03/19/2008, 00.00
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The two worlds and dreams of China and its Olympics

So far the Games have led to more repression of human rights. They also remain a distant concern for most ordinary people who are more worried about health care, education, corruption, work. An expert on workers’ rights says something might change from the bottom up.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – “China today is far from being harmonious, and it embodies two very different worlds and dreams,” said Robin Munro, research director for the well-respected China Labour Bulletin. “On the one hand, there are those of the rising new elite, who enjoy unfettered access to all the best things in life; and on the other, those of the ordinary people, hundreds of millions of citizens who have no meaningful vote and whose main dream is somehow to make ends meet for the family until the next payday,” he told the United States Congressional Executive Commission on China (which monitors the human rights situation on the mainland).

In his testimony Munro pointed out that rights activists have been rounded up by the police and jailed, civil rights lawyers have been intimidated and punished, and even the wives of dissidents have been persecuted in an effort to ensure their silence as the Olympic Games approach because “any kind of public activity that in any way threatens to tarnish the authorities' image, or that introduces a negative note into the coming Olympics festivities, is de facto a crime.”

There is even a danger “that the tight social and political controls set in place for the upcoming Olympics will—once the Games are over—simply become the ‘new normal’ in China's internal security regime. If this happens, the Games will have set the clock back on human rights and civil liberties.”

Still “because so many ordinary Chinese feel real pride at Beijing's hosting of the Games, I hope they will be a success. China is a great nation, and its people deserve their turn at the Olympics, even if the government does not.”

The Games are “largely irrelevant” compared to the real social and political issues facing China today. The country instead faces four immediate emergencies, namely free health care for the hundreds of million who don’t have any; free public education for the poor and migrants; corruption which has become endemic at all levels causing great social injustice and which the government has tackled by punishing the whistle blowers rather than the corrupt; and better minimum wages and working conditions for millions of people.

Munro is confident that change might come from “within” as workers and rural communities become more aware of their rights and people file lawsuits against local government agencies and officials, leading a grassroots-based rights movement known in China as the "wei quan" movement (the "rights defence movement”). Indeed, the state which preys on the weak and isolated usually “fears the strong and numerous.” 

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