HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- With a year to go before the 2008 Olympics get under way, questions linger over China's efforts to improve its human rights record.
Observers and pressure groups have criticized the efforts of the Chinese government and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) since Beijing won the bid in 2001, rejecting assertions by both that the Games will lead to lasting positive change in the world's most populous nation.
After praising Beijing's preparations as "excellent across the board," the IOC official charged with overseeing Beijing's preparations, Hein Verbruggen, sparked further anger from advocacy groups with his recent comments that, "...the way the Games are being used as a platform for groups with political and social agendas is often regrettable.''
The International Federation for Human Rights claimed his remarks will "embolden'' hard-line elements within the Chinese Communist Party to ignore international pressure over human rights promises. But the IOC says, there is a widespread misconception that a list of "human rights promises'' was ever sought by the IOC in the first place.
"There were some declarations made by senior Chinese leaders in Beijing who raised the human-rights question proactively and talked about how the Games would be part of the process to help human rights development," says IOC's director of communications Giselle Davies,. "But that was never a [piece of] criteria on which the IOC judged and assessed Beijing's bid.
"The IOC decision is not made in a political or social context. It is very much based around what is a coming together at a sporting event and everything for which that can be a catalyst for," Davies adds.
And that, she believes, is a force for good. "The IOC fundamentally believes that the world will look back and see the Games as a key moment along a period of change and development for good in China," she says.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch has sharply criticized Beijing. On Thursday, the organization said China's government has failed to live up to pre-Olympics promises of greater human rights freedoms and has instead clamped down on domestic activists and journalists, according to reports from The Associated Press.
"The government seems afraid that its own citizens will embarrass it by speaking out about political and social problems, but China's leaders apparently don't realize authoritarian crackdowns are even more embarrassing," Brad Adams, Asia director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in a statement carried by the AP
On first glance it would appear Beijing is sensitive to certain international concerns. In June, Chinese officials and the IOC moved quickly to launch an investigation into allegations by the advocacy group Playfair 2008 that four official souvenir makers were using child labor. Earlier that month, Beijing took the landmark step of allowing the mother of a victim of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown to mark the anniversary of his death publicly.
But others believe that since 2001 there has been a tightening of controls on political dissent and freedom of speech, as Beijing has sought to contain the social and political fall-out from the country's breakneck economic development.
The IOC says, for example, that the Olympic Games has led to improvements in China's labor system in which workers endure long hours in harsh conditions for less than the legal minimum wage.
Han Dongfang, the Hong Kong-based labor rights activist for the China Labour Bulletin organization, which monitors workers' rights in China, insists "It's about markets and it's about cheap labor ... Labor rights have become worse over the past few years.''
He says that any real change in China can only come from the inside as a result of pressure from workers and the development of free trade unions and the right to collective bargaining -- and not from international pressure.
"The Chinese leadership does not care about international pressure. It is not China who is knocking at the door of the international community looking for favors -- it is the other way around,'' Han says.
The IOC says "enormous'' progress has been made in terms of the freedom the news media will have to report on the Olympics, following the 2001 pledge by the secretary general of the Beijing Olympic Bid Committee Wang Wei. "We will give the media complete freedom to report when they come to China," he said at the time.
Not so, says veteran China scholar Willy Wo Lap Lam, author of the recently published "Chinese Politics in the Hu Jintao Era."
"The police and secret police departments in every city have lists of dissidents and 'dangerous' people who are not supposed to talk to the western media," Lam says.
"So, instead of following these Western reporters around, the police will simply post more 'guards' outside the dwellings of 'suspect' people in each city and county. They will ensure they can't talk or work with western journalists.''
Professor Joseph Cheng of Hong Kong's City University agrees with Lam. "China's only concern as far as the Olympics is concerned is to showcase itself to the international community. To this end it will treat foreign journalists and visitors very well - but all the troublemakers will 'disappear'," he says.
"Twenty years ago they put trouble-makers under harsh house arrest or worse. Today, they give them a holiday. Either way, they won't be speaking to foreign journalists.''
Lam adds that any pledges Beijing did actually make does not necessarily mean human rights will improve. "The main pledges made by Beijing are clearing up the environment and curbing traffic jams. Both of these are achievable through draconian methods," Lam says.
Furthermore, while the world-at-large may be expecting an Olympics-led metamorphosis, the reality is very different, he says.
"Beijing will not relax controls over dissidents, NGOs as well as 'agitators' for Tibet or Xinjiang. There will be tighter surveillance of potential troublemakers," Lam says.
"The South Korean Olympics in 1988 marked the beginning of genuine political liberalization. For China, it is a very different story. The Chinese Communist Party sees the Games as an opportunity to show the world China's great achievements in the economy and infrastructure and to demonstrate their diplomatic clout. Internally, the Games will help the Party foster 'internal cohesiveness' using national pride to justify the Party's ruling status.
"No Chinese Communist Party leader wants to use the Games as a juncture to push forward reforms.'' E-mail to a friend
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