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.

Share
Single Page

More from Ken Silverstein:

Commentary November 17, 2015, 6:41 pm

Shaky Foundations

The Clintons’ so-called charitable enterprise has served as a vehicle to launder money and to enrich family friends.

From the November 2013 issue

Dirty South

The foul legacy of Louisiana oil

Perspective October 23, 2013, 8:00 am

On Brining and Dining

How pro-oil Louisiana politicians have shaped American environmental policy

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2017

Preaching to The Choir

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Monumental Error

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Star Search

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Pushing the Limit

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Bumpy Ride

Bad Dog

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Monumental Error·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1899, the art critic Layton Crippen complained in the New York Times that private donors and committees had been permitted to run amok, erecting all across the city a large number of “painfully ugly monuments.” The very worst statues had been dumped in Central Park. “The sculptures go as far toward spoiling the Park as it is possible to spoil it,” he wrote. Even worse, he lamented, no organization had “power of removal” to correct the damage that was being done.

Illustration by Steve Brodner
Article
Star Search·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On December 3, 2016, less than a month after Donald Trump was elected president, Amanda Litman sat alone on the porch of a bungalow in Costa Rica, thinking about the future of the Democratic Party. As Hillary Clinton’s director of email marketing, Litman raised $180 million and recruited 500,000 volunteers over the course of the campaign. She had arrived at the Javits Center on Election Night, arms full of cheap beer for the campaign staff, minutes before the pundits on TV announced that Clinton had lost Wisconsin. Later that night, on her cab ride home to Brooklyn, Litman asked the driver to pull over so she could throw up.

Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Pushing the Limit·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the early Eighties, Andy King, the coach of the Seawolves, a swim club in Danville, California, instructed Debra Denithorne, aged twelve, to do doubles — to practice in the morning and the afternoon. King told Denithorne’s parents that he saw in her the potential to receive a college scholarship, and even to compete in the Olympics. Tall swimmers have an advantage in the water, and by the time Denithorne turned thirteen, she was five foot eight. She dropped soccer and a religious group to spend more time at the pool.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Bumpy Ride·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

One sunny winter afternoon in western Michigan, I took a ride with Leon Slater, a slight sixty-four-year-old man with a neatly trimmed white beard and intense eyes behind his spectacles. He wore a faded blue baseball cap, so formed to his head that it seemed he slept with it on. Brickyard Road, the street in front of Slater’s home, was a mess of soupy dirt and water-filled craters. The muffler of his mud-splattered maroon pickup was loose, and exhaust fumes choked the cab. He gripped the wheel with hands leathery not from age but from decades moving earth with big machines for a living. What followed was a tooth-jarring tour of Muskegon County’s rural roads, which looked as though they’d been carpet-bombed.

Photograph by David Emitt Adams
Article
Bad Dog·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Abby was a breech birth but in the thirty-one years since then most everything has been pretty smooth. Sweet kid, not a lot of trouble. None of them were. Jack and Stevie set a good example, and she followed. Top grades, all the way through. Got on well with others but took her share of meanness here and there, so she stayed thoughtful and kind. There were a few curfew or partying things and some boys before she was ready, and there was one time on a school trip to Chicago that she and some other kids got caught smoking crack cocaine, but that was so weird it almost proved the rule. No big hiccups, master’s in ecology, good state job that lets her do half time but keep benefits while Rose is little.

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

Estimated portion of French citizens with radical-Islamist beliefs who grew up in Muslim families:

1/5

Human hands are more primitive than chimp hands.

Trump declared flashlights obsolete as he handed them out to Puerto Ricans, 90 percent of whom had no electricity in their homes; and tweeted that he wouldn’t keep providing federal hurricane relief “forever” to Puerto Rico, a US territory that the secretary of energy referred to as a “country.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today