The Human Toll of the Olympics

August 4, 2008

While the financial cost of the Olympics is estimated at $43 billion, the human toll of China's preparations for the Olympics is also considerable. Seeking to ensure security and project a "positive" image, China has cracked down on groups it deems potential "troublemakers": migrant workers, petitioners, ethnic minorities, Falun Gong practitioners, activists, rights defenders, religious leaders, and others. 

While the financial cost of the Olympics is estimated at $43 billion, the human toll of China's preparations for the Olympics is also considerable. Seeking to ensure security and project a "positive" image, China has cracked down on groups it deems potential "troublemakers": migrant workers, petitioners, ethnic minorities, Falun Gong practitioners, activists, rights defenders, religious leaders, and others. This crackdown has intensified during the months and weeks leading up to the Games, which begin on August 8. At the same time, China has fallen short in meeting formal commitments it made to the International Olympic Committee (IOC). These commitments include increased freedom for the foreign press and progress on environmental issues.

Press Freedom

  • Foreign broadcasters and journalists in China have described numerous burdensome and last-minute bureaucratic hurdles thrown up by Chinese officials in recent weeks to limit uncensored, live coverage during the Olympics, according to a July 24 Associated Press (AP) article. Chinese officials claim restrictions on live coverage and broadcast sites are necessary for security. Foreign journalists, however, note that these restrictions contradict earlier promises and appear designed to give officials wide latitude to restrict reporting arbitrarily.
  • The Commission noted in previous analyses that China promised foreign journalists "no restrictions" for the Olympics. Officials have made frequent exceptions to this promise - including barring foreign reporters from traveling anywhere near reported protests in Tibetan areas, and detaining foreign reporters attempting to cover protests by parents following a May earthquake - suggesting that officials retain considerable discretion to deviate from this promise.
  • A Beijing Olympic official confirmed on July 30 that foreign reporters' access to certain Web sites, including those relating to Falun Gong, would be blocked at Olympic venues, according to a July 30 Agence France-Presse (AFP) article. Foreign journalists initially reported not being able to access the Web sites for Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Tibetan government-in-exile, those providing information about the 1989 Tiananmen democracy protests and Falun Gong, Radio Free Asia, Deutsche Welle, and the Hong Kong-based Apple Daily, and the Chinese-language sites for Voice of America, and the BBC, according to the AFP article and a PC World article and Deutsche Welle article of the same date. They also said that such censorship was not evident in previous Games. In September 2006, a Chinese Olympic official said that Internet access for foreign reporters during the Olympics would be uncensored, according to a September 27, 2006, Reuters article (via China Daily). In April of this year, the IOC expressed concern to Chinese Olympic officials over Internet censorship that followed Tibetan protests that began in March, saying that China's Host City Contract (which is not publicly available) with the IOC obligated it to offer open Internet access to foreign journalists during the Olympics, according to an April 2 South China Morning Post (SCMP) article (subscription required).
  • On July 30, the IOC acknowledged that it had "negotiated with the Chinese that some sensitive sites would be blocked on the basis they were not considered Games related," according to a July 30 Reuters article. A day later the IOC said that "[w]e have a team working with [the Beijing Olympic Committee] to unblock sites to make it easier for reporters and to remove any concerns that sites are censored. Apart from those sites, for example, which relate to pornography, which is common to every country in the world to block, and sites which could be considered subversive, all other sites should be free to enable all reporters to properly report on the Games as they have in previous Games," according to an August 2 Australian article. The New York Times reported on August 1 that the Web sites for Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Radio Free Asia, and the Chinese language service of the BBC had become accessible at the Olympic Village, but that other sites relating to Tibet, Chinese dissidents, and the 1989 Tiananmen democracy protests remained blocked.

    See previous Commission analyses in this area going back to 2005:
    China's Olympic Commitments on Media Control and Internet Access (Posted 07/2008)
    Hu Jintao Speech Stresses Media's Role To Serve Party (Posted 07/2008)
    China Commits to "Open Government Information" Effective May 1, 2008 (Posted 05/2008)
    Censorship of Internet and Foreign News Broadcasts Following Tibetan Protests (Posted 04/2008) 
    Mixed Progress for Olympic Foreign Reporting Regulations One Year Later (Posted 01/2008) 
    Central Propaganda Department Restricts Reporting on Air Quality, Food Safety (Posted 12/2007) 
    Chinese Government Relaxes Restrictions on Foreign Journalists for Olympics (Posted 11/2007) 
    IOC Expresses Concern About Government Restrictions on News Media (Posted 11/2005) 
    Beijing Olympic Committee Refusing All Telephone Interviews To Avoid Falun Gong Journalists (Posted 08/2005)


  • Beijing officials point to the city meeting its 2007 target of 245 days of “blue skies” as an indicator of improved air quality, according to a December 30, 2007, Reuters article. Yet Chinese academics and other experts have criticized the government’s lack of transparency with regard to its pollution data and the temporary nature of many of its anti-pollution measures, according to a May 14 SCMP article (subscription required).
  • It remains to be seen if Beijing’s air quality during the Olympics – determined by measuring the levels of four pollutants – will meet promised World Health Organization (WHO) standards. Levels of sulfur dioxide meet current WHO standards but particulate matter 10 levels do not meet these standards, according to a July Greenpeace report. Beijing’s environmental protection bureau currently does not measure ozone or particulate matter 2.5, which have documented adverse health effects.
  • China's costly policy of diverting water from outer provinces to Beijing for the Olympics threatens environmental conditions in those provinces, according to a June Probe International report. Local officials reportedly harassed a group of journalists and a domestic environmental non-governmental organization (NGO) worker visiting reservoirs in Hebei province that were sending water to Beijing, according to a July 14 San Francisco Chronicle article.

    See previous Commission analyses in this area going back to 2007
    “Green Olympics” Commitments Raise Concerns Over Transparency and Implementation (Posted 01/2008) 
    SEPA Issues Measures on Open Environmental Information (Posted 12/2007)


Crackdown on Certain Groups and Individuals 
  • A July 17 Oriental Daily report (via Open Source Center, July 17, subscription required) noted that provinces and localities outside Beijing had dispatched personnel to the capital to repatriate, sometimes forcefully, residents who had come to Beijing to petition the government. Amnesty International reported on April 1 that Beijing Public Security Bureau officers had already detained thousands of petitioners as part of an Olympics "clean up," and repatriated many of them.

Activists, NGOs, and Rights Defenders 

  • Numerous activists, as well as the spouses of imprisoned rights defenders Hu Jia and Chen Guangcheng, have been subjected to unlawful home confinement and/or surveillance in order to prevent them from protesting or meeting with foreign journalists during the Olympics, according to a July 25 Radio Free Asia report.
  • SCMP reported (subscription required) on June 25 that officials monitoring the Internet in China were targeting Web sites run by local NGOs, including blocking access to one Web site serving hepatitis B sufferers. The Christian Science Monitor reported in December 2007 of an ongoing crackdown on NGOs that began earlier that year. In both cases, NGO activists believe those moves were related to the Olympics.
  • The Hong Kong-based Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy reported that the Shanghai Public Security Bureau ordered activists, petitioners, and other "controlled" people not to leave the city and barred them from speaking to foreign press "for the purpose of strengthening public order during the Beijing Olympics," according to a June 25 SCMP article (subscription required).
  • The Commission has noted that in recent months officials have reportedly held in custody, detained, or sentenced Chinese citizens who have peacefully criticized China's human rights conditions and linked such criticism to the Olympics. These individuals include Hu JiaWang DejiaTeng Biao, and Yang Chunlin.
  • The July 25 Radio Free Asia report also noted that Qi Zhiyong, a Beijing-based activist who lost a leg during the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, was told that he would be detained if he did not leave Beijing for the duration of the Olympics.
Migrant Workers 
  • Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported (via Yahoo) on July 24 that authorities were ordering many of Beijing's millions of migrant workers to leave the city, a charge an official denied. In September 2006, Beijing officials said that migrant workers would not be forced out of Beijing during the Olympics, according to a September 15, 2006, Xinhua article (via Open Source Center, 15 September 06, subscription required).
Religious Groups and Falun Gong Practitioners
  • Some unregistered religious communities have reported increased harassment and abuse in the run-up to the Olympics. On July 18, authorities expelled Pastor Zhang Mingxuan, president of the Chinese House Church alliance, from Beijing after closing his church earlier that month on the grounds that it would be "a destabilising factor during the [Olympic] Games," according to Zhang's remarks as reported in a July 20 SCMP article (subscription required). "The crackdown on underground churches so far this year is much more intense than the past few years put together because of the Olympic Games," according to Zhang, as reported by the SCMP in another July 20 article (subscription required). Minister of Public Security Zhou Yongkang stated in March 2007 that the government would "strike hard" against hostile forces inside and outside the country, including religious and spiritual groups, to ensure a "good social environment" for the Olympics and 17th Communist Party Congress. For additional information, see a July 28 reportfrom the China Aid Association.
  • In the months preceding the Olympics, Chinese security officials have implemented a widespread campaign to round up and intimidate Falun Gong practitioners nationwide. According to a July 8 Falun Dafa Information Center (FDIC) report, at least 8,037 adherents have been arrested since December 2007, including 208 in Beijing alone. Some of those detained were subsequently sentenced to reeducation-through-labor camps. Local police and public security officials have reportedly been making door-to-door arrests based on a previously compiled list of local practitioners, according to a March 12 FDIC report.
  • The central government has widely disseminated a directive urging local officials to actively detain Falun Gong practitioners and has publicly portrayed them as a dangerous threat to stability on par with "terrorism." A July 11 Xinhua article reports on a notice to Beijing residents offering a reward for what the report described as "substantial information on terrorist attacks, sabotage by illegal organizations and cults such as the Falun Gong..."
North Korean Refugees 
  • In the year leading up to the Olympics, the government has intensified border surveillance and stepped up efforts to capture and forcibly repatriate North Korean refugees, according to articles from the Sunday Times on June 29, Time Magazine on March 6, and Radio Free Asia on March 21. The Sunday Times article noted an agreement between China and North Korea to "tighten security measures to ensure 'stability' in the run-up to the Olympic Games and to stop any embarrassing demonstrations by refugees." A July 22 AP report based on South Korean intelligence sources also confirms that Chinese border security has increased, refugees are being targeted, and that even renewal of visas for North Koreans with proper documentation has been restricted.
  • In preparation for the Olympic torch relay's arrival in Yanji City on July 19, Chinese public security agents conducted daily inspections of the homes of ethnic Koreans living near the border since April, according to a June 18 Daily North Korea report and a June 14 report from Life Funds for North Korean Refugees (LFNKR). Residents report to LFNKR that penalties for harboring refugees now include imprisonment and fines ranging from 8,000 to 10,000 RMB (US$1,150-1,445). Interviews conducted by the Sunday Times with border residents in June found that local authorities were repatriating “several hundred” refugees per month as a result of the house inspections.
  • In recent months, government harassment of religious communities along the border has increased dramatically. The central government has ordered provincial religious affairs bureaus to investigate religious communities for signs of involvement with foreign coreligionists, according to an April 10 LFNKR report. In the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, Chinese authorities have shut down churches found to have ties to South Koreans or other foreign nationals.
  • According to a July 12 Age article, a British citizen of Tibetan ethnicity, beggars, women used in prostitution, and the homeless have been expelled from Beijing or denied re-entry.

    See previous Commission analyses in this area going back to 2005: 

  • The Chinese government has taken new measures that attempt to force the Dalai Lama to accept responsibility for the views and actions of Tibetan activist groups that seek to stage pro-independence protests against the backdrop of the Beijing Olympics, and to stop such groups from carrying out their protests. A senior Party official told the Dalai Lama's envoys when they visited Beijing on July 1 and 2 that as a precondition to continuing the dialogue the Dalai Lama must "explicitly promise" to provide "no support for activities that aimed to disturb and sabotage the Beijing Olympic Games," and that he must prove his compliance through his actions (Xinhua, reprinted in China Daily, 3 July 08).
  • The Tibetan People's Uprising Movement (TPUM), an association of Tibetan activist groups that calls for Tibetan freedom, announced on July 22 that the group would organize protests against China's role as the Olympic host during and after the Olympics at the locations of United Nations and International Olympic Committee offices in the United States and Europe, according to a statement posted on the TPUM Web site. Chinese officials have blamed the Dalai Lama (or the "Dalai Clique") for TPUM activities (Xinhua, 1 April 08), even though the Dalai Lama has continued to reiterate his explicit support for the Beijing Olympic Games (see, e.g., the Dalai Lama's April 6 statement, Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama Web site).
  • The Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), a pro-Tibetan independence group and TPUM's principal affiliate, announced separately that it would "stage [a] series of protests worldwide before and during the Beijing Games" (Phayul, 21 July 08). Chinese officials have accused the TYC (without providing substantiation) of "violent terrorist activities" and, as another new precondition on dialogue, have demanded that the Dalai Lama "concretely curb" the group's alleged violent activity (Xinhua, reprinted in China Daily, 3 July 08). The Dalai Lama's envoys "categorically rejected" the Chinese characterization of the TYC during the July meetings in Beijing, according to the Special Envoy's July 5 statement (reprinted on the International Campaign for Tibet Web site).

    See previous Commission analyses in this area dating back to 2006
    Official Information Confirms Sentence for Tibetan Nun Who Put Up Posters (Posted 11/2006) 
    Gansu Court Sentences Five Tibetan Monks and Nuns for Protest Posters (Posted 02/2006)

Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR)

  • Uighurs in the XUAR and overseas groups reported that Chinese authorities increased controls in the region to prevent perceived threats to stability as the Olympic torch relay passed through the XUAR, according to a June 15 AFP article (via ABS-CBN News Online). According to sources cited in the article, officials barred some local Muslims from traveling overseas, required residents to "avoid contact with foreigners" and "report any overseas journalists operating in the area," forced Muslim religious personnel to receive "political education" on "protecting" the Olympics, and detained thousands.
  • According to a June 18 Radio Free Asia article, a spokesman for the German-based World Uighur Congress said torch relay onlookers would have to pass a political background check and be required to cheer.
  • Chinese officials have sought to justify the recent crackdown as intended to prevent terrorist activity that could disrupt the Olympics. The Commission noted in a March analysis that XUAR Communist Party Chair Wang Lequan linked a January security raid to a group allegedly planning to attack the Olympics, although he provided only limited details about the incident.

    See previous Commission analysis in this area going back to 2008
    Authorities Block Uighur Protest in Xinjiang, Detain Protesters (Posted 04/2008)