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[Sports view]Rights issues dog host of Olympics

Jan 31,2007
I went to Beijing last month for the first time in more than a year. To a layman’s eyes, not much had changed. The food was great. The traffic was not. My survival Chinese is still a work in progress. Since it was my second visit to the country, it was easier to get around. As China has become a global economic engine, this city has grown with it. It has transformed itself from being “forbidden” to being the host of the 2008 Summer Olympics.
The lack of English billboards worried me, because without a guide it was hard to know instantly what a certain place was offering ― or not. But China is still a very centralized country in which one word from the top can change anything in the blink of an eye. Right now, whole sections of the city are being moved or cleared in preparation for the Olympics. But there is one issue China needs to decide.
Last week, about 30 civic groups demonstrated in front of the Chinese diplomatic mission to Seoul. They protested Beijing’s decision to repatriate family members of South Korean prisoners of war back to North Korea. The incident occurred in October, but only became known recently. From what I have been hearing, the incident could have been a mistake on China’s part because the family members in question were held at a spot that reportedly was prearranged by Seoul and Beijing. North Korean defectors that have a link to South Korean prisoners of war, in general, tend to be treated a little bit differently from other North Korean defectors.
Regardless of whether Beijing had slipped or not, the fundamental question is the same: When will China demonstrate its will to adhere to international standards on human rights? International civic groups have vowed to address these issues during the Olympics. The official mantra by Beijing regarding North Korean defectors is that they are illegal residents within its country and thus need to be dealt with by the local laws. Beijing has sent mixed signals over the issue. Some North Korean defectors have been sent back to the North while others have been allowed to come to the South.
From Beijing’s standpoint, it needs to keep Pyongyang happy by showing it is willing to send back those who are regarded as traitors in the North. China has shown that at its own pace it is willing to embrace a market economy, but the question of political reform still remains unanswered. Human rights in China have been an issue consistently raised, and this is one area in which Beijing can demonstrate improvement. Although, for internal reasons, easing up on a political crackdown is not an easy choice, it will be easier, at least on the issue of North Korean defectors. Beijing could agitate Pyongyang by letting North Korean defectors, who have succeeded in crossing into China, into the South. There may also be the underlying fear that showing such a lax hand could become a catalyst for a big exodus of North Korean defectors, leading to instability in the North.
That may be true, but if China ever hopes to be accepted fully into the global order, being an economic powerhouse alone is not enough. Leading by example to promote universally accepted ethical principles is the key to do it and it has to start somewhere.
The Olympic movement is not merely a sporting event to see who the fastest person on Earth is. As its charter states, the games are conducted, “with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”


by Brain Lee [africanu@joongang.co.kr]


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