The Big Question: Have the Olympics led to an increase in human rights abuses in China?

Why are we asking this now?

With only a week and a half to go until the Beijing Olympics, Amnesty International has issued a report saying the human rights situation in China has become progressively worse in the run-up to the Games. The report accuses China of backtracking on promises it made to guarantee human rights when it was bidding for the games back in 2001.

Amnesty's report, "The Olympics Countdown: Broken Promises", says that rather than improving press freedom and human rights, the Games has actually made the situation even worse. Amnesty says activists have been locked up, people have been kicked out of their homes, journalists and bloggers have been detained, websites blocked, and that the use of "re-education through labour" camps and beatings in prison have increased.

"Unless the authorities make a swift change of direction, the legacy of the Beijing Olympics will not be positive for human rights in China," said Roseann Rife, Asia-Pacific programme director for Amnesty International.

What does the Chinese government say?

No surprise to say they are greatly aggrieved at being accused of betraying the Olympic spirit with only days to go until the gala opening ceremony. Beijing says that anyone who understands China's unusual position could not hold with Amnesty's thinking.

China's driving political principle is that human rights are solely a domestic issue and Beijing is incredibly prickly when it comes to what it sees as foreign interference in its home affairs. And it considers Amnesty a constant thorn in its side on this issue.

"I hope that Amnesty International can take off the tinted glasses they have been wearing for years and see China in a fair and objective way, and do something more constructive," was the stung response from foreign ministry spokesman Li Jianchao.

Beijing points to the decision to end the system of requiring foreign reporters to get permission before travelling to the provinces as signs of Olympic openness. And the government has also recently announced it was setting up special protest zones during the Games, albeit all at a safe distance from the Olympic stadium.

What does the wider world say about China's human rights?

The lure of China's wildly expanding economy has meant human rights issues have often been put on the back-burner when it comes to foreign engagement. When Western leaders come to China they tend to bring a list of human rights cases they would like to see addressed. Sometimes these lists are produced behind closed doors for diplomats to deal with, but some leaders, such as the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, are happy to produce the list at public, high-level meetings.

If the international community's reaction is any kind of indicator, the consensus in the West is that China has made sufficient headway on rights to justify greater engagement with the world's fastest-growing economy, but the reaction has been ambiguous.

President George W Bush has said all along that he'll be in the Bird's Nest stadium a week on Friday for the Games' opening ceremony, although the United States has been active in putting pressure on China behind closed doors. French President Nicolas Sarkozy flip-flopped around over the issue of China's tough crackdown in Tibet before confirming that he will attend the opening ceremony.

Meanwhile, Gordon Brown's compromise solution is to attend the closing ceremony only – something he is almost obliged to do given his position as leader of the next Olympic host nation. Merkel and the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, both plan to stay away.

What's China done to improve human rights?

In 30 years of reform and opening up, China has become a much freer place to live and its people enjoy more freedoms than they ever did. The Chinese government has long argued that the most basic human right is the right to a decent life – the old Marxist dictum that food comes first, morals follow on – and economic growth has meant that millions of people in China now have a reasonable standard of living.

It is many years since an accredited foreign journalist was kicked out of China, once a common occurrence, and people are generally quite free about expressing their opinions over dinner or on the street. However, China is still a one-party state and the Communist Party has to impose restrictions on daily life to retain its grip on power. There are limits on on free speech and censorship is rife.

While local protests have become part of daily life in China, ranging from farmers angry at having their land taken away by corrupt officials to workers upset at losing their livelihoods as inefficient state-owned enterprises are forced to shut because of life in the free market. The response to protests tends to be swift and unyielding, as the leadership tries to stop these local protests turning into more widespread anti-government sentiment.

The tough response to anti-Chinese protests in Tibet in March showed just how ruthless this reaction can be and, more recently, the government has been quick to silence protests by parents whose children died in shoddily built schools in Sichuan province.

In the report, Amnesty welcomed China's move last year to restore the Supreme People's Court's role in approving death sentences, which is believed to have reduced the number of executions by taking the decision out of the hands of local courts. But Amnesty also said Beijing continues to withhold figures on death penalty cases.

Rights groups say the Olympic protest zones are irrelevant, as protesters need permission to demonstrate there. And while the press freedoms have been a success, there are still incidents of harassment of foreign reporters, especially during the recent crackdown on Tibet and in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake.

What does the International Olympic committee say?

Amnesty also took aim at the International Olympic Committee in its report, accusing it of showing a "reluctance" to pressure China publicly on its human rights record. In its defence, the IOC insists engagement is the key, and it has always said that by building China's international profile, human rights changes would ensue.

Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), said recently that his organisation's "quiet diplomacy" had led to a number of human rights reforms in China, including a loosening of reporting rules for foreign media.

Hein Verbruggen, the head of the IOC's panel co-ordinating the Beijing Olympics, said last month that despite international criticism of China's record on human rights and other policies, the Games would be a "force for good" and said bringing the Games to China was "way better than not taking the games to China."

So has China backtracked?

Yes...

* For some people things have actually got worse since the Olympic bidding process

* Improved conditions for foreign reporters have not been extended to domestic media

* Public displays of dissent are still not tolerated by the government

No...

* Change in China is slow – this is a very ancient culture, don't forget

* China now guarantees human rights in its constitution, including private property rights

* Improving living standards mean people have a far better life than 30 years ago

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