The Beijing Olympic Torch Odyssey

Dr Sev Ozdowski OAM
Australian Human Rights Commissioner (2000-05)
Adjunct Professor, CPACS, the University of Sydney

Speech for the Foreign Correspondents Club,
22 April 2008, MLC Centre, Martin Place, Sydney

In just a few months time, China will be hosting the Beijing Olympics. Regretfully, these Olympics are not likely to only be about excellence in sportsmanship and the coming together of all nations in a spirit of good will.

The current controversy about the Olympic torch rely is an indication of things to come despite the iron blanket of Chinese security forces trying to extinguished any dissent. In a way, I would say that the disruptions we have already seen with the torch relay in the UK, France and US have come to symbolise the realities of the lack of civil liberties and freedoms in contemporary China. The flame, representing these civil liberties and freedoms if you like, is guarded by Chinese Special Services, kept away from people, locked up on occasions and, quite often, extinguished…

For the Chinese Government the Olympics are primarily about legitimising and enhancing China's world status. In fact, the Chinese Communist authorities hope that the Olympics will showcase her economic achievements and consolidate China's status as a world super power. To this extent, massive amounts of money are being invested and will continue to be spent to create an illusion of Beijing as a city of harmony and social peace under the communist rule

Looking back, Nazi authorities held the same hopes for the 1936 Berlin Olympics which they saw as an occasion to showcase the so-called German economic miracle and to assert Germany's world power status. And let us not forget that in 1936, Nazi dictatorship was already well established, with political executions without trial, censorship of the media, abolition of the freedom of association and the racist Nurnberg Laws of September 1935 taking away all civil liberties from Jews. Despite this, the Western democracies decided to overlook these developments in the name of unity of Olympic spirit.

Soviet Union has had similar goals for its 1980 Moscow Olympics.

Olympics and the Politics

All the Olympic games of the past involved to a greater or lesser degree politics. Just think about Mexico City where Tommie Smith and John Carlos made a protest gesture on the podium against the segregation in the United States; Munich in 1972, where Palestinian terrorist group named Black September murdered a number of Israeli athletes and officials; the Montreal Games with a boycott by African nations to protest against apartheid South Africa; the Moscow Olympics that was boycotted by 66 nations because Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; or the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics boycotted by the Soviet Union and 14 Eastern Bloc countries.

At present, people who mention human rights in context of the Beijing Olympics are often accused of mixing politics with sport. I think it is an error of fact because the Olympics movement should symbolise human rights and because it is a legitimate expectation, not politics, to demand respect of human rights from the Olympics host nation.

So let us examine the legitimacy of this linkage being made in case of 2008 Beijing Olympics. Below I advance three facts to support my argument.

To start with, China, in lobbying the IOC to host the Olympic Games, had argued over the years, that it had become modern global society and that the human rights situation of its citizens had markedly improvement. The world was told "trust us" - the abuses of the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square massacre were a thing of the past to be banished to the annals of history.

We were told that the Constitution of the People's Republic of China included freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to a fair trial, freedom of religion, universal suffrage and property rights and that the authorities were doing everything in their power to advance implementation these fundamental rights. China also went on record when making the bid promising that the Beijing games will be the "greenest" Olympics ever.

We were further told that the Chinese Communist Government would use the Beijing Olympics to advance the human rights of its people. The Seoul Olympics were often quoted as an example to be followed as they contributed to democratisation of South Korea.

Then, when China was granted the right to host the Olympics, the government again reaffirmed its promise to live up to the Olympic spirit and uphold human rights.

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The Olympic Spirit

Second, for centuries the Olympic spirit has been linked to human rights, civility and peace. This is expressed in the Olympic Charter which specifically prohibits any form of discrimination.

In ancient Greece, a truce was announced before and during each Olympic festival. During the truce, wars were suspended, the carrying out of death penalties was forbidden and safety of visitors travel guaranteed.

So the question that needs to be asked is: Will China honour that ancient tradition of declaring and enforcing the truce in the Olympic year 2008?

Obligations under the International Human Rights Law

And third, China has definite human rights obligations under the international human rights law.

Since the early 80's China has actively sought to increase its participation in multilateral affairs. In fact, contemporary China had become party to a range of over 273 international treaties, of which 239 had become applicable to China only after 1979. These watershed decisions decisively showed China's acknowledgment the universal applicability of international law. Since then, international law has even been used by Chinese authorities to modify some of its domestic standards -- in particular in economic governance through accepting membership and the rules of, for example, the International Monetary Fund or the World Trade Organisation.

Although in the Chinese record of participation in international human rights regime has been largely negative, China has managed to enter a range of human rights obligations in international law.

As early as 1947 China was a member of a Drafting Committee of UN Commission on Human Rights developing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). This declaration adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948 has established a list of "common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations" which, until today, constitutes the listing of most basic human rights standards for all.

In fact, according to Eide and Alfredsson book on The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A Common Standard of Achievement, published by Martinus Nijhoff Publishers in1999: The performance of governments, and even their legitimacy, is being measured against the standards of the UDHR. No government can afford to ignore these standards, and all governments are bound to feel their impact at home and in external relations.

Allow me now to quote here few principles from this Declaration:

Article 2. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
Article 3. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and the security of person.
Article 5. No one shall be subjected to torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment of punishment.
Article 9. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.
Article 11. Everyone charged with a penal offence has a right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to law in a public trail….
Article 18. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion…. this includes freedom to manifest religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
Article 20. Everyone has a right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

Although, following the adoption of the UN resolution2758 (XXVI) of 25 October 1971 that admitted the People's Republic of China to the United Nations, China stated that:

"With regard to the multilateral treaties signed, ratified or acceded to by the defunct Chinese government before the establishment of the Government of the People's Republic of China, (the PRC) Government will examine their contents before making a decision in the light of the circumstances as to whether or not they should be recognised."

 It needs to be noted that this qualification did of course not apply to the Universal Declaration, because it was adopted prior to of the PR of China on 1 October 1949.

However, subsequent to this note China has signed and ratified most of the principal international human rights treaties including:

  • International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted by UN December 1966 and ratified on 27 June 2001
  • Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide approved by UN General Assembly on 9 December 1948 and ratified on 18 April 1983
  • Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment and Punishment of 1984.; ratified on 3 November 1988; although it sought to block any strengthening of the UN Committee Against Torture powers and voted against its Optional Protocol.
  • Regarding the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights adopted by the UN General Assembly on 16 December 1966 and China had signed in 1998 but it is yet to ratify it.

In addition, China plays an important and active role in the UN human rights structures and, for example, continues to serve on the UN Commission on Human Rights as well as currently playing a very active role in the development of the Disability Convention.

Finally, China participates in a range of bilateral human rights arrangements such as the human rights dialogue with the European Union established in 1997 or with Australia, Canada and some other countries.

The People's Republic entered these human rights international law obligations voluntarily and, as a result, is now subject to international accountability as to its human rights performance. Further, by ratifying these conventions it has ceded part of its sovereignty and its human rights performance has became a legitimate subject of international scrutiny.

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The current Human Rights Situation in China

The above three reasons gives us the legitimate right to ask the Chinese authorities about how these international human rights standards have been implemented. It is also fair to ask: Will the 2008 Beijing Olympics adhere to Olympic spirit and advance human rights? Such questions certainly do not constitute "interference into Chinese domestic affairs" or mixing of the politics with sport.

In order to answer the question whether China is meeting its human rights promises made to the international community, I have examined a range of documents by the Chinese and other governments (such as the recent US Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices in China), information generated by UN (for example, the 2006 report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Nowak) and by a range of international human rights NGO's (for example, by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch) and by individual experts.

I regret to conclude that since China was granted the right to host Olympics, China's civil and political rights record has not improved and but rather it has instead grown progressively worse. In fact, the major complaint made by Amnesty International and other watchdog groups is that China has failed to keep the promise they made in 2001 when Beijing was a finalist for the games in regards to improving their human rights record. Furthermore, I regret to say that some human rights violations have directly resulted from China being granted the right to host the Olympics.

Below I list both the on-going human rights violations as well as the additional violations which emerged since the Olympic bid was made by China.

The on-going brutal occupation and colonisation of Tibet, that started 60 years ago and which continues to this day. We are well aware of the current political crackdown in Tibet, so I do not need to elaborate this point in today's speech. Perhaps one point I would wish to make here is that the Chinese government has said that they have invested billions of dollars in Tibet and in improving its economy. To me, this argument has the logic of the argument of a person who has invaded to your home and locked you and your family in a room for your good because he has decided to repaint and refurbished your home for his own needs and taste.

The denial of Chinese citizens of their basic civil and political liberties. For example:

Chinese citizens cannot elect their own government.

There is no freedom of speech; and censorship by the Communist Party apparatus dominates every aspect of life. Censorship of political speech and information is openly and routinely used to protect what the government considers national security interests. In particular, press control is notoriously tight. In the Reporters Without Borders' Annual World Press Freedom Index of 2005, the PRC ranked 159 out of 167 places. PRC journalist He Qinglian in her 2004 book Media Control in China documents government controls on the Internet and other media in China.

Citizens are arrested and sent to jail simply because of the content of their private e-mails, sometimes courtesy of yahoo dob-ins. According to Amnesty, today, there are over 80 cyber-dissidents and journalists behind bars in China, hundreds international Web sites blocked from being accessed by citizens and sophisticated systems of filtering and monitoring political information. The situation was much better in 2001 when the games were awarded to Beijing.

Amnesty International recently reported a crackdown on journalists and human rights activists. For example, at the end of January civil rights defender and campaigner for rights of AIDS patients Hu Jia, 34, was charged with "inciting subversion of state power" - a catch-all charge frequently used against dissidents. On the same charge, Lu Gengsong, an online dissident in Zhejiang province, was sentenced to four years in prison. Other names include Liu Jie, a long-time protester of land issues in Beijing and Gao Zhisheng, an outspoken lawyer and Yang Chunlin, a factory worker arrested last July after circulating an online petition calling for "human rights not the Olympics". And these are just a few names on a long list.

Some 1.4 million Chinese citizens were forcibly removed out of Beijing and elsewhere to make room for the Olympics. In fact, Chinese law allows for the detention for up to four years without trial for any person living - without authorisation - within the Beijing city limits.

Recently the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern at the extensive use of the death penalty, including for offences that do not meet the international standard of "most serious crimes". In fact, China leads the world in capital punishment, accounting for roughly 90% of total executions in 2004.

According to the 2006 report by UN special reporter, torture is regularly used in Chinese prisons. Manfred Novak further concluded that two third of those being tortured in Chinese prisons were Falun Gong practitioners.

There exists a policy of forced abortions for people who break China's rigid one-child policy. Chen Guangcheng, a blind civil rights activist who exposed this policy has been under house arrest in Shandong Province for the past four months.

There is significant evidence pointing to continuance of religious persecution of Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, and others.

In particular the oppression of Falun Gong practitioners which started in 1999 has all the hallmarks of genocide.

As it was well documented in a report by David Kilgour, former Canadian MP and Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and human law lawyer David Matas, Falun Gong practitioners are murdered so their corneas, hart and lungs, livers, kidneys could be stolen for sale to commercial customers.

Falun Gong practitioners are denied their basic civil rights - they are arrested, tortured and send to prisons bypassing any court proceedings. Others are used as slave labour to produce cheap goods for export.

What is of particular concern is the use of Nazi like world wide propaganda campaign to dehumanise the practitioners. Falun Gong is being portrayed as a dangerous religious sect whose followers are coming to your neighbourhood to steel your children and money. An official Chinese policy statement was issued that prohibits Falun Gong practitioners from participating in the Olympic Games. This clearly echoes Hitler's policies excluding Jews from the Berlin Olympics.

Furthermore, the Chinese government exports its human rights abuses to other countries such as:

Zimbabwe - where China remains the chief political and financial backer of the Mugabe regime and provider of arms to Mugabe loyalists.
Burma - where China sells arms and politically protects the military junta.
Darfur - where China supports a genocidal regime in Sudan and blocks the UN Security Council resolutions aiming at peace. Furthermore, it provides effective financial and diplomatic protection of the first genocide of 21 century in exchange for access to Sudanese oil. In fact, China continues to be a key arms supplier to Sudan. According to Amnesty International, in 2005, China sold $83 million worth in weapons to Sudan providing it with bomber aircrafts, helicopter gunships and other weapons used in the recent proxy invasion of Chad.

To sum up, the Chinese authorities are clearly breaching international human rights standards. At present they perpetuate double genocide - one domestically against its own Falun Gong practitioners and the other by proxy in Darfur. This is happening in addition to well documented and on-going systemic abuse of civil and political liberties of Chinese people.

The Peoples' Republic of China government usually responds to the criticisms such as above by arguing that the notion of human rights should factor in standards of living; rise in the standard of living for some Chinese is seen as an indicator of improvement in human rights.

I agree with the Chinese authorities' statement that progress has been made in securing economic rights of some Chinese. I am however of the view, that we cannot overlook the Chinese officials blatant disregard of basic political and civil rights.

Furthermore, the exclusion of Falung Gong practitioners, independence for Tibet supporters and other categories of people by Chinese authorities from participation in the Olympics is in clear breach of the non-discrimination clause of the Olympic Charter. Let us not forget, Hitler excluded German Jews from participating in the Berlin Olympics, too.

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Public Concern about China's Human Rights Abuses

The controversy associated with the Olympic torch relay is an expression of the fact that there is growing world-wide concern about continuing human rights abuse in China.

The protest movement also indicates that China has come of age. China is no longer romanticised by Westerners as Mao's country of perpetual revolution, high on equality, low on economic wealth and of no local relevance. Contemporary communist China is seen for what it really is - a world power, economic powerhouse with global economic and military interests. In fact it is seen as a major world economy run by an autocratic government.

And as a result of this perception, different rules are starting to apply to the new China, because its power is not only impacting domestically as it was in the past, but its power extends to people living in liberal democracies of the West. In Australia, for example, our living standards, our economy and our security are directly linked to the decisions of Chinese Politburo. And Westerners are more and more aware and concerned about it. Many regard the human rights situation in China as a legitimate subject of conversation and as of direct concern to them. If it is OK to criticise the US for its world power status and for its human rights shortcomings, why not to criticise China? So let me reassure Chinese authorities, current human rights criticism is linked to China newly acquired worlds status and its human rights practices, and that there is no global conspiracy to damage the Beijing Olympics.

The public concern is, however, reflected in growing people's movement focussing on the human rights in China. And this public awareness has helped to build coalitions of people of good will with similar interests who are not afraid of intimidation by Chinese authorities. And here I am talking of emerging world people's power movement that is able to articulate its demands for improvement and starts to impact on democratic governments around the world and on China itself.

The World Organisation to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong Practitioners is an example of such people's power movement. It has emerged as a grass root movement aiming to stop a campaign of abuse and murder inflicted on Falun Gong practitioners by Chinese authorities. This organisation relies on volunteers and has undertaken many pioneering initiatives. It recently organised the first ever Olympic Human Rights Torch Relay which visited many countries including Australia. This has created new tradition and informed the public about the fate of Falun Gong practitioners in China around the world.

There are also many other non-government organisations around the world which take direct action to improve human rights in China.

For example, the New York-based campaign Olympic Dream for Darfur has staged Olympic-style torch relays to bring attention to China's role in Darfur. Campaign director Jill Savitt says the relays have gone through countries affected by genocide: the Chad-Darfur region, Rwanda, Armenia, Germany and Cambodia. She says there are plans for protests in other cities, including San Francisco, as the Olympic torch travels from Athens to Beijing in March.

Stephen Spielberg withdrew as artistic adviser to the 2008 Olympic Games because of China doing nothing to end Sudan's attacks in the Darfur region.

On 11 February 2008 a London paper The Evening Standard reported that after "a storm of protest" the British Olympic Association agreed to look again at the wording of the contract handed out to all prospective competitors. The contracts banned the UK competitors at Beijing Olympics from commenting on "politically sensitive issues", that is China's human rights record. The move also conjured up the spectre of 1938, when the England football team was told to make Nazi salutes in the Berlin Olympic stadium before playing Germany.

This public concern about China's domestic human rights situation has not been always reflected by our democratically elected governments. They tend to give higher priority to good government to government relations, to pragmatic economic objectives and sometimes are afraid of retaliation. Despite this, to talk about Finlandisation of Australia by China is clearly not justified at this moment, but it could be at most considered as one of possible scenarios for future relationships between Australia and China.

However, it would be fair to say that now in some countries it is politically correct to discuss political independence of Kosovo, but not that of Taiwan or Tibet. This political correctness is of course best explained by a massive difference in power between Serbia and the People's Republic of China. But it would be also fair to say that some authorities, businesses or universities would be willing to sacrifice freedom of expression in order to please Chinese authorities.

I am however certain, that with time the western governments, being democratically elected governments, will start reflecting the changing public opinion about China. This would lead to changes in government attitudes towards the Chinese authorities. So one could hypothesise that the "honey moon" period in relations between the West and China will have to come to an end.

Last but not least, it is important to recognise that the people power is starting to develop in China, too. The official Chinese statistics indicate enormous growth in citizens' protests since 1999 - there were 2007 public protests (some with violence) in 2007; according to unofficial calculations the number was closer to 130,000 protests in 2007. There are also mass desertions from the Communist Party.

Recently, for example, despite enormous personal risk some 60 intellectuals have signed a public petition calling for immediate release of human rights advocate Hu Juanita was also reported that a large number of Chinese bloggers have taken Mr Hu's cause demanding his immediate release.

Furthermore, the Falun Gong movement displays some characteristics that the "Solidarity" movement displayed in Poland in the 1980s. Both movements are characterised by their independence of government structures, spirituality and solid organisational skills. Both of them were able to see that the emperor had no clothes so to speak and demand their rights.

The recent sending of the Human Rights Torch Rely to mainland China will add to development of peoples' power where it counts the most.

And there are some signs that Chinese officials are starting to respond to political pressure. For example, as reported by David Kilgour, the Chinese Medical Association recently agreed that "organ tourists" will no longer be eligible to obtain transplants in China.

Weeks ago, China released two journalist prisoners, Yu Huafeng, a senior editor of the Southern Metropolis Daily and Ching Cheong, a Hong Kong reporter for the Straits Times of Singapore, after having served half of their initial five-year sentence.

Remember that not long ago, peoples' power crumbled the Berlin wall and brought an end to the Soviet empire. People's power abolished apartheid in South Africa. Looking further back it took Christians about 300 years to stop persecution by the Roman Empire and declare it to be state official religion.

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The Way Forward

When China was given the 2008 Beijing Olympics we agreed that this would provide a historic occasion, a unique window of opportunity, to improve the human rights for one third of the world's population.

There are still those of us who believe -- or hope -- that such improvements, as promised to us, are still possible. According to USA Today of 9 February 2008 a US State Department spokesman, Mr Rob McInturff stated recently that "Our current position is we don't support calls for an Olympic boycott. This is an opportunity for China to step up and show the world an open and tolerant face of China ", acknowledging world concern about China's human rights record, but, at the same time challenging the government to step up to the plate and deliver on promises made.

But let us be realistic. In my view it is impossible to have the Chinese political system fully reformed to embrace democracy and to comply with international human rights within the next few months. So, what are the minimum demands to be complied with by Chinese authorities prior to the 2008 Olympics?

  • At an international human rights conference in Taipei in February 2008 I put forward the following four demands which were realistic and achievable prior to the Olympics, namely:
  • The cessation of the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners and the release of all practitioners from prisons and labour camps.
  • The withdrawal of economic and political support for the Sudanese regime and cooperation with the UN to end the Darfur genocide.
  • The granting of amnesty to all political prisoners and the release of all political prisoners from prisons. And last but not least:
  • Put a moratorium on the death penalty in 2008 to comply with the ancient Olympic tradition and international human rights standards.

Today I would add one more demand - create Vatican-like status for Tibet. This is a practical suggestion to get out of current mess. Tibet is the holy place of Buddhism, lies on periphery of China and cannot threaten China either politically or militarily.

And let's remember - all these proposals are doable, because they only require administrative decision to be taken by the same top people who are responsible for running the Olympics. And this is an important point to remember. The same Chinese officials are responsible for both the current deterioration of human rights in China and for running of the 2008 Olympics.

So what do we do in meantime? Do we stop our public expressions of displeasure about Chinese government human rights practices in hope that the Communist officials will see the light and start conforming to the standards of international human rights law?

In my view, the peoples' power is unstoppable and protests will continue until human rights demands are met. And it is up to us people living in free world to express our solidarity with people who are suffering human rights violations under the Chinese regime. As Edmond Burke, an English philosopher once said "the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." And our action can achieve much.

And let us be clear. The disruption of torch relay or boycott of the Beijing Olympics is not an aim itself. Improvement in human rights in China is the objective.

Let us also be clear - the current protests associated with the torch relay are not against Chinese nation as such but against oppression of dissidents and minorities by the current Communist regime of China.

A few days ago it was reported by media that Chinese diplomatic and consular missions in Australia called upon "patriots" in Australian Chinese community to go to Canberra to defend the torch relay from protesting Tibetans, Falun Gong practitioners and human rights activists. Such calls are here to perpetuate the myth that protests are about China itself and not about extrajudicial murder and torture of Chinese people by the communist authorities. Furthermore, if such an army of "patriots" shows in Canberra, rightly or wrongly questions may be asked about the loyalties of Chinese community in Australia.

I am an optimist and like many Chinese believe that democratisation of China is inevitable. One academic quoted to me an old saying when referring to the future of Communist system in China - "regardless whether you are a slim or fat pig, your destiny is to be slaughtered".

Full democratisation of China and in particular better protection of civil and political rights may take time to deliver. How long? It is difficult to be precise in estimation. But if one takes Moscow Olympics as a guide, it did not save the Soviet Union. On the contrary, it delivered first important step on the way to the collapse of the Soviet Union ten years later in 1990. The Nazi regime only lasted 9 years following the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

China after the Olympics will be certainly a different nation. World perceptions of communist China will change too. My hope remains that China, sooner rather then later would emerge as a nation where civil liberties are better understood, practiced and protected.

Therefore let us aim that the Beijing Olympic slogan "One world, one dream" reads as Chinese dissidents suggested: "One world, one dream -- same human rights". The best long term legacy of 2008 Beijing Olympics should be not only new world records in different sporting disciplines, but also a lasting improvement in human rights of Chinese citizens.

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