Unlucky start to 2008 Games countdown
The Scotsman[Wednesday, August 08, 2007 12:58]
BEN BLANCHARD
IN BEIJING

Six Free Tibet activists hang a banner on the Great Wall outside Beijing, which lasted for two hours according to Students for a Free Tibet. (Phayul)
Six Free Tibet activists hang a banner on the Great Wall outside Beijing, which lasted for two hours according to Students for a Free Tibet. (Phayul)
FREE Tibet activists on the Great Wall, a barrage of critical human rights reports, a shroud of smog over Beijing - China's government must surely have imagined a more auspicious start for the Olympics countdown.

On top of that, the flood of food-safety scandals shows no sign of abating and a group of dissidents has written an open letter to the president, Hu Jintao, calling for the Games slogan to be changed to "One World, One Dream, Same Human Rights".

The weather is also refusing to co-operate in the run-up to the eighth day of the eighth month today, which will start the one-year countdown to the opening ceremony.

Torrential rain has brought Beijing traffic to a standstill several times, and it seems so long since the sun broke through the pollution that some are dubbing Beijing "Greyjing".

And few are convinced by government pledges on media freedom. On Monday, police prevented several journalists from leaving a Reporters Without Borders conference calling for increased media freedom. They were let go two hours later.

"The harassment and detention of journalists make Beijing's Olympic pledge on media freedoms seem more like a public-relations ploy than a sincere policy initiative," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said China was holding at least 29 reporters and editors behind bars because of their work.

"A decade ago we saw a tendency towards the liberalisation of the media in China and, under the Hu government, we've seen a backing away from that," committee Asia's programme co-ordinator, Bob Dietz, told reporters.

Celebrations to kick off the one-year countdown start today with a series of colourful events across the city, including in central Tiananmen Square, where soldiers bloodily put down pro-democracy protests in 1989.

Ding Zilin, whose son was killed in the protests and who leads a campaign to seek redress for the events of 1989, was one of 40 people who signed an open letter to the government calling for more freedoms ahead of the Olympics.

"Let Chinese citizens who have been forced into exile because of politics, religion or belief come home, so they can enjoy the Olympics in their motherland," the letter said.

In an open letter yesterday to Hu Jintao, the premier, Wen Jiabao, and the Olympic Committee president, Jacques Rogge, a group of 40 well-known Chinese dissidents - including the environmental author Dai Qing - said Olympic fanfare was obscuring widespread civil-rights abuses.

"We find no consolation in the rise of grandiose sports facilities, or a temporarily beautified Beijing city, or the prospect of Chinese athletes winning medals," the letter said. "We know too well how these glories are built on the ruins of the lives of ordinary people, on the forced removal of urban migrants, and on the sufferings of victims of land-grabbing, forced eviction, exploitation of labour and arbitrary detention."

As if the government needed reminding about the potential for protests at the Games, the Free Tibet Campaign said six demonstrators had been detained for unfurling a banner on the Great Wall.

Tenzin Dorjee, the deputy director of Students for a Free Tibet, said: "By protesting at the Great Wall, we're sending a message that China's dream of international leadership cannot be realised as long as it continues its brutal occupation of Tibet."

Health in the country that spawned the SARS respiratory syndrome and whose tainted pet food, toothpaste and cough medicine have caused worldwide alarm, is another concern.

Olympic organisers have promised to use satellite tracking to monitor food supplies for the Games and have stressed that hygiene is a top priority.

But still the bad news comes. The government is trying to crack down on diseased pork entering the market, a phenomenon which has increased as prices rise on the back of an epidemic which has killed one million pigs in a year.

If the food doesn't kill you, the smog might. It is the reason Chinese city traffic police have a life expectancy of 43.

SOMETHING IN THE AIR LEAVES PLANS UNDER A CLOUD

AUSTRALIAN athletes have been advised to delay their arrival for the 2008 Olympic Games because of the poor air quality in Beijing, the country's Olympic chief, John Coates, has said.

Cleaning up the air of the Chinese capital is one of the biggest hurdles facing organisers in the year remaining until the Games.

"It's probably the biggest issue for us and our team," Mr Coates said.

"The head coaches have gathered enough information to certainly confirm that we would not be recommending a long period in China before the Games. That is only going to increase the possibility of respiratory or gastro illness."

He said the athletes would do their final preparations at home before going to the Olympic village, as they did for the Seoul Games in 1988.

"You won't be seeing too many of our athletes until four or five days before their competition," he said.

The Australian Olympic Committee president said Beijing organisers had confirmed that they would take a large proportion of the city's three million cars off the road this month to test the effect on pollution and ease congestion.

Although a cloud of smog blanketed Beijing early yesterday, the Beijing Meteorological Office categorised it as a "blue-sky day" - where pollution levels are "fairly good" or better. "I haven't done any scientific tests, but it certainly doesn't look too good in downtown Beijing," Mr Coates said.

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