The opening of the Beijing Olympic Games two days ago couldn't have gone better: around 80 world leaders turned up, meekly sitting through a sanitised version of 5,000 years of Chinese history, despite the regime's failure to improve its atrocious human rights record. It hadn't been asked to do much in the first place, but the country's authoritarian leaders correctly calculated that they could get away with murder (literally) in a world mesmerised by China's emergence as a major economic power.
The UK was represented at the opening ceremony by the Olympics minister, Tessa Jowell, and it would be nice to think she found room in her briefcase for the Foreign Office's damning assessment of China's attitude to fundamental freedoms. "The situation in China remains poor," the FCO concluded earlier this year.
Its annual human rights report, launched by the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, expressed concern on so many fronts that it's worth quoting the list in full: "the scope of the death penalty and lack of transparency in its use; torture; the lack of an independent judiciary; obstacles to fair trials; arbitrary detention, including re-education through labour; unsatisfactory prison conditions and ill treatment of prisoners; failure to protect human rights defenders; harassment of religious practitioners; restrictive regimes in Xinjiang and Tibet; and limitations on freedom of expression and association".
This isn't Amnesty International speaking, although that organisation recently asserted that "the Chinese authorities have broken their promise to improve the country's human rights situation and betrayed the core values of the Olympics". It's the British Government's own assessment of the misery inflicted on millions of ordinary Chinese and Tibetans by the very same people who are currently basking in plaudits for Friday's spectacular display.
If we look at a couple of the issues on the FCO list in greater detail, we immediately discover that China is the most enthusiastic user of capital punishment in the world, putting thousands of convicts to death each year; a staggering 68 offences, including non-violent crimes, carry a death sentence. There have been persistent reports of organs being "harvested" from executed prisoners, and a new law on the sale of organs has failed to outlaw the practice.
Then there's China's notorious use of laojiao, or re-education through labour, to deal with petty criminals and political dissidents. This system of administrative detention allows people to be locked up for four years in camps where they are subject to forced labour and torture.
No one knows the exact number – the British Government estimates only that "large numbers" of individuals are affected – but the case of Liu Shaokun is typical. Last month Mr Liu, a teacher, was ordered to serve a year's detention after posting images on the internet of schools which collapsed in the Sichuan earthquake; in an attempt to stifle public anger over the number of children killed, Mr Liu was accused of "disseminating rumours and destroying social order".
Another irritant, the housing rights activist Ye Guozhu, was due to complete his four-year sentence for "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble" last month when the authorities suddenly extended his detention until October.
Mr Ye, who has been tortured, originally got into trouble for protesting about the demolition of property to make way for Olympic projects; China's leaders don't want foreigners discovering that the Games are not universally popular.
It's a sure bet that neither Ms Jowell nor Gordon Brown, who is scheduled to attend the closing ceremony, will get to meet people like Mr Liu or Mr Ye. How could they? China is a dictatorship, and it's put vast resources into ensuring that no one rains on its parade.Reuse content