Too little, too late?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 February, 2008, 12:00am

There are signs that Beijing is, at long last, waking up to the fact that it needs to improve its human rights record if it wants the summer Olympics to be a success. But it may well turn out to be a case of too little, too late. The welcome release of journalist Ching Cheong two days before the Lunar New Year has been followed by that of Yu Huafeng , the former editor of the Nanfang Daily, who was sentenced to eight years in prison in 2004.

Hopefully, in the coming weeks and months, there will be other releases. But the positive impact of such moves will be nullified if Beijing continues to detain, arrest and imprison other journalists and political activists. So far, the crackdown continues.

In fact, the same day that Ching was released, Lu Gengsong, a freelance writer and human rights defender based in Hangzhou , was sentenced to four years' jail for 'inciting subversion of state power' in Hangzhou. In December, prominent rights activist and Aids advocate Hu Jia was arrested and charged with 'inciting subversion of state authority'.

If Beijing wants the world to believe that it has really turned over a new page in its human rights record, it must not only free a few prisoners from time to time, it must stop arresting other political activists.

Now, with less than six months to go before the Olympics, there is very little time left for the Chinese government to change its image. It should have started on this course in late 2006, when it announced liberalised regulations for foreign correspondents in the run-up to the Olympics.

When Beijing made its bid to host the Olympics, it promised that journalists would be allowed to report freely and also that the human rights situation would improve. In late 2006, it announced new regulations for foreign journalists during the period from January 2007 to October 2008. However, it did not do or say anything about an improved human rights environment.

If it had, things would be different today. If Beijing had shown, over the past year, that it was really capable of improving its human rights record for a whole year, then many people would believe that this new state of affairs could, perhaps, be made permanent.

As it is, even the liberalised rules for journalists are not working out evenly. Sometimes, provincial officials - and sometimes national leaders - do not live up to the spirit of the rules. Still, there is little doubt that Beijing is trying to make the work of foreign reporters a little easier.

But where human rights are concerned, there has been no let-up in the past year. Instead, Beijing has been hanging tough, despite widespread protests by human rights organisations, professional bodies and even foreign governments.

The Olympics are widely seen as an event that will mark China's 'coming out' after more than a century of decline. This is the wish not only of the Chinese government but of the Chinese people. However, if the government does not let up on its crackdown, a shadow will inevitably be cast over the Games.

Beijing needs to do a lot more to remove the blot on its name. It needs to do something dramatic to convince the world that it is, indeed, serious about improving its human rights performance. The best way to do this is to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which it signed in 1998.

Ten years to prepare for ratification should be sufficient. If China announces, between now and August, that it has ratified the covenant, then it can still conduct the best Olympic Games in history, without having to worry about a boycott by entertainment celebrities or political personalities.

What is needed now is for Beijing to demonstrate that it has halted the crackdown on dissidents while, at the same time, releasing political prisoners who should never have been arrested in the first place. It may not be appropriate or fair to tar China with the Darfur brush, but as long as China is in the spotlight because of its human rights record, it will be difficult for Beijing to resist such criticism.

The Chinese people deserve a dazzling debut onto the world stage. But this can only be done if their government respects human rights.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator