Beijing ramps up Winter Olympics bid campaign amid human rights objections

Beijing (dpa) – Human rights groups are warning that giving the 2022 Winter Olympics Games to Beijing would be “making the same mistake twice”, as the bidding process between Beijing and one other competitor enters its final phase.

Former International Olympics Committee (IOC) president Jacques Rogge had said that China’s winning bid for the 2008 Summer Olympics would provide the Chinese population with positive changes, but human rights organizations say the opposite has happened.

They speak of an ugly legacy and an increasing atmosphere of fear among activists under the leadership of Chinese president Xi Jinping, who came to power in 2012.

“Instead of the promised improvements, the 2008 Summer Olympics prompted a crackdown. Seven years later, civil society is again enduring an extraordinary assault,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.

China detained hundreds of human rights activists last year, including those who had violated new internet rules by spreading “false rumours” online, and those who had expressed support for the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement protests in Hong Kong.

A group of 175 Tibetan independence groups last week submitted a report to the IOC urging it to reject Beijing’s bid on the basis of its human rights record, referring to an “intense period of repression in Tibet” after 2008 protests that turned into riots left at least 21 people dead, according to police.

Washington and the European Union denounced China earlier this month for detaining five Chinese feminists who were planning to distribute stickers against sexual harassment on International Women’s Day.

The IOC evaluation commission on Monday began a five-day inspection in Beijing after completing an inspection of Almaty, Kazakhstan, on February 18.

Beijing is running only against Almaty after the cities of Oslo, Stockholm, Munich, and Krakow all dropped out of the bidding process amid weak public support and cost concerns. The Ukrainian city of Lviv had given up its bid because of the military conflict in the country.

Kazakhstan, a former Soviet bloc state in Central Asia, has a total population of 17 million – smaller than Beijing’s mushrooming population of 21 million. But Almaty, the largest city in the country with a population of 1.5 million, boasts scenic mountain ranges with copious natural snowfall.

Beijing, on the other hand, has proposed holding snowboarding, cross-country skiing, freestyle skiing and biathlon events at a ski area in Zhangjiakou city in Hebei province to Beijing’s north-west.

Organizers admit the area receives only an accumulated 21 centimetres of snow annually.

The Winter Olympics sites in Beijing and Zhangjiakou, currently a five-hour drive from Beijing’s city centre, would be linked with a new high-speed rail system, organizers said.

However experts say Beijing still has a better chance than Almaty of winning the bid since it has a proven track record of putting on a successful Games and because cost is unlikely to be an issue.

“China’s government administration is also powerful enough to make sure that pollution and traffic conguestion would not be issues during important events,” said Jin Shan, researcher at the Sports Center of the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences.

Xu Guoqi, Chinese sports historian at the University of Hong Kong, said the IOC is making a choice between “two dictatorships.”

“Kazakhstan also has a poor human rights record. Of course both regimes would promise better performance on human rights, but that would only be lip service.”

“Unfortunately the West doesn’t have much leverage but it is possible that the IOC can take the games away from the host city for human rights violations. Beijing might be more careful,” he said.

Russia had also faced criticism over human rights issues during the run-up to the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, which campaigners said was tarnished by the passing of a Russian anti-gay propaganda law.

The new IOC president, Thomas Bach, promised last year to reform the Olympic movement to more strongly reflect the importance of human rights.

The IOC has since made a series of pledges, including its Olympic Agenda 2020 released in December that together oblige host governments to sign a contract with an explicit anti-discrimination clause, and to protect human rights, labour and the environment.

“We will demonstrate our desire to host the 2022 Olympic Winter Games and the benefits that Beijing as a host city will bring to the Olympic movement, in line with the Olympic Agenda 2020 principles,” China’s official Xinhua news agency cited Wang Hui, deputy secretary-general of the Beijing 2022 bid committee, as saying on Saturday.

Meanwhile, state media editorials this week suggested that efforts to manage pollution would improve if Beijing wins the bid.

But the IOC has so far not released details on how it would enforce human rights clauses in new contracts with host cities or implement its recommendations in the Olympic Agenda 2020 roadmap for the Olympic movement.

“The Games themselves should be open to all, free of discrimination, and that applies to spectators, officials, media, and, of course, athletes,” IOC head of media relations Emmanuelle Moreau told dpa.

“This has been upheld at all editions of the Olympic Games, including most recently at Sochi 2014. We believe it will continue to be the case and will not speculate further on this matter,” she said.

Richardson told dpa: “Moreau’s comment highlights precisely the problems the IOC faces: first, it’s set out far higher standards for itself with respect to some basic human rights and now has to uphold them in places where abuses of precisely those rights are endemic.

“If the IOC isn’t satisfied with China’s compliance with respect to the human rights standards set out, it should take the Games elsewhere – and if the IOC is satisfied with China’s compliance, we will be extremely interested to hear how and why that is the case.”

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