Going for Bronze


OK, so the International Olympic Committee shouldn’t have given the Games to China because of its ongoing human rights abuses. But what’s done is done – you work with what you’ve got. It has become clear that hosting the Olympics is a double-edged sword, and that while on the one hand it can appear that participating countries are condoning China’s human rights abuses, these Olympics have also provided an opportunity to raise awareness of those abuses going on inside its borders and elsewhere in its growing sphere of influence, such as those in Darfur.

This is not thanks to the IOC or to the Chinese leadership, but in spite of them. Truth be told, it was courageous protests in Tibet in March and April – and the violent crackdown in response – that really set things off.

Ordinary citizens in other countries have turned out in their thousands to show support for human rights in Tibet. For China the farcical "sacred" torch relay was supposed to be a massive PR campaign (apparently sport and politics actually mix very well, thank you). But it failed dismally. Public response to the relay turned it into a global made-for-TV story of ongoing Chinese bastardry and belligerence on Tibet.

As someone who has spent time working to put China’s human rights issues on the agenda, I wonder if there might be another, subtler dimension to all this international controversy over human rights in China. It feels as if we are seeing the growth of a more widely shared sense that the Chinese leadership is fair game for campaigns on human rights, social justice and environment issues.

Certainly some folks have been campaigning on China issues for a long time, but until now, the idea of challenging the Chinese leadership over abuses has at times seemed like flogging a dead horse. This has been largely thanks to the relentless cheer squad reporting of China’s economic and political rise, combined with mysticism around the cultural challenges of engaging with the Chinese leadership (eg hypersensitivity about "losing face", and the sense that the Chinese leadership is somehow beyond influence). The struggle to publicise China’s role in Darfur was made a lot easier thanks to the country’s engagement with the world via the Olympics.

This is not to say that pressuring for change in China is suddenly easy or straightforward. It’s not. As the tortured relay wound around the world, some commentators were banging on about the futility of an Olympic boycott, as though that was ever a realistic option. I’d give that strategy a zero out of ten on three counts: analysis, ambition and creativity. The Olympics is reflective of increasing engagement between China and the rest of the world, which provides myriad new opportunities to effect change.

This question of strategy has been a difficult one, most obviously for the athletes who "represent" us. Most of us would probably agree that respect for human right is a good thing, but it has been interesting seeing who has the guts to stand up for what’s right – and who doesn’t. I’m talking about human rights abuses narrowly defined: persecution, torture and killings. These are abuses that diminish us all, wherever they occur. I used to like Thorpie – not that I ever met him, but he sure can swim, and he seemed a wholesome kind of fella. Actually I thought he was pretty good value as role models go. But in the lead-up to the Australian leg of the torch relay, he wheeled himself out at a media conference to lecture folks against using it as an opportunity to speak out against human rights abuses in Tibet.

Thanks Thorpie, but I find your lame-arse spouting on civics as useful as you’d find my swimming lessons.

In contrast, Cadel Evans can find it in himself to stand up for what he believes in, even while he’s competing. And speaking of courage, Australian Olympian Michelle Engelsman has publicly launched a pro-Tibet pack for athletes .

I’ve no idea what immediate impact in China human rights protests around the world might have had. And I suspect that’s going to stay unknown for some time. The impact of the Olympics themselves on human rights in China is a story that will be some time in the telling.

In that vein, have a think about this: China is an empire, it can’t last, it faces multiple and increasing social, economic and ecological pressures, it will collapse and it’s likely to happen without warning. I’m not advocating a catastrophic collapse of China – imagine how ugly it could be – I’m simply suggesting that it’s one plausible scenario. And it’s one with very serious implications for the human rights situation in that country and throughout the world. My hit prediction is that if/when China collapses or undergoes radical change for the better, it’ll be more because of movements in China itself rather than pressure from the outside.

Let’s first consider the economic rights of the majority of China’s population. In 2006 the English translation of journalists Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao’s book Will the boat sink the water? hit the shelves. The book’s preface tells the story of its remarkable impact: first published in China in 2003, 150,000 copies sold in one month, following publication of a shorter version in a literary magazine. This generated substantial media coverage inside China. The book was banned without warning, and then a further 7 million pirated copies were sold.

The book is subtitled The Struggle of Peasants in 21st Century China. The word "peasants" isn’t an obvious fit with "21st Century", but that’s what the book’s about, and it comprises six vignettes of over-taxation in rural areas, all in the poor Anhui province, not far from Shanghai. Hardly blockbuster stuff, you’d think, but it’s gripping reading.

And here’s the nub: the authors estimate there are 900 million peasants in rural China, and they’re not sharing in the booming economy. They’re being taxed illegally by local authorities (there are five levels of government in China). That’s a human rights abuse right there. And in each story, when peasants object to paying taxes, they pay an alternative price: in physical violence and even with their lives. Since the publication of the book there have apparently been some official changes in tax arrangements, but the situation for peasants remains.

It’s the flipside of the "China’s-economy-is-booming-and-that’s-either-good-news-or-a-threat-for-us" narrative that daily fills the financial pages in the West, and it’s light years from the feel-good story we mostly hear, about the Beijing Olympics being the ball at which debutant state China will formally step into world society. China’s economy is booming, but trickle down economics doesn’t work in the West and it isn’t bridging the increasingly extreme economic disparity in China either.

Despite the often monolithic public façade, the Chinese have a range of reasons to feel powerful discontent, and there is no shortage of forces undermining the central authority. The Hong Kong-based Asia Monitor Resource Centre (AMRC) is a useful source of data and analysis on conditions for workers in China, such as health, safety, and the right to organise. In China’s coal industry for example, fatalities run at the rate of 6,000 a year. And although once rare, strikes in the southern Guandong province alone (which attracts substantial foreign investment) are now a daily event. The Hong Kong-based Asia Monitor Resource Centre estimates that in the period 1996-2002, 40 million workers were sacked. China also clearly perceives the Falun Gong to be a serious threat, warranting ongoing persecution through incarceration, torture and killings.

China also faces massive ecological rights challenges. Beijing smog is a problem for locals who’ll live their whole lives breathing that air, as well as for elite athletes aiming for peak performances at the Games. But more significant ecological challenges exist. The Three Gorges Dam is emblematic of these. This mega-project, with a reservoir 600 kilometre long, forced the relocation of at least 1.3 million people from 14 cities and thousands of towns and villages. It’s so heavy it represents an earthquake risk all by itself. In all, 30 per cent of China’s rivers are severely polluted, some don’t reach the sea anymore, and more than 10 million people have been displaced.

Some internal pressures are reflected externally too: the Tibet-China relationship remains unresolved and a continually ebbing and flowing irritant in China’s foreign relations. This remains a story of cultural genocide, involving the killing of millions of Tibetans and flooding Tibetan areas with millions of non-Tibetans. More recently it has taken on the flavour of the standard Western colonial-development model for low income countries and regions in other parts of Asia and elsewhere: move in and dominate, rip out resources, call it development, and then wonder why it all goes bad.

It doesn’t work and the name for it is "the resource curse" – the way regions rich in exploitable natural resources generally don’t get good socio-economic outcomes. I’m not a fan of the World Bank, but its Extractive Industries Review back in 2004 got it right in concluding that robust governance structures and institutional capacity were a necessary precondition for successful resource exploitation like mining – and not the other way around.

Internal stresses such as these mean China is headed for significant change – change which I’m hopeful will lead to major improvements in human rights.

So as I see it, there are three bases for optimism. First, that China’s growing global engagement opens up new opportunities for supporting human rights in China, and that the Olympics are one example of this. Secondly, that this engagement brings the Chinese leadership into focus as legitimate targets for protest. And thirdly, that conditions in China are building deep and powerful social unrest, evidenced by the growth of Chinese civil society, labour organisations and environmental groups, carefully carving out new political spaces in which to operate.

Given all that, what are the opportunities – and responsibilities – for folks outside of China? I’ve argued here that the key to significant improvements in human rights in China lies in China itself. But this is not a green light to sit back and disengage. There’s plenty going on now in China that diminishes us. It’s incumbent upon us on the outside to keep the pressure on and be prepared for significant changes. We can speak out and keep speaking out.

The men’s marathon is traditionally the last event of the summer Games, but I think we’ll be waiting a little longer than that for a full tally of the Olympics’ impacts – positive and negative – on human rights in China.

Still, if conditions are right, with a little luck there’s the chance of an upset, and human rights might just grab a bronze.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.