Olympic host Beijing saw hazy pollution lift on Tuesday, but a damning Amnesty International report brought into sharp view tensions over China's human rights policies ten days before the Games begin.
With the 2008 Olympic Games due to open in the shining Bird's Nest Stadium on Aug. 8, the human rights group on Tuesday gave a scathing assessment of China's record, saying many of its citizens' protections and freedoms have shrunk, not expanded, in the seven years since Beijing won the right to hold the Games.
The country has not honored vows to improve rights that officials made in lobbying for the Games, and was not living up to commitments as an Olympic host, the group stated in the report released in Hong Kong.
"There has been no progress towards fulfilling these promises, only continued deterioration," it said in the report, titled "The Olympics countdown — broken promises."
"The authorities have used the Olympic Games as pretext to continue, and in some respects, intensify existing policies and practices which have led to serious and widespread violations of human rights," it said in the report released in Hong Kong.
Amnesty said that in the past year alone, thousands of petitioners, reformists and others were arrested as part of a government campaign to "clean up" Beijing before the games. It said many of those arrested have been sentenced to manual labor without trial.
Chinese human rights activists have been targeted elsewhere in the country as well, Amnesty said in its report.
It cited the case of Sichuan-based activist Huang Qi, who was formally arrested earlier this month on charges of possessing state secrets. The case, though, is believed to stem from his work helping the families of children killed in May's earthquake bring a legal case against local authorities, Amnesty said.
The organization said the games, touted by Chinese and Olympic officials alike as a way to help expand freedoms in the authoritarian country, have instead led the government to muzzle critics in hopes of presenting an image of harmony and stability to the outside world.
"By continuing to persecute and punish those who speak out for human rights, the Chinese authorities have lost sight of the promises they made when they were granted the games seven years ago," said Roseann Rife, a deputy director in Asia for the London-based group. "The Chinese authorities are tarnishing the legacy of the games."
‘There has been no progress’
On Tuesday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao rejected the report, saying that people "who know China will not agree with this report."
"We hope Amnesty can take off the tinted glasses it has worn for many years and see China in an objective way," he said during a regularly scheduled press conference.
Several Chinese lawyers and activists pressing for lifting censorship, stronger judicial protections and improved treatment for AIDS patients, told Reuters the Games had brought pressure for some improvements but was making life difficult for them.
Teng Biao, a Beijing-based lawyer who has experienced detention, said China's Olympics run-up had brought some gains in media freedom and emboldened Internet-based citizen activism.
"But in many aspects the Amnesty report is right — there has been no progress or even deterioriation," Teng said by telephone. "Everything has had to give way to the Games, and that's also led to rights violations."
Wan Yanhai, an advocate for AIDS-HIV patients, said China's leaders had made vague promises to improved rights without anticipating the growing pressure from Chinese activists and outside groups to act on those promises.
"The government doesn't know how to adjust to holding such a big event in an open, challenge-filled environment," Wan said of the Games. He said he had left his home in Beijing to escape pre-Games pressure from security authorities.
In one recent shift, the government announced it was setting up special protest zones during the games.
The Amnesty report also took aim at China's suppressive media censorship, noting that some foreign journalists have been harassed by authorities.
It also claimed the government had expanded its "re-education through labor" program under which security forces arrest people and sentence them to manual labor without trial.
Amnesty also accused the International Olympic Committee of showing a "reluctance" to pressure China publicly on its human rights record.
Messages left with IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies asking for comment on the report were not immediately returned.
Elsewhere in the report, Amnesty welcomed China's move last year to restore the Supreme People's Court's role in approving death sentences. But it criticized the government, which says the number of executions has declined, for withholding data on death penalty cases.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.