Olympic breath of fresh air for China’s rights activists
by Charles Whelan
BEIJING, Jan 14, 2007 (AFP) – In Bobo Freedom City on the eastern fringe of Beijing, human rights activists Hu Jia and his wife Zeng Jinyan joke about the sudden disappearance of the political police from their doorstep.
"They knew you (journalists) were coming so they left and even tidied up a bit downstairs," said Zeng, over Chinese tea in the young couple’s apartment recently.
Under house arrest since last July, Hu stepped outside for the first time in months to enjoy a gulp of cold winter air and thanked the Beijing Olympics for helping China’s dissidents breathe more easily.
"The Beijing Olympics are an opportunity for us. They are a tool of democracy," he said.
Hu, a prominent environmentalist and AIDS activist, says he and Zang, a fellow rights campaigner, came to live in Bobo Freedom City nearly three years ago because they liked the name.
But he has spend much of the intervening period in custody or under house arrest. Few people came calling. Journalists were warned to keep away and an envoy from a European embassy was turned back at the gate.
Thanks to the Beijing Olympic Games scheduled to take place in August 2008, changes are occurring, albeit slowly and in fits and starts.
Normally a police car is stationed under the lamppost outside the apartment and four ‘goons" occupy the lobby leading up to their fifth four apartment.
But for one evening last week the police were gone and took with them heaps of trash including food wrappers and cigarette butts.
The brief disappearance of the police can be explained by China’s pledge to allow foreign journalists full access to the country for the first time from January 1, with no limits on reporting as long as they have prior permission from people they intend to interview.
But because this is China, where phone-tapping is routine, the police know in advance who those people are.
"All our phones are bugged so they listened to your call and knew when you were coming over," said Zeng.
The day after the visit the internal security police who work under the control of China’s communist party were back in force.
Still the couple believe that the new reporting regulations are significant even though they are limited to the foreign media and are only temporary — they are scheduled to end soon after the August 8-24 Olympic Games end.
"When Chinese journalists see foreigners interviewing whom they want, they are going to want to know why they can’t. And it will be hard to put the genie back in the bottle after the Olympics," he said.
So Hu is delighted that China is hosting the Olympic Games, despite critics charging that the event will serve to legitimise the ruling communist party.
The example of the 1988 Olympics in Seoul demonstrates how the Olympics can change China, says Hu. South Korea was under military dictatorship when it won the right to host the Games in 1981 but shifted to multi-party democracy soon after.
China has been ruled by dictators for 5,000 years and finally has a chance to become democratic, Hu says, thanks in part to the Olympics.
International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge, when asked why he supported Beijing’s bid to host the Olympics, said he had
1.2 billion reasons, referring to China’s population.
"I think he was right. It is a great honour for China," said Hu.
"But is it the Games of the Chinese people, or is it the games of the Chinese communist party?" he said.
China’s communist rulers have called for a "green, high-tech, and people’s Olympics."
But Hu Jia and Zeng Jinyan are promoting a competing Olympic motto, calling for a "free, democratic Olympics and based on respect for the rule of law."
Hu predicts there will be a wave of arrests before the Olympics as China’s rulers try to empty the streets of so-called "elements of instability," people like himself who will be excluded from the Olympics.
"I think the government hopes very much that I will be at home during the Olympics, surrounded by police," he said.