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Friday, March 2, 2007

China makes due with cosmetic changes

HONG KONG -- With the approach of the Beijing Olympics, the Chinese government is making all kinds of preparations to host the games and to welcome foreign visitors and athletes. It knows that the eyes of the world are increasingly turning to China.

To burnish its international image, it is teaching its citizens better manners, such as refraining from spitting in public so that they will not embarrass their country. And to fulfill a pledge made to the International Olympic Committee, China in January liberalized rules governing foreign journalists.

Many people hope that the overall human rights situation in China will improve as well in the aftermath of the Games. This, after all, was what happened in South Korea in the wake of the Seoul Olympics of 1988.

Beijing likes to say it takes time to make changes and that the human rights situation in China today is better than it has ever been. This is probably true. Even dissidents acknowledge as much, but many wish that the improvement could be a little faster.

One recent example of change is reflected in the treatment of 79-year-old physician and AIDS activist Gao Yaojie. In the 1990s, she exposed how HIV had spread in Henan province through illegal blood sales, with the connivance of provincial officials, resulting in thousands of people being infected with HIV.

As a result, in 2001 she was awarded the Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights. However, she was barred from leaving the country to receive the award. Again, in 2003, she was prevented from traveling to the Philippines to receive the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service.

This year, when she was chosen by the nonprofit Vital Voices Global Partnership to receive its 2007 Global Women's Leadership Award for Human Rights, the provincial authorities' initial reaction was the same as before: They put her under house arrest so that she could not go to Beijing to apply for a visa to the United States.

Pressure was put on her relatives and friends, including her son, daughter, daughter-in-law and brother so that they would persuade her to abandon the idea of receiving the award. Her son begged her not to go for fear that it would upset the authorities. Her brother asked her to pretend that she was too sick to travel. However, after U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton intervened, the Chinese government relented and agreed to let Gao apply for a visa in Beijing.

After her arrival in Beijing, Gao was quoted as saying: "It is so painful that I think death is better than life. If I am dead, then nobody can force me to lie." (She reportedly has posted her will on her blog.) She acknowledged that there has been an improvement. After all, international pressure had caused the Chinese government to lift the ban on her traveling abroad. "It would not have been possible 10 years ago," she said.

Although the situation has changed in her case, it is in no way dramatic. It was only because of the personal intervention of a well-known American political figure that she was allowed to exercise what should be her basic human right -- to travel abroad if and when she desires.

It is good that this elderly woman can finally receive a well-earned award, which had twice eluded her. But there has been no fundamental change in the system.

Local officials' initial reaction was to penalize her for unmasking their role in the spread of HIV/AIDS. Barring her from traveling abroad was logical. After all, allowing her to receive an award would have further publicized their own wrongdoing.

Even this year the central government did not lift a finger to help her until it feared an embarrassing diplomatic incident. Individual human rights, it is clear, do not count for much. The Chinese government acted not to protect her human rights but rather to protect itself from embarrassing publicity.

If China wants to be viewed as a responsible, sophisticated country, mature enough to host the Olympic Games, it should demonstrate this. Otherwise, once the Games are over, there will have been no change within China, and no change in its international image.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator. E-mail: frank.ching@gmail.com

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