China rights in focus as Games city haze lifts

BEIJING Tue Jul 29, 2008 2:19pm EDT

1 of 10. A Chinese resident walks past a poster of the Olympic rings in Beijing July 29, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Claro Cortes IV

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BEIJING (Reuters) - Olympic host Beijing saw hazy pollution lift on Tuesday, but a damning Amnesty International report brought into sharp view tensions over China's human rights policies ten days before the Games begin.

With the 2008 Olympic Games due to open in the shining Bird's Nest Stadium on August 8, the human rights group on Tuesday gave a scathing assessment of China's record, saying many of its citizens' protections and freedoms have shrunk, not expanded, in the seven years since Beijing won the right to hold the Games.

China had not honored vows to improve rights that officials made in lobbying for the Games, and was not living up to commitments as an Olympic host, Amnesty International stated in the report released in Hong Kong.

"There has been no progress towards fulfilling these promises, only continued deterioration," it said in the report, titled "The Olympics countdown - broken promises".

"The authorities have used the Olympic Games as pretext to continue, and in some respects, intensify existing policies and practices which have led to serious and widespread violations of human rights," it said in the report released in Hong Kong.

Amnesty said Chinese authorities had targeted human rights defenders, journalists and lawyers to "silence dissent" ahead of the Games, jailing dissidents such as prominent AIDS activist Hu Jia and often intimidating their families.

A Chinese government spokesman dismissed the Amnesty report as a product of habitual bias that ignored big improvements.

"This is a statement that anyone who knows China cannot agree with," the Chinese Foreign Ministry's chief spokesman Liu Jianchao told a news conference in Beijing. "I hope Amnesty International can take off the colored glasses it has been wearing for years and look at China fairly and objectively."

Several Chinese lawyers and activists pressing for lifting censorship, stronger judicial protections and improved treatment for AIDS patients, told Reuters the Games had brought pressure for some improvements but was making life difficult for them.

Teng Biao, a Beijing-based lawyer who has experienced detention, said China's Olympics run-up had brought some gains in media freedom and emboldened Internet-based citizen activism.

"But in many aspects the Amnesty report is right -- there has been no progress or even deterioriation," Teng said by telephone. "Everything has had to give way to the Games, and that's also led to rights violations."

Wan Yanhai, an advocate for AIDS-HIV patients, said China's leaders had made vague promises to improved rights without anticipating the growing pressure from Chinese activists and outside groups to act on those promises.

"The government doesn't know how to adjust to holding such a big event in an open, challenge-filled environment," Wan said of the Games. He said he had left his home in Beijing to escape pre-Games pressure from security authorities.

RESPITE FROM HAZE

The city's chronic pollution, a sometimes stifling mix of construction dust, vehicle exhaust and industrial fumes, has also been one of the biggest worries for Games organizers.

Winds and rains on Tuesday lifted much of the sultry haze that had hung over Beijing in past days, trapping pollution and worrying Games officials and athletes readying for competition.

Beijing authorities have raised the prospect of more pollution controls, in addition to keeping nearly half of Beijing's 3.3 million cars off roads and shutting many factories near the capital.

But Du Shaozhong, deputy chief of the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau, said the haze, reducing visibility to a few blocks, did not mean air quality was bad.

"Cloud and fog are not pollution. This kind of weather is a natural phenomenon, and has nothing to do with pollution," Du told reporters.

Beijing is not the only Games city to suffer. Hong Kong, host to the equestrian events, was hit by its worst air pollution ever recorded on Monday. Pollution was thick again on Tuesday, making it hard even to see across the city's famed harbor.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) said it may reschedule endurance events such as the marathon to prevent health risks to athletes if pollution is bad.

"The IOC medical group has said that the air quality will be okay for any competition up to an hour, and beyond that we're in a position to reschedule," senior IOC member Kevan Gosper told Reuters.

Japanese athletes may don masks made for construction workers to guard against air pollution during the Games, a doctor affiliated with the Japanese Olympic Committee said on Tuesday.

Cars in Beijing are already banned from roads on alternate days under an odd-and-even license plate system and many government cars have been ordered off the roads. Taxis, buses and Olympic vehicles are exempt. Around Beijing, heavily polluting factories, such as steel plants, have also been closed.

"It's a worry, but then it's the same for everybody," Julian Jones, an Australian team staff member in Beijing, said of the pollution worries. "But we're all in the same boat."

(Additional reporting by Chris Buckley, Lindsay Beck and Guo Shipeng in Beijing, James Pomfret in Hong Kong and Naoto Okamura in Tokyo; Editing by Nick Macfie and Valerie Lee)

(For more stories visit our multimedia website "Road to Beijing" here)

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