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Human Rights


An Olympian Challenge in China

August 11th 2007

World Scenes - Olympic torch
Yao Ming with the olympic torch

The world was riveted by the photograph of a young man facing down a caravan of tanks on Tiananmen Square in June, 1989.
If people were unaware of human rights violations until then, this vivid illustration of protest left no doubt. The unknown “Tank Man” became an everlasting symbol of resistance to tyranny.

With the Beijing Olympics (“One World, One Dream”) less than a year away, attention once again focuses on The People’s Republic. Now that China ranks as chief trading partner of the US, fifth largest of Canada and crucial to the economy of many other nations, it is becoming more difficult for outsiders to remain ostriches about the Human Rights issue.

Stories abound of religious oppression, slave labor, harvesting organs of political prisoners, implementation of the one child policy through forced abortion, capital punishment for minor crimes, incarceration of journalists and political dissidents. Like the weather, everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it. Well, not exactly nobody.

Tibet is a prominent human rights issue. Students for a Free Tibet, who recently unfurled a banner saying “Free Tibet” at the Great Wall, were expelled from China and received wide press coverage. The exiled Dalai Lama is a tour de force of publicity for the Tibetan issue.

The Chinese attempt to do away with Tibetan feudalism has resulted in a form of cultural genocide. Violence is not the only tool used to accomplish this end. The recent construction of a railway from Beijing to Lhasa encourages Han Chinese, the ethnic majority, to migrate to Tibet where they are given priority in employment and housing. Tibetans have become a minority in their own land, allegedly forbidden to be taught in their language and paying more for education than their Chinese “invaders.” Concern that the railway will be instrumental in ecological destruction weighs heavily on environmentalists.

Globalization is the order of the day. Horror erupted at the recent opening of Starbucks in The Forbidden City. Exiting from the plane into Beijing’s airport terminal, one of the first sights to greet the visitor is the affable smile of the Kentucky colonel, ready to supply homesick tourists with the comfort food they may already crave.

Step into a vehicle outside the airport. The BMW’s, SUV’s and Lamborghinis tooling down the highway toward Beijing (or, more typically, crawling bumper to bumper in what may be the world’s largest traffic jam), show us we’re not in Cuba now, Dorothy. No 40 year old Russian Lada clunkers here, thank you very much.

Indeed, there is less. No universal health care or free education, the backbone of socialism. Free market economy, yes, partnership and joint ventures with foreign corporations, yes. Freedom of speech, no.

A recent visitor to China, who asked about the Dalai Lama, was chastised by a usually-polite tour guide who raised his voice. “We are forbid to talk about that. Why you want to make trouble?”

35,000 “internet police” monitor the more than one million internet users. Google “Dalai Lama” or “Falun Gong” and a hand reaches out of the computer and grabs you by the wrist, metaphorically speaking.

Awarding the Olympics to Beijing in 2008 should have encouraged the Chinese to clean up their Human Rights Act and it probably has. The expropriation of homes to build Olympic sites which has produced clucks of disapproval is typical of any country engaged in urban renewal. But, Amnesty International has accused the government of arresting dissidents and journalists, presumably to keep them from exposing the truth to the numerous foreign visitors and journalists who will attend the world’s major athletic event next year.

A consumer boycott of Chinese goods is almost impossible. Sara Bongiorni recently published A Year Without “Made in China,” about her family’s attempt to eliminate Chinese goods from their lives. They had a monumental struggle to honor their commitment. Their effort illustrates how dependent we have become on the Chinese economy. Frightened as we may be by the recent tainted food and medicine revelations, we are not willing to give up our cheap consumer goods.

Choice between a pair of Chinese shoes costing $20.00 and one from Italy costing $200 is a no brainer. So what if the $200 shoes are more chic and more prestigious. Bring on the cheap stuff! Boycotting Chinese products would probably only lead to increased imports from countries even more exploitative and nasty about human rights.

The attitude of foreign trade partners provides a rich illustration of the credo of Karl Marx, the God of Chinese communism. Economics trumps humanitarianism any old day…But when you consider that in 2005, there were 87,000 uprisings in China, hope springs that maybe the Chinese can handle the problem without intervention from the outside.

According to Eddie Eitches, President of the American Federation of Government Employees at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the unions, at one time, a catalyst for revolution and the basis of organization of the Chinese Communist Party, have become toothless and are in cahoots with the government. Although strikes are still illegal, the Guangdong Union Association, a government-affiliated group, said there were more than 10,000 strikes in Guangdong province last year. The spirit of revolution so evident in events leading up to 1949 and in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest seems to be alive and well.

A visit to China demonstrates that the thirty year old one-child policy has not wiped out the female population although there is still a lack of balance in the ratio of male births to female births. The Chinese love their daughters. Women are still not totally liberated but they drive buses and taxis and hold prominent positions in industry, government and academia.

Of course, let’s not be the pots calling the kettle black. Let’s clean up our own human rights infractions before we huff and puff about Chinese violations. But let’s not ignore them and let’s use every possible opportunity to express our disapproval where it is warranted. The Chinese are smart, hardworking people who have suffered a great deal in their long history. They are experiencing vast economic growth unprecedented anywhere on the planet. They deserve the opportunity to enjoy the material goods we take for granted. We must respect them by allowing them to solve their own problems. Dealing with a population of 1,000,300,000 is no stroll through the Temple of Heaven!


Phyllis Bailey writes about human rights in Asia and Latin America.

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