Attention on Olympics, Dissident Goes Missing in China

Missing dissidents and arrests have gone largely uncovered during Olympic games.


August 18, 2008— -- As the headlines from China focus on Michael Phelps and Nastia Liukin, other stories have gone largely uncovered such as the disappearance of a human rights advocate and her baby daughter.

Beijing-based human rights activist Zeng Jinyan and her baby daughter have been missing since August 7th. Zeng has been under house arrest for months. Her husband, prominent activist Hu Jia, was sentenced to a three and a half year prison term in April on charges of inciting subversion for criticizing Chinese government policies. Hu had advocated for AIDS victims and called for political improvements in China to accompany the Olympic Games.

Zeng has been out of contact with her family, friends and lawyer since a day or two before the opening ceremony, her lawyer Li Fangping told ABC News. He believes that public security officers have taken her out of the city until the end of the Games.

"The information we have received is that she has been taken out of Beijing," said Li. "It is part of Olympics security."

Zeng's disappearance and other arrests of Chinese protesters were reported by international news agencies, but obscured by sports coverage last week, says Human Rights Watch Asia advocacy director Sophie Richardson. And though President Bush's rebuke of China's human rights record before the Games received some international attention, subsequent blows to that score did not, she said.

"It's natural and normal for the attention to be on the athletes themselves at the moment," said Richardson. "At the same time, it's safe to say there's been less press attention to human rights since Bush left Beijing. Major news outlets are not covering these issues in the way we would like them to."

Zeng's lawyer Li said that he himself had also left Beijing because the heightened security made him "nervous" during the Games. He and several other lawyers had been under careful surveillance, he said.

Others who live outside of the city have been told to stay out, said Li, citing a 74-year-old client in northern China's Hebei province who he says is being followed by five cars in order to prevent him from going to Beijing during the Games. In southern Hunan province, well-known blogger Zhu Shuguang (who calls himself Zola) posted frequent updates on the social networking site Twitter as he says he was detained by local officials on Thursday who warned him not to leave his hometown.

Despite the Chinese government's assurances that citizens would be allowed to protest in designated zones in Beijing, these areas have been empty. Several citizens who applied to protest in these zones have been arrested human rights groups say. Activist Ji Sizun, 58, was arrested in Beijing on August 11 after applying for a permit to appeal for greater political participation in China, according to human rights organizations. His family has been unable to contact him.

The public security bureau in China did not respond to calls for comment on this article.

The modest coverage of negative stories like these marks the success of Beijing Olympic organizers at presenting a scrubbed-clean image to visiting journalists, said Xiao Qiang, an expert on Internet censorship and the media in China who teaches at Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.

"The Chinese government has cleaned up just about everything in the city," said Xiao. "It's hard for journalists who are there for just a couple of weeks to find something authentic."

For that reason, most news is happening far from the capital, he said. It is also more likely to be broken by the Chinese media than the international press.

"The international media only have so much access. They can either interview individually, if they can, or they pick up clues from what is in the Chinese Internet or the Chinese media," said Xiao.

That was the case with the recent unrest in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, where a series of attacks timed to coincide with the start of the Games have killed around 30 people in a matter of weeks. The official Xinhua News Agency broke news of the unusually coordinated pipe bomb attacks on police stations, restaurants and government targets in the town of Kuqa on August 10. And reporting from the scene ahead of the international press was Caijing, a Beijing-based financial news magazine known for pushing the boundaries of government censorship.

But after a couple of days, the financial news magazine's coverage of the attacks in western China ceased.

"Caijing is always trying to push the envelope a little further, but there is only limited space that they can do so," said Xiao, adding that restrictions for all Chinese news outlets had increased during the Games. "The Chinese Internet is getting censored to the point that nothing is getting reported."

Adding to the effect of censorship, natural critics of the government in China may have been quieter during the Olympics because of broad national pride in the Games, said Xiao.

But a foreign journalist in Beijing, who asked not to be identified because "too many bosses are in town" said that the focus on sports was unsurprising, and not much different from other Olympics.

"Of course China is fundamentally different from most Olympic hosts. Its human rights deprivations are legion, and it doesn't have a free media," he said. "But there's also a certain pattern to Olympic Games. The run-up to any Olympic Games often draws a lot of protest groups, and the general pattern is once the Games begin, these sort of things begin to fade."

Attention to athletic feats is not necessarily a result of the government censoring news or sending away activists, he said. The Games themselves may simply be judged more newsworthy.

"The Olympics is a big show. People want to know what's going on in the Games and might be less interested in another miserable story about human rights in China."

Kristin Jones is a Fellow in the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism. She also contributes to the blog of the Committee to Protect Journalists during the Olympic Games.

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