Monday, October 11

China, human rights and 2008 Olympics

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By Mark Magnier, Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — The video clip shows an Olympic runner approaching the starting line and readying himself for a race. He looks Chinese, as does the official with the starter's pistol who raises his gun skyward. At the last minute, however, the official lowers the pistol and shoots the runner.

The clip by the French civic group Together Against the Death Penalty — shown at film festivals and other venues in Europe before the lights dimmed in Athens — suggests how quickly and aggressively human rights groups are moving to put China in their cross-hairs. Four years before Beijing hosts its big coming-out party — the 2008 Summer Games — the event is shaping up as one of the most controversial global sports events in recent memory.

The Olympics are no stranger to politics. And although China has made huge strides economically, its authoritarian political system makes it a prime target for human rights activists.

Civic groups are increasingly savvy about waging high-profile media campaigns to publicize their causes. They're better coordinated. And the public is listening, given its rising interest in China as an economic powerhouse.

"Human rights groups looking at China are definitely riding this wave," said Nicolas Becquelin, Hong Kong-based research director with Human Rights in China, a New York-based civic group. "Human rights is the barometer of a healthy political system, and we see this global event as a way to make China accountable. They need to do more than hold some big, perfectly scripted event."
The International Olympic Committee would just as soon keep politics as far away from the stadiums and billion-dollar sponsorship deals as possible. Olympic history, however, is replete with examples of groups grabbing the spotlight.

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