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Beijing Games become catch-all for causes

BEIJING (Reuters) - What do the conflict in Darfur, forced evictions, media freedoms and the rights of migrant laborers have in common?

A student turns a somersault near one of the mascots for the 2008 Beijing Olympic games at an Olympic education model school in Miyun County of Beijing June 8, 2007 file photo. What do the conflict in Darfur, forced evictions, media freedoms and the rights of migrant laborers have in common? The answer is China and the 2008 Olympics. REUTERS/Jason Lee

The answer is China and the 2008 Olympics.

Activists everywhere are seizing on Beijing’s hosting of the massive sports event to pressure the government on a range of causes -- a range so broad, some are wondering if they can have any impact.

“Certainly there is a tactical element, but there is a risk that if you stretch your claims on an issue linking it to the Olympics, this actually devalues the argument and makes it look very opportunistic,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Still, he said, with China’s huge economic might and growing diplomatic weight making it more impervious to international pressure, the Olympics were a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to bring human rights issues to the fore.

Issues of China’s rule in Tibet, its trade with Sudan, city redevelopment leading to forced evictions and media freedoms are only a sampling of causes activists and civil society groups have linked to the Games in hopes of striking a chord with Beijing.

The voices advocating change have also broadened from the usual range of rights watchdogs to Hollywood figures such as Mia Farrow, who has been calling for China to change its policies in Sudan.

Beijing’s desire for a successful Games, she said, “may provide a lone point of leverage with a country that has otherwise been impervious to all criticism”.

Many say the values associated with the Olympics are broad enough that hosting the event implies a commitment to upholding certain standards on rights and freedoms more generally -- standards they say are lacking in China under Communist Party rule.

“There is a grandeur, there is a luster in being associated with the world Olympics, and it shows that you are a leader, that you are standing on the international stage as a leader,” said Allyn Brooks-LaSure, of the Save Darfur Coalition.

“We believe that there is an associated responsibility commensurate with that.”


The advocacy group has been urging Beijing, which buys much of Sudan’s oil and sells it arms, to do more to pressure Khartoum over the fighting in Darfur.

The group has taken out full-page advertisements in major newspapers featuring a photo of a hand holding a starting pistol at a running track alongside one of an African man holding a rifle, with the slogan “Beijing Games. Darfur Massacre. China’s Only Publicising Its Role In One”.

Brooks-LaSure says the campaign is having an impact, with Chinese officials in Washington initiating meetings with Save Darfur and becoming more responsive to calls to do more.

The Darfur issue sparked a call from French politician Segolene Royal to consider a boycott of the Games if China did not shift its stance, and last month 108 members of the U.S. Congress warned of a public opinion backlash staining the event if China did not increase pressure.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said such attempts were doomed to fail, but past Olympic boycotts have made an impact, with the United States leading a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan the year before. Five summer Olympics have been subjected to boycotts in the past 50 years.

But some cast doubt on how effective such pressure campaigns can be.

“The Chinese don’t have a tradition of bending over backwards to make people happy all the time,” said Taylor Fravel, a political scientist and China specialist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

It was also hard to unravel the Olympics as a factor motivating China’s behavior from the broader drive in Chinese foreign policy to portray itself as a responsible great power, he said.

And others argue that linking issues as seemingly unrelated as the Olympics and the strife in Sudan runs the risk of diluting the message for issues more immediately related to the Games, such as allowing domestic and international media to report freely about the event.

Bequelin, of Human Rights Watch, said it was important to campaign for broader systemic changes in China to ensure any period of easing for the Games was not followed by a crackdown.

“You have to be careful of Olympic fatigue as well,” he said. “If everything is tied to the Olympics then nothing is tied to the Olympics.”