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The nightmare Olympics

The Beijing government is struggling to hide the truth about how ordinary people in China are paying for this summer’s Olympic Games by muzzling the Internet and arresting outspoken journalists and critics. At the same time, ordinary people in villages throughout the country, even around Beijing itself, are paying heavily for the staging of the Games.

Cyber-dissident, Lu Gengsong has just been sentenced to four years in jail for “inciting subversion of state power”. Lu is a 51-year-old freelance writer who published a book called “Corrupted Officials in China” in 2000. He also revealed a large number of illegal eviction cases. The arrest of another leading critic of the government, Hu Jia, was made public at the weekend.

Hu’s crime was that he had spoken via video-link to a European Parliament committee, criticising his country’s human rights record in relation to the Olympics. A US-based group working for political prisoners, Duihua, said: “From the perspective of the authorities, to take this high-profile rights activist out of action in the final months before the Olympics may have been too good to pass up.”

But as the government tries to silence oppositionists, an army of bloggers (47 million and growing) are playing cat and mouse with half a dozen censorship bodies and 30,000 staff whose job it is to monitor the Internet. Chinese hosting companies themselves block access or police chat rooms, while Google, Microsoft and Yahoo voluntarily censor material. Yahoo has even handed over information to the Chinese authorities, which led to the jailing of two journalists.

Hundreds of miles south east of Beijing, a huge canal is being constructed to divert billions of gallons of water to provide for athletes and visitors to the Games. But farmers have been forced to abandon their rice crops as large areas have become arid as water supplies dry up. Since Beijing has only an eighth of China’s average water reserves per resident, the £30 billion plan is to divert water from the Yangtze River in central China. Dai Qing, an environmentalist critic of the Three Gorges Dam project, has noted: “While they have created previously unknown wealth, it is a wealth made possible by the avaricious consumption of natural resources”.

Meanwhile, as an elite with connections to the Chinese bureaucracy grow fabulously rich through speculation and land grabs, the mass of the population is excluded. The experiences of 800 villagers in Heiquiocum, in the Beijing suburbs, are typical. They have to make do on 200 yuan (about $25) a month. Their homes have been enclosed by a circular test track for freight trains, which make a thunderous noise every few minutes and deprive residents of sleep. According to one South Korean newspaper, “children with grimy black faces, reminiscent of the wasted waifs roaming from North Korea, are common sights in Heiqiaocun’s market. Their faces are filthy because they don’t have enough water to bathe.”

It’s not only political freedom and water, which are in short supply, however. Fresh air is just as hard to come by in the Olympic city, which expects more than three million visitors. Pollution levels are so high that athletes like runner Haile Gebrselassie has said he may skip the marathon because of pollution fears. Levels in Beijing are far higher than the last four Olympic venues. The Beijing Olympics ought to be renamed the Nightmare Games for the price the Chinese people are paying to stage the event.

Corinna Lotz
Secretary, A World to Win
6 February 2008

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