By Bill Smith
Beijing - As China tightens the security net around dissidents and rights activists, as well as potential terrorists, outside the country a new chorus of boos is ringing out from rights groups and Western media.
US President George W Bush and French President Nicolas Sarkozy both said they felt obliged to attend the opening of the Olympics but promised to raise human rights issues in China.
Their statements could make them and other Western leaders the latest focus of pressure on the ruling Communist Party to allow greater freedom.
The New Zealand Green Party, Amnesty International, trade unions, Tibetan monks, North Korean refugees and Chinese dissidents are just some of the diverse groups that have urged the international community to push China harder to improve its human rights record before the Beijing Olympics.
The massive death toll and outpouring of international sympathy for China after the devastating Sichuan earthquake in May temporarily directed the spotlight away from controversial issues such as Tibet, imprisonment of dissidents, censorship of the media and the internet, and China's role in Sudan's Darfur region.
Until the earthquake, which killed at least 70,000 people, a military crackdown in March and April on anti-Chinese protests and riots in Tibetan areas had cemented the poor image of the ruling Communist Party in the eyes of foreign observers, the US-based Dui Hua Foundation said.
Dui Hua also said the arrest of prominent dissident Hu Jia, who was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison for subversion in April, 'cannot escape being connected to the Olympics'.
Hu's wife, fellow activist Zeng Jinyan, has lived under virtual house arrest for many months and is generally prevented by state security police from meeting foreign journalists or speaking to them by telephone.
'The control is tightening,' Zeng said in a brief e-mail message to dpa on July 10.
One of the questions to be answered during the games is likely to be whether the police can snatch away banners and smother protesters quickly enough to prevent foreign journalists having time to take useful pictures.
The government's concern about foreigners travelling to Beijing to protest, especially over Tibet and Darfur, resulted in the expulsion of British Tibetan woman Dechen Pemba in early July.
Pemba was only given time to grab a few things from her apartment before she was taken to the airport, and later accused of belonging to the radical Tibetan Youth Congress.
'I am completely shocked at these baseless, fabricated allegations,' she said in a statement issued after her forced arrival in London.
'In the run-up to the Olympic Games, I am completely amazed at the lengths to which the Chinese government is willing to go to in their security crackdown,' Pemba said.
China's role in Sudan was again highlighted by a BBC report on July 12 claiming to have 'found the first evidence that China is currently helping Sudan's government militarily in Darfur'.
The BBC reported on its website that its broadcast journalists had 'tracked down Chinese army lorries in the Sudanese province that came from a batch exported from China to Sudan in 2005'.
'The BBC was also told that China was training fighter pilots who fly Chinese A5 Fantan fighter jets in Darfur,' the report said, adding that the findings appear to 'contravene a UN arms embargo on Darfur'.
In an unrelated statement issued the day before the BBC report, the US-based Dream for Darfur urged China to use its 'unrivalled influence' to bring security to Darfur.
'China can immediately demand that the Sudanese regime stop killing its own unarmed citizens and insist that Sudan stop obstructing the full UN force from deploying,' Jill Savitt, the executive director of Dream for Darfur, said in a statement.
Dream for Darfur has previously said it was likely to stage some form of protest in Beijing during the games.
'Those directly responsible for the genocide are the Olympic host's close partners,' Savitt said. 'It is hard to believe Beijing could not influence the regime if it wanted to do so.'
Some analysts believe China has slightly softened its line on Sudan under international pressure.
But the Chinese envoy on Darfur, Liu Guijin, also regularly accuses 'a tiny number' of Western critics of 'Cold War thinking'.
'It is totally ungrounded to unilaterally accuse China on the Darfur issue, blame China's arms sale for the genocide and link it with the Olympic Games and boycott the games,' Liu told reporters in March after he returned from Darfur.
The International Olympic Committee has largely stuck to its 'keep politics out of sport' message and declined to blame China for its lack of progress on human rights since it won the right to host the games in 2001.
The IOC made one exception when regional leaders criticized the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader, during an Olympic torch relay in China's Tibet region.
The IOC said it regretted that 'political statements were made' and had reminded China 'of the need to separate sport and politics'.
US-based Human Rights in China recently pointed to 'ongoing repression' in Tibetan areas since March, as well as a 'systematic crackdown on rights defence activities'.
'We are witnessing the proliferation of serious human rights abuses committed under the banner of the official 'Olympic stability drive',' the group said.