Six Questions, Washington Babylon — July 14, 2008, 8:17 am

Six Questions for Arvind Ganesan on the Beijing Olympics, the Media and Human Rights

Arvind Ganesan has been at Human Rights Watch as the Director of the Business and Human Rights Program and is involved in research, advocacy, and policy development. His program has issued groundbreaking reports on Enron, Wal-Mart, on corruption in Angola, where American oil companies have major investments, and on Western companies censoring the Internet in China. I recently spoke to Ganesan by phone and asked him six questions about the upcoming Olympic games in Beijing. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

1. Were you surprised by the Olympic protests that erupted earlier this year?

Let’s step back for a minute. Beijing was awarded the games in 2001 and at that time the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and others said this would be a great opportunity to expand the Olympic spirit in China. There was an explicit and implicit understanding that this involved human rights improvements. It was to be one of the most important efforts at constructive engagement. Seven years have passed and there have not been any meaningful improvements in human rights in China and there seems to be very little effort in that direction on the part of the Chinese government, or interest on the part of other governments, the IOC, or the corporate sponsors of the games. The fact that protests exploded in 2008 should have been anticipated because there was heavy criticism of China’s human rights record in 2001 and things have not improved since then. In fact, things have gotten worse with the crackdown in Tibet and the government’s pre-Olympic political crackdown.

2. What are some of the more notable aspects of that pre-Olympic crackdown?

The government put into place temporary media rules, which were supposed to allow foreign journalists to operate freely until October 2008. That was understood to be part of the commitment China made towards the Olympics. And the Chinese government hasn’t honored the rules. In some cases there has been less harassment of foreign journalists, but parts of the country, such as Tibet, are still totally shut off to the media. Interviewing dissidents is still difficult. The government actually refers to “forbidden zones,” which include geographical areas as well as topics–like Tibet or talking to dissidents or to petitioners’ groups who are complaining about local level abuses. A report we put out last week suggests things are getting worse.

If people think that economic engagement and allowing China to host a high-profile event like the Olympics are going to lead to human rights improvements, they are mistaken.

3. What about the corporate sponsors of the games? Have they played a positive role?

The IOC has The Olympic Partner program, or TOP. There are twelve “super-sponsors” for the Beijing Olympics, which include McDonald’s, Coke, and GE. These twelve companies have given upwards of $866 million–an average of $73 million in shareholder money each–for the right to be called an “exclusive” Olympic partner. In addition to the $866 million, those companies are spending huge sums on advertising. None of them to our knowledge has made any type of effort to ensure that the government or the IOC fulfills the human rights commitments that were agreed to when they paid the money. What makes it more troubling is that all of the companies claim to have some sort of “socially responsive” policies and two of them, GE and Coke, are actually part of an initiative called the “Business Leaders Initiative on Human Rights.” They have made public commitments to be progressive companies when it comes to human rights, but they have been silent about the situation in China.

4. GE owns NBC. Might that have an impact on coverage of the games?

Through NBC, GE has paid hundreds of million of dollars to broadcast the Olympics. Given how much it has invested as a sponsor, let’s see how critical they are going to be. Will we see tough pieces on NBC news and an aggressive effort to take full advantage of these temporary media regulations or is it all going to be sweetness and light?

5. And what about the role of Western governments?

Even governments that condemned the crackdown in Tibet have generally failed to show any spine. French president Nicolas Sarkozy said he would not attend the opening events and then backtracked. Promises have fallen by the wayside. There is a huge obligation on the part of the media to do its job during the Olympics, especially because it seems apparent that the Chinese government will try to make sure there are no embarrassing problems. It is likely to crack down on dissidents, and to prevent anything it sees as a disruption to the harmonious games. Meanwhile, there are already at least ten people we call “Olympic prisoners,” including Yang Chunlin, who collected 10,000 signatures on a petition denouncing abuses and saying, “We want human rights, not the Olympics.” As a result, he was sentenced in March of this year to five years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.”

6. What are the implications of all of this for Western policy towards China?

The international community lost a real opportunity to push for openness and improved human rights in China. Instead, it embraced a more craven approach, arguing that China is an important economic partner, and that this counts more than human rights abuses. That approach has given China the upper hand in being as repressive as it wants in the lead-up to the Olympics. It should also have put a final nail in the coffin of the notion that constructive engagement is the best path to improve human rights in countries like China. If people think that economic engagement and allowing China to host a high-profile event like the Olympics are going to lead to human rights improvements, they are mistaken. The only way to improve the situation is to pressure the Chinese government and that has been sorely lacking.

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