Why Martin Lee was right to speak out

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 November, 2007, 12:00am

Martin Lee Chu-ming has been a friend and colleague for 14 years. Every so often he does something which reminds me why he is a great man. His call for US President George W. Bush to use the Olympics to pressure China to improve its human rights was such an occasion.

In making this statement, Mr Lee was giving a voice to millions of oppressed people on the mainland who cannot speak out publicly, save at great personal risk. People like blind activist Chen Guangcheng , imprisoned for campaigning against forced abortions; like Wang Wan- xing, held for 13 years in a mental hospital for raising a banner in Tiananmen Square in 1992 calling for democracy; like Xu Zerong, the historian imprisoned for research which would be completely uncontroversial in any free country.

And, like the mainland official who, when I complained about my reserved train seat being commandeered by a Communist Party delegate, said: 'You know, we do not have human rights in this country'.

The people who have attacked Mr Lee in the Hong Kong media must know it is impossible to avoid hearing on the mainland the widespread private complaints from ordinary people about the lack of human rights. If, that is, they ever visit the mainland, of which they profess to be so fond.

In 1978, US president Jimmy Carter announced that human rights would be central to American foreign policy. The next day, a poster appeared on Beijing's Democracy Wall. It read: 'We would like to ask you to pay attention to the state of human rights in China.'

Regrettably, American presidents, from Mr Carter to George W. Bush, have been more interested in promoting the trade and investment interests of American business than human rights. The US has ignored repeated opportunities to help bring human rights to China, particularly in 1978 (the Democracy Wall movement), 1989 (Tiananmen Square) and 1998, when Bill Clinton failed to give effective help to the fledgling China Democracy Party. All the signs are that another historic opportunity presented by the Olympics is about to be missed.

By speaking out, Mr Lee was reminding the world of the promises made by both China, when it was bidding to host the Olympics, and by the International Olympic Committee when it awarded the Games to China. Liu Jingmin , the executive vice-president of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games Bidding Committee, said in April 2001 that 'by allowing Beijing to host the Games you will help the development of human rights'.

Liu Qi , president of the organising committee for the Games, said in July 2001 that holding the Olympics in Beijing 'will help promote all economic and social projects and will also benefit the further development of our human rights cause'. Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, said in April 2002: 'We are convinced that the Olympic Games will improve the human rights record in China.'

The reality is that with the Games less than nine months away, the Chinese government has not improved its human rights record. In fact, it has intensified its suppression of dissent, censorship of all news media and harassment of visiting journalists, who were promised the ability to report freely from the mainland during the period of the Games.

Last week, a court in Sichuan convicted a Tibetan, Runggye Adrak, of subversion for expressing public support for the Dalai Lama. He has done nothing except exercise his right of free speech, and now faces the prospect of between three years and life imprisonment for having done so.

This is the kind of outrage about which the free world should protest, and Mr Lee is right to remind it of its duty. Unfortunately, there is no sign that Mr Bush is listening.

Paul Harris is a barrister and was the founder of Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor