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China’s Great Leap: Human Rights Watch on the Beijing Games and Olympian Human Rights Challenges

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Thousands of protesters turned out in San Francisco to protest the Olympic torch relay and this year’s Beijing Games. Similar protests condemning China’s human rights abuses have attempted to disrupt the torch along its earlier stops in Athens, Istanbul, Paris and London. We speak with Human Rights Watch’s Minky Worden, who is editor of a new book, China’s Great Leap: The Beijing Games and Olympian Human Rights Challenges. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Thousands of protesters were disappointed Wednesday when San Francisco authorities suddenly altered the route of the Olympic torch relay in order to avoid the demonstrators. Similar protests condemning China’s human rights abuses had attempted to disrupt the torch along its earlier stops in Athens, Istanbul, Paris and London.

Jacques Rogge, the President of the International Olympic Committee, responded to the protests over this year’s Olympic Games. Speaking in Beijing today, he said he was saddened by the disruptions to the torch relay in Europe. He reminded athletes of the Olympic rule against political demonstrations at the Games.

    JACQUES ROGGE: [Expression of opinions and the conduct of participants should] be inspired by the full compliance with the Olympic Charter. And in the Olympic Charter, you have a rule 51.3 that says that no kind of demonstrations or political, religious, or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic site, venue or areas.

JUAN GONZALEZ: This is Jennifer Teguia, a pro-Tibet demonstrator in San Francisco, speaking before the torch relay Wednesday.

    JENNIFER TEGUIA: There are some severe human rights violations going on, and they are being perpetrated by China. So I am here to make sure that my voice is heard that I am not OK with human rights violations.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Meanwhile, both Democratic presidential candidates, Senators Clinton and Obama, have now called on President Bush to consider boycotting the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing this August. But on Tuesday, President Bush told EWTN Television, a Catholic TV network, that “Nobody needs to tell old George Bush that he needs to bring religious freedom to the doorstep of the Chinese, because I’ve done that now for — I’m on my eighth year doing it. I’ve talked about freedom of religion every time I visited with them. I’ve talked about Darfur. I’ve talked about Burma. I’ve talked about the Dalai Lama. I don’t need the Olympics to express my position.”

AMY GOODMAN: To discuss the politics around the upcoming Beijing Olympics, we’re joined in our firehouse studio by Minky Worden. She is the media director of Human Rights Watch, editor of a new book coming out in May — it’s called China’s Great Leap: The Beijing Games and Olympian Human Rights Challenges.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Minky. Let’s talk first about the relay. Have you taken a stand on whether or not this should be going on? And we’ll talk about China next.

MINKY WORDEN: Well, Human Rights Watch has taken the position that the torch relay itself should not go through the Tibetan areas of China. And there’s been a lot of attention on the relay in London, in Paris. We’ve said in those circumstances that the main thing the torch relay is illuminating with its flame is the total lack of a human rights policy of the governments of the UK, of the governments of France and also of the United States.

But the real problem is on the horizon, and that is, when the torch relay goes into China itself, the Chinese government has said that it will definitely run the relay through the Tibetan areas, across the base of Everest and through Lhasa. And that is a guaranteed situation where major human rights abuses will happen. The protests so far may be only the beginning, and there could be another major deadly crackdown on the horizon around the torch relay inside China.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In other words, you’re saying that there may be protests by the Tibetan people as the torch is going through their territory?

MINKY WORDEN: I think there certainly will be. Even in the highly controlled recent sort of media tours the Chinese government has arranged, there have been protests, monks who have literally risked their lives and certain imprisonment to express their concerns about religious freedom inside China. And in relation, for example, to San Francisco, where the attention has been recently, Human Rights Watch identified months ago that the question of the torch route — we’ve been in negotiations with the mayor, along with the ACLU and other groups, to make the route public. You know, I think there are certainly a lot of disappointed protesters in the Bay Area who didn’t get a chance to make their views heard.

AMY GOODMAN: I was shocked in reading last night the history of the Olympic torch relay — you know, the torch itself going back to ancient Greece — but the relay to be Nazi Olympics, 1936.

MINKY WORDEN: There’s a wonderful book, new academic book called Nazi Games, which gives a concise history of this. But the torch relay itself is essentially a PR invention of the Nazi era. And the point of it was to run the torch through parts of Europe that Germany hoped to — that the Nazis hoped to take over, including the Sudetenland.

So it was — it really — I think if the corporate sponsors of the torch relay really knew the history of this, I can’t imagine that they’d want to be associated with it. And those sponsors are Coca-Cola, Lenovo and Samsung. And Human Rights Watch has also spent the last year writing to and communicating with the corporate sponsors about the — you know, they’re literally paying for the Olympics. The Olympics are paid for by the corporate sponsors. But there’s certainly going to be a price to pay in terms of corporate reputation if the torch relay inside China turns into a major human rights debacle.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But isn’t this part of the general problem obviously with the International Olympic Committee and the Olympic Games, that it’s become so dominated by the commercial interests that sponsor it, rather than the original goal of the Games as a means of a greater contact and interchange between countries and athletes? How do you see the potential to be able to influence these companies?

MINKY WORDEN: Well, I’d like to return to your question, which is really about the International Olympic Committee and what this body is. I mean, I’ve been working on China for many years and working on the International Olympic Committee for a couple of years. I’ve come to the conclusion that the Chinese government is much more open, transparent and accountable than the International Olympic Committee.

The Committee — what they really need is human rights benchmarks around awarding the Games. And the Chinese government made very specific pledges in relation to human rights in 2001, when they were bidding for the Games, that included full freedom for the media to report and human rights improvements. So, today, four months before the Games arrive in Beijing, you don’t see any of that, and the International Olympic Committee has been largely silent on that.

You hear Jacques Rogge talking about sports being separated from politics, but the history of the Olympic movement is nothing like that. And certainly in 1988, when the games were in Korea, the Olympic movement and external pressure led to significant permanent reform in Korea, and the country is today one of the most durable democracies in Asia.

AMY GOODMAN: Jacques Rogge said the staging of the Beijing Games will do a lot for human rights and social relations. What would it take for that to happen, do you think, Minky Worden?

MINKY WORDEN: Well, I think, you know, it’s not too late, that the wheels are certainly coming off, and it’s apparent inside China, but the Chinese government, because they are Communist, have the ability, when they want to, to move very quickly to produce results. So there are a number of — we call them Olympic prisoners of conscience, who have been arrested specifically for doing things like testifying to the European Parliament on human rights. These are people who should be released immediately. And when the Chinese government wants to release someone, it happens immediately. And that says there is not adequate pressure coming now from the International Olympic Committee, there is not enough pressure coming from world leaders who are planning to attend the Games. This is China’s so-called coming out party. And there really is leverage that exists that is not being taken up by corporate sponsors, by governments and by the International Olympic Committee. And the one thing I would say is that the Chinese government made these pledges voluntarily. These are voluntary commitments. And there has to be a way to hold the Chinese government to those voluntary commitments.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Do you support the call for world leaders to not attend the opening ceremonies, if there is no change between now and then?

MINKY WORDEN: Well, I think it’s important that this is handled in a smart way. Human Rights Watch started calling for world leaders to condition their attendance on significant human rights improvements, including greater freedom — opening up Tibet and other areas. So we’ve called for that for some months. We actually don’t want leaders to say that they’re not going yet. Actually condition your attendance on specific improvements, on getting these people out of prison, on allowing reporters full freedom. So, for example, what the French president has done, he hasn’t said whether he’s going or not, but he’s attached conditions to sitting there in attendance at that great nationalist party that we’re all going to watch on August 8.

AMY GOODMAN: We have a very graphic slideshow of monks that have been killed in Tibet. What do you know about that?

MINKY WORDEN: Human Rights Watch has one on our website, as well, that talks about the — we’ve done years of reporting on Tibet. All of our research over the years shows that there’s a climate that has been created where there is desperation among the Tibetan populous, and certainly religious freedom has been an issue for many years.

Human Rights Watch doesn’t have — Tibet is closed. It’s closed to reporters, and it’s closed to any type of international investigation. So the one — we have actually said, for example, we’ve said the torch relay must not go through Tibet, unless it is carried by a UN investigation team. And, you know, these pictures that are up on the screen are a pretty good example of the type of crackdown that you can see. There is — this is really the most significant crackdown inside China since Tiananmen Square. And some of — there are some parallels in terms of the roundup of monks and protesters that is going on even today. So people think that the crackdown is over, but there is every reason to believe that it’s continuing quietly inside this closed-off area.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We quoted earlier President Bush saying that he doesn’t need anybody to tell him about human rights in China, that he’s been urging it now throughout his administration. Your sense of how the Bush administration has dealt with this issue over the last several years?

MINKY WORDEN: Well, last August, when President Bush accepted an invitation to attend the Games, he missed a great opportunity. He said he was going to attend the Games as a, quote, “sports fan.” Well, I don’t think the president — the elected leader of any country attends the Olympic Games in a repressive country as a sports fan. So a great opportunity was missed and has been missed for the last year to turn up the heat on the Chinese government to honor the very specific commitments they made to get the Games. And I do think that that is true not only of the United States, but of a lot of other countries around the world. There shouldn’t be any problem for governments or world leaders or corporations to insist that China follow through on the commitments it made.

AMY GOODMAN: Migrant workers building the Olympic stadiums?

MINKY WORDEN: Up to four million in Beijing alone. So Americans and other people around the world should be aware that when they look at these gleaming new stadiums — these are actually pictures from our photo essay in the book — petitioners who have — are being pushed off the streets. Migrant laborers across China, they’re up to 200 million. It’s a large work force that does not have true protections, no workers’ compensation. There have been, the Chinese government admits, ten deaths alone on that signature Bird’s — they call it the Bird’s Nest, the Olympic stadium that you’re seeing there. If you’ll look closely, you’ll see that those workers are wearing flip-flops on a worksite, which explains part of how the — some of these deaths have occurred. But they also have no — many of them, we’ve documented in a report, are not even paid. They work for a year — they’re paid annually — and then, at the end of that process, they don’t even get proper compensation.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for coming in. We’ll certainly continue to follow this story. And radio listeners can go to our website at to see the images that we’ve been broadcasting on the television show and on our video podcast, as well as the streaming online. China’s Great Leap: The Beijing Games and Olympian Human Rights Challenges is the name of the forthcoming book that is edited by our guest, Minky Worden. Thank you very much for joining us, a spokesperson for Human Rights Watch here in New York.

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