Hu Jintao, holder of the three most powerful positions in China, has a clearcut agenda over the next year. On the domestic front, he intends to consolidate his power by forcing real or potential adversaries out of party and government positions. The results will be manifest at the upcoming 17th party congress, the most important event on China’s political calendar.

On the global stage, President Hu wants to make the 2008 Olympic Games a great success. China is on track to win the most gold medals and the most medals overall. Such a triumph would showcase China’s glittering modern cities and its “harmonious society,” the very images of a “peacefully rising China.” But like an athlete, Hu must clear some high hurdles to pull off all of these plans.

An intense power struggle within China was underway in the late spring of 2007. Allies of Jiang Zemin, Hu’s predecessor as president and party chairman, have been seriously weakened by a series of recent corruption scandals, but appear to be far from full decline, with Jiang himself being given a prominent position at the funeral service for Huang Ju, the late Politburo member (and Jiang protegé). Infighting has been so fierce that there has been talk of postponing the party congress until October instead of holding it in September.

Hu has never been without adversaries, and he has proven himself adept at winning the battles necessary to maintain his currently unrivalled status. Although he will almost certainly prevail in most, if not all, of the key fights ahead, Hu will no doubt be forced to make compromises—particularly with the military and security forces—that will limit his maneuverability in the coming five years. China-watchers, including human rights activists, must keep this in mind as they forecast China’s future.

China’s Image Problems

China will compete for medals in every sport at the 29th Olympic Games. Its haul of gold medals will easily exceed the 34 it won at the Athens Games, when it placed second behind the 36 won by the United States. China is fully expected to score an impressive triumph as the host country, with its medals predicted to far outnumber whichever country comes second.

Still, successfully presenting the world with a “peacefully rising China” will prove more difficult than winning medals. International doping scandals and the threat of terrorism have led to declines in travel to and interest in the Olympics. NBC Sports, which will broadcast the Beijing Games in the United States, is known to be concerned about low American viewership, due to a sense of lukewarm interest in US athletes compared to the enthusiastic buzz that is certain to surround Chinese competitors.

Recent polls (see following charts) suggest that China has a poor international image among the major Olympic countries—the top ten medal winners in the 2004 Athens Games, excluding China. (Japan was not included in this set of polls, but Japanese polls have been negative toward China despite an uplift after Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to the country this past April.) The two polls show a community of developed nations that is largely mistrustful of China to exercise a positive influence with its stature as an emerging leader in the world.

Moreover, what happens when tens of thousands of journalists covering the games are told by their editors to report on China stories that have nothing to do with track and field or women’s soccer—stories on mass incidents, human rights abuses, or the environment? Under the Olympic host-city contract, journalists must be allowed free access throughout China to report on any issue, provided they have the consent of individuals being interviewed. Beijing has pledged to abide by these rules, but there have already been problems with interpretation of the guidelines, with foreign reporters being told they can only report on Olympic-themed subjects.

Beijing also has agreed to permit anyone wanting to attend the Olympic Games to do so. Given that Chinese officials routinely deny visas to individuals they wish to bar from entry for any number of reasons, honoring this provision could prove quite challenging. Then there are the special problems posed by individuals such as the Dalai Lama and the exiled Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer. What will Beijing do if they express interest in attending the games in order to observe Tibetan or Uyghur athletes competing for medals?

Chicago Council poll

BBC poll 2007

Where Will Progress Be Made?

So what steps will China take with respect to human rights in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics? Interestingly, one move it will make does not involve how the Chinese government treats its own people, but rather how a close foreign partner over whom China holds considerable sway—the Sudanese government—is treating its people in Darfur.

Having received international criticism as a major investor in Sudan, China now understands that it needs to use its influence to help end the genocide in Darfur. Beijing has appointed a special envoy, contributed engineers to the current force of observers (the only permanent member of the UN Security Council to do so), and promised to contribute troops to a hybrid UN-African Union force. Even if the force deploys quickly and the killing stops, China’s failure to take earlier measures to halt the tragedy in Darfur has already caused considerable damage to China’s image that will be hard to undo.

There are good domestic reasons to make strides in another area related to human rights—reducing the huge number of executions carried out annually. The need to improve China’s global image in preparation for the Olympics has been a major impetus toward reform of the country’s system of capital punishment. Although firm figures have not been released, reports from China indicate that the number of executions has declined. During a June visit to Beijing, Dui Hua Executive Director John Kamm was told by a Chinese official that he expected executions to continue to drop—news that will be welcomed internationally, especially by the European public, which is particularly keen on seeing the expansion of universal human rights.

Where Progress Falls Short

Beyond honoring commitments to journalists, issuing visas for hopeful Olympic observers, taking action on Darfur, and, most importantly, reducing the number of executions, there are other areas in which Beijing could take steps to improve its image abroad. However, there is little cause for optimism that more advancements on human rights in China, including ones that observers have hoped would occur for years, will take hold before the Beijing Olympics kick off.

For instance, China appears unlikely to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights before the games. Internal disputes remain over which reservations should be attached to the covenant, signed by China in October 1998, and these conflicts are growing increasingly complicated.

In China, the amended criminal procedure law and new legislation to replace “reeducation-through-labor” (RTL) will receive their first readings at the October plenary session of the National People’s Congress, making it possible that one or both could become law by the time of the Olympics. Still, disputes continue to surround the final wording of both. The draft RTL bill has not been published, but experts speculate that it will preserve in some form the power of the police to imprison individuals without trial. The amended criminal procedure law is expected to elicit favorable comment for recognizing “presumption of innocence,” but the final contents of the entire bill are far from settled.

Beijing appreciates the potential benefit of establishing diplomatic relations with the Vatican in the eyes of countries with large Catholic populations. The appointment of bishops remains a major obstacle, however, with the Vatican standing firm on papal authority. Most observers predict an eventual system such as the one recently agreed upon for Vietnam, in which the government approves candidates from a list sponsored by the Vatican, with the Pope then making a final decision. Many also concede that such an agreement is a long way off, with provincial party secretaries in Catholic strongholds like Hebei and Zhejiang opposing any deal that may increase unrest within their populations.

In addition, China appears to be hardening policies on Tibet and Xinjiang, and the Olympics have if anything made these tense situations worse. The torch run up Mount Everest, involving the training and selection of runners from a pool of thousands and the building of an asphalt highway up the mountain, has stirred controversy that is not likely to subside. After dialogue had been suspended for more than a year, representatives of the Dalai Lama paid a low-key visit to China in late June.

In recent years, China’s leaders have been rightly emboldened by the country’s economic growth, increased capital in diplomatic fields, and the chance to exhibit global prominence as the next Olympic host. At the same time, China has resisted adopting many universal human rights standards, which does not bode well for its citizens or an international community looking to China for leadership. Progress truly being made on some human rights fronts, especially the drop in executions, has created positive momentum for China. But such changes may turn out to be the only measures China embraces to brighten its image by the time the Olympic flame—and the global spotlight—illuminates Beijing’s sky.