequences that competing might have on his health.

Despite the urgency of this situation, Beijing officials have told Reuters that providing clean air for the Olympics "must not be too disruptive to the city's economy or the lives of the people." Thus, it appears doubtful that they will take the robust and decisive measures required to ensure safe air for the Olympics. If the air does not meet safety standards, Jacque Rogge, President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has told BBC Sports that certain endurance events (such as the marathon, triathlon and cycling events) may have to be postponed.

China's pollution problems extend far beyond its borders -- falling as acid rain over South Korea and Japan and raising pollution levels as far away as the western United States, according to "Choking on Growth ? As China Roars, Pollution Reaches Deadly Extremes" (New York Times, August 26, 2007).

Another, less publicized issue is that of clean water for the Olympic Games. Last week, ABC News reported that pollution has turned an entire river system red in central China, leaving 200,000 people without water. On March 6, 2008, Chinese officials told Reuters that providing safe water for the Olympics will be a "severe test."

Beijing's attempts to clean the air have met with limited success, at best. While Chinese officials report that air quality has improved significantly, on February 3, 2008, Washington-based environmental consultant Steven Andrews told the Sunday Mirror (UK) that there has been a "cover-up." In a January, 2008 op-ed article published in the Asian edition of the Wall Street Journal, Andrews stated that the Chinese government stopped including readings from two air-quality monitors that were in highly polluted areas and replaced them with readings from three monitors in less polluted areas, presumably to report an improvement in air quality. The Chinese government, of course, denies that it deliberately manipulated the monitoring system to achieve improved results.

China has utterly failed to come through on the promises it made to the IOC in 2001 with respect to both a clean environment and human rights. To the contrary, China's toxic air reflects its equally foul human rights record. With respect to the Olympics, two million people have been kicked out of their homes, as China builds its Olympic Village. Also, according to "The Real China and the Olympics," a letter by human rights activists Teng Biao and Hu Jia, in April 2007, the Chinese Ministry of Public Security issued a secret document "forbidding Olympics participation by 43 types of people from 11 different categories, including dissidents, human rights defenders, media workers, and religious participants."

Both authors of this September 10, 2007 letter have suffered the consequences of speaking out. On December 27, 2007, Hu Jie was dragged from his home and now remains in detention while his wife and infant daughter are under house arrest, constantly surrounded by security police and unable to leave their small Beijing apartment. Then on March 6, 2008, Teng Biao was abducted and is now missing. In addition to writing "The Real China" letter, Teng Biao was the lawyer for Chen Guangcheng, the blind activist who exposed the forced, late-term abortions and forced sterilizations in Shandong province, who was sentenced to four years in prison in late 2006. Chen's torture was so severe that word went out that he was close to death.

Beyond this, many who have challenged China on its human rights record -- including human rights activists, unregistered house church leaders, and journalists? are now being detained in what amounts to an "Olympic Crackdown." As recently as, March 7, 2008. Christian human rights lawyer Li Heping's car was smashed by an unmarked car as Li was driving his seven-year-old son to school.

Other ongoing human rights abuses include China's practice of forcibly repatriating North Korean refugees, knowing that they will suffer detention in hellish labor camps or execution; and China's close ties to the genocidal government of Sudan. Even the West has experienced China's poisonous food and toys. The list goes on.

What can we learn from this?

1. In selecting the sites of future Olympic Games, the IOC should not choose one of the most notoriously polluted cities on the planet, on the promise that the host country will turn itself inside out to produce a clean environment in time for the Olympics.

2. Similarly, in selecting sites for the future Olympic Games, the IOC should not choose one of the most repressive, totalitarian regimes in the world on the promise that this regime will improve its human rights record in advance of the Olympics.

3. Those who enjoy freedom of speech MUST speak out. Activists in China are losing their freedom, and more, to expose China's human rights atrocities to the world. Meanwhile, many in the West do nothing. A Special Report, entitled, "Olympic Crackdown ? Preparing for the Beijing Games, China's Authorities Go After Human-Rights Activists," (U.S. News and World Report, February 25 March 3, 2008), states, "A spate of detentions and arrests related to the Olympics over the past two years has met with near silence from foreign countries." We need to let our voices be heard. Otherwise, we bear responsibility for human suffering we know about but choose to ignore.

"All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing." (Edmund Burke)

8 March 2008

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1 comment:

bryan said...

Not to pick nits, but I think Haile Gebrselassie has said that he won't compete in the marathon. I think he's still open to running the 10k (though there has been no announcement on this for the past month or so).

Still, it's kind of a shame that this is even an issue. I don't think the Olympics is going to generate the kind of environmental progress they'd hoped in the short term, but hopefully the things they initiate for the Olympics will be continued after the fact for the benefit of Beijing's residents.