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Beijing 2008: The games of reform?

By CNN's Kirsty Alfredson

HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- China's human rights record may have prevented it from winning the Olympics in 2000, but the international community is acknowledging there's a flip side.

With the Games going to favorite Beijing, it need not be a reward for a pitiful human rights record, but instead a catalyst for reform.

When Beijing lost to Sydney by two votes, the United States, the European Union and human rights groups controversially condemned its bid because of its human rights record.

There was a significantly softer approach this time around.

The E.U. once again expressed concern about the "human rights situation in China" but wasn't opposed to the bid. And the Bush administration declared itself "neutral" in the Olympic race, despite some outcries from congressmen.

One of them, U.S. Democrat Tom Lantos, said before the vote "China's abominable human rights record violates the spirit of the games and should disqualify Beijing from consideration".

Rights groups soften

The IOC's position in the report evaluating the bids states that while the process is purely technical, it "is impossible to ignore the public debate on political issues such as human rights" and "that members of the IOC will have to reach their own conclusion".

Human rights groups are taking a gentler line and, although maintaining China's record remains poor, most were not opposed to the bid.

Human Rights Watch says rights in China are "far below international standards, with arbitrary detention, torture, and violations of freedom of expression, association, assembly, and religion still widespread".

The group points out, however, that international attention may be the impetus for change as "having thousands of people from around the world in China can focus attention, including on the degree of state control and fear of political protest".

A letter has been written by the right's group to IOC President, Juan Antonio Samaranch, urging him to seek commitment from the Chinese government that it will protect human rights and ensure that international media covering the Games will have unrestricted access without discrimination.

A long way to go?

Amnesty International consistently names China as an abuser of human rights, accusing it of executing more people in the last three months than the rest of the world has over the last three years.

The organization did not have an official stance on the bid, but asks why the people of China have to wait for the Olympics to see their rights recognized.

"Considering the escalation in serious and widespread human rights violations over the past three years, the Chinese authorities have a long way to go to demonstrate a healthy and basic respect for human rights, " Amnesty told CNN.

"Amnesty International hopes the Olympic spirit of fair play and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles will extend to the people of China much sooner than 2008," it said.

Falun Gong

Another rights factor is the Falun Gong spiritual movement, banned in China, which stands accused of killing 255 practitioners whilst in custody.

There was also the hope that five scholars detained by China would be released in a fashion similar to that of dissident Wei Jingsheng who was freed after 14 years in jail prior to Beijing's last attempt to host the games.

He supported the 2000 Games bid, but was rearrested after it failed, and is now exiled in the United States and has reversed his earlier support.

"Back then, the U.S. and the international community were pressing China on human rights. That's why I was released. Today, there's no pressure. So giving Beijing the games will only encourage China to further violate human rights," he says.

With tens of thousands of foreign visitors expected, supporters argue the Olympics would force China to open more to the rest of the world and generate heightened international scrutiny of the government's behavior.

The question remains for the IOC members who voted in their secret ballot, did they award the games to the world's most populous country on the grounds of the possiblity of reform?

• Questions & Answers : China and the Olympic Games 2008 (Human Rights Watch Press release, )
• International Olympic Committee

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