Beijing’s successful bid for the Olympics in 2001 caused consternation amongst campaign groups who believed China’s appalling human rights record did not merit her winning this opportunity. However, there were many who argued that the international platform would encourage the Chinese authorities to be more responsive to pressure from other countries. If anything, though, China’s repression has worsened over the last few years.
Further to the continued detention and intimidation of dissident writers and journalists, official controls over the media have tightened and Internet censorship has increased. At the end of last year, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, calling for more action. As well as freedom of expression issues, the campaign group expressed concern at the mass eviction of Beijing residents, the demolition of residential areas to make way for Olympic Games-related infrastructure and reports of migrant construction workers in Beijing enduring dangerous work conditions. The importance of the Olympic Games to China is clear, and the authorities have become progressively more intolerant of internal criticism on this subject.
In August 2007, the Chinese government launched a major publicity drive for the Beijing Olympics under the slogan ‘We Are Ready’. In response, a number of prominent writers, including Margaret Atwood, Francine Prose, Salman Rushdie, Liu Xiaobo and Zheng Yi, have joined PEN in the launch of its worldwide initiative to focus attention on China’s ongoing repression of her most outspoken writers.
Led by Independent Chinese PEN and the American and Canadian centres, the ‘We Are Ready for Freedom of Expression’ campaign was launched on 10 December 2007 to mark International Human Rights Day. The aim, in the run-up to the Olympics, is to increase pressure on China to release writers and journalists held in violation of their right to freedom of expression.
‘It’s really very simple’, Salman Rushdie observed, ‘there are forty of our colleagues in Chinese prisons who shouldn’t be in prison. It will be an embarrassment for China if even one of them is still in prison when the Games begin next August. There’s only one good number: zero.’ In LR February 2006, I wrote about Shi Tao, the cyber dissident who fell foul of China’s repressive legislation governing the use of the Internet. On 27 April 2005 the journalist was convicted of ‘illegally providing state secrets overseas’, and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment and two years’ deprivation of political rights. Shi’s prosecution stemmed from an email he sent to the editor of a New York-based website describing the various media restrictions imposed by the Chinese authorities prior to the fifteenth anniversary of Tiananmen Square. Today, Shi remains in prison and is reportedly in very poor health.
In LR June 2007 I focused on prominent Chinese writer Zhang Jianhong (aka Li Hong), who was sentenced to six years in prison on subversion charges for articles that referred to Beijing’s intention to host the Olympics as ‘a scandal’ whilst criticising China’s human rights record. According to PEN, Zhang was diagnosed in May 2007 with a form of muscular dystrophy, but did not receive any treatment until 20 October, when he was transferred from Qiaosi Prison to the Zhejiang Prison General Hospital. Repeated applications for medical parole have been ignored and his condition is said to have worsened considerably as a result of this prolonged lack of medical care. In December 2007, seemingly immune to the negative publicity that will ensue, the Chinese authorities detained yet another dissident writer for his critical comments about the Olympic Games. Wang Dejia (aka Jing Chu) was arrested on 13 December. According to PEN, Wang Dejia was taken to the Quanzhou Chengbei police station, where he was held for one month on suspicion of ‘inciting subversion of state power’ before being released on bail on 12 January 2008. In October 2007, Wang reportedly met with US Embassy officials to discuss human rights in China. His family believe that his detention is directly related to this meeting and to his articles published on the Minzhu Luntan website (Democracy Forum, http://asiademo.org). These include titles such as ‘Handcuffed Olympics Will Bring Only Disasters to the People’.
Dr Yu Zhang, Secretary-General and Writers in Prison Committee Coordinator of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre, commented: ‘The more the authorities harass journalists like Mr Wang and the longer the other forty plus imprisoned writers and journalists remain detained the more damage will be done to both the Olympics and China.’
Readers may like to send appeals expressing serious concerns for Shi Tao and Zhang Jianhong’s health and call for their urgent release on humanitarian grounds; and welcome the release of dissident writer Wang Dejia, but express dismay that he still faces trial, and call for all charges against him to be dropped in accordance with Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which China became a signatory in 1998. Write to:
His Excellency Hu Jintao
President of the People’s Republic of China
c/o Her Excellency Madam Fu Ying
49-51 Portland Place
Fax: 0207 636 2981
For further information on PEN’s ‘We Are Ready for Freedom of Expression’ campaign please visit www.pen.org