BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s foreign minister gave a spirited defense on Thursday of his country’s right to host the 2008 Olympics in the face of criticism over human rights following talks with his British counterpart.
As the August 8 opening of the Games draws near, China’s Communist rulers are deflecting a barrage of criticism over issues from its policies in Sudan to its use of the death penalty, but Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi came out swinging.
“People in China enjoy extensive freedom of speech,” he told reporters, following talks with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband.
“No one will get arrested because he said that human rights are more important than the Olympics. This is impossible.
“Ask 10 people from the street to face public security officers and ask them to say ‘human rights are more important than the Olympics’ 10 times or even 100 times, and I will see which security officer would put him in jail,” Yang said.
China pledged to improve its human rights record ahead of the Games, but experts and lawmakers told a U.S. government panel on Wednesday that such promises were not being kept.
Last week, Chinese state prosecutors tried dissident Yang Chunlin, an unemployed factory worker, who faces charges of “inciting subversion of state power” after he called for human rights to take precedence over the Games.
China also issued a white paper on Thursday which outlined many laws and principles which rights groups say are routinely ignored or violated.
They include the right to freedom from unlawful detention, freedom of belief and speech, the outlawing of torture, and the freedom of ethnic minorities to practice and protect their customs and way of life.
But that came with a caveat, which China has in past years repeated like a mantra: that China has a fundamentally different concept of human rights from the West, where the rights of the individual come first.
Miliband said he raised the issue of rights in his talks with Chinese leaders, including individual cases, though he did not say which cases he mentioned.
“We do not believe that issues of human rights should be restricted to the Olympic year. Those universal values ... are an issue for every year, not just for one particular year,” he said.
“We believe that the Olympics are an opportunity to celebrate the progress that has been achieved in China, China’s commitment to work in a peaceful way with the whole international community, and does not require any sort of disavowal of values that we hold dear.”
Miliband’s six-day trip to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Chongqing and Beijing follows a visit by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to China last month, during which leaders agreed to expand bilateral trade to $60 billion by 2010 from $40 billion last year.
In talks with Miliband that touched on the Iran nuclear issue, climate change and China-EU relations, Yang said they agreed to raise the share of financial services in their trade.
They also discussed Africa, where China has growing trade and strategic links, and where Miliband said London and Beijing “should be indispensable allies of each other in supporting development and freedom from conflict”.
Among China’s African allies is Sudan, where Beijing is a major investor in the oil sector, a relationship which prompted movie director Steven Spielberg to quit as artistic adviser to the Olympics, saying it was doing too little to halt bloodshed in the western Sudanese region of Darfur.
Yang defended China’s role in Sudan, highlighting its development aid, the engineering corps it deployed to join a force of United Nations and African Union peacekeepers, and its appointment of a special envoy on Darfur.
He said that despite Spielberg’s move, there was no widespread support for censuring the Beijing Games.
“Don’t tell me that there is international support for boycotting the Olympic Games on the grounds of China’s human rights,” he said. “This is not true.”
Speaking in Singapore, Sebastian Coe, who heads the London 2012 Olympics, said sport should be protected from politics.
“We have to be very, very careful when we use international sport as the first line of foreign policy,” Coe told Reuters.
(Additional reporting by Tan Weixin in Singapore))
(“Countdown to Beijing Olympics” blog at