Entering 2008, Chinese President Hu Jintao faced one hurdle and one dilemma. The challenge was to stage a successful Olympic Games. The dilemma was how to accomplish this while placating party members who have sought harsher policies against dissidents and protesters seen to be promoting a “color revolution”—policies sure to be unpopular abroad. An engineer by training, Hu approached the tasks in a linear fashion, first savoring his modest victories from the party congress held last October. His loyalists were poised to take over most key positions in the party and state apparatus, though Hu failed to shrink the size of the Politburo’s Standing Committee, and the candidate he had favored as his successor wound up as number two in line.

Hu and other officials turned their sights on preparing for the Olympics, which has proven to be a very bumpy ride. Just before the torch run kickoff in Europe—meant to be a worldwide display of China’s Olympic glory—protests in Tibetan communities (and the government response to them) badly tarnished China’s image. The torch run was met with feverish demonstrations that led to employing traditional (even ancient) tactics to protect the torch and, by association, the image of the Chinese government. Cities hosting the torch were relegated to building walls and diverting routes to block out unwelcome “invaders” of the run. Through its media, China presented its own version of all these events, complete with national heroes and heroines from the torch runs, further stoking the nationalism of Chinese people who felt victimized and assaulted.

Amid these events, a startling reality is how quickly China’s image declined, and a key question is what its leaders can do to perk up their country in the eyes of the world. The Olympics can still showcase a “peacefully rising” China, but perhaps only if China’s leaders can rise to the occasion with a unique demonstration of goodwill to its own people and the international community, such as extending an “Olympic pardon” to long-serving prisoners. This would truly be a winning performance for Hu and other Chinese leaders if they can pull it off.

Buffing China’s Image

From last year, Hu had already observed China’s image taking a steady hit, and in a meeting in January, he exhorted party propagandists to promote a positive international image for China. It was announced the man tapped to succeed Hu, Xi Jinping, would personally take charge of ensuring the Olympics would be a success. Shortly afterward, Hu ordered the release of the Hong Kong journalist Ching Cheong, a gesture of “generosity” conducted in such haste that China’s regulations on parole were disregarded.

In a significant step that signaled a desire to improve its standing in the world and especially in the United States, Beijing agreed to resume the long-suspended human rights dialogue with Washington, a decision announced at the end of US Secretary of State Rice’s visit to Beijing in late February. Only back in October, Chinese officials had stated the human rights dialogue would be suspended indefinitely in furious reaction to the granting of the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama. With this sudden reversal of policy, the dialogue was set to resume as early as May 2008.

A Dragon Falling in the Polls

The numbers from recent international polls, however, suggest that concerted efforts to bolster China’s reputation internationally had perhaps not come about soon or substantially enough. Announced in early March 2008, results of a Gallup Poll, the most respected measure of US attitudes towards China, showed the largest one-year swing (14 points) since after the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The poll revealed that the number of Americans who viewed China as the country’s greatest enemy had risen 40 percent since February 2006. Aside from long-held criticism of China’s human rights abuses, the numbers reflected concerns about a soaring trade deficit with China, horror stories of poisoned pet food and dangerous toys, pollution wafting across the Pacific Ocean, and China’s support for unsavory regimes.

Around the same time the Gallup numbers were released, the annual BBC poll showed that China’s overall rating as a positive influence in the world was below 50 percent. A World Public Opinion poll conducted in three western and three Asian countries revealed that, by margins exceeding three to one, people in the United States, France, the UK, South Korea, and Indonesia strongly opposed China’s policies in Tibet—a particularly ominous sign of things to come only weeks later. And according to a widely cited Financial Times poll, one in three Europeans now view China as the greatest threat to world stability, representing a two-fold increase in less than a year.

Roof of the World, Pulse of the World

Any strides Beijing had made to help its flagging overseas image came to a screeching halt in March, when historically peaceful protests—held every March 10 by Tibetans to mark the abortive 1959 pro-independence uprising—were suppressed and consequently turned violent in Lhasa on March 14. The monk-led protests led to the burning and looting of Han Chinese shops, with many Han being beaten and killed. On March 15, China’s police and paramilitary forces struck back, and western media coverage of the suppression of protests in Tibet was extremely critical. Tibetan groups have claimed that more than 100 Tibetans were killed and thousands detained.

Unfortunately for Beijing, the uprisings coincided with the launch of the Olympic torch run. From the moment the flame was lit in Olympia, Greece, the “Journey of Harmony” was anything but harmonious, with volatile and highly embarrassing demonstrations against China’s human rights record held in several cities. Enraged by what they perceived as anti-China bias among Western politicians and especially the media, young Chinese inside China and abroad launched counter-demonstrations, called for boycotts of foreign companies and products, and used the Internet to attack and threaten foreign journalists, issuing death threats against them and others who they perceived to be “anti-China.”

By late March 2008, China’s already sinking reputation had fallen off a cliff. The suppression of protests in Tibet and in neighboring provinces, the rocky torch run, and widely reported excesses of young Chinese nationalists combined to take a terrible toll on China’s image. Particularly in regard to the hosting of the Olympic Games, the negative numbers are stunning. A Zogby poll from April found that 70 percent of Americans thought it was a mistake to grant the games to Beijing; less than a year before, the percentage was just 39 percent. In the UK, 66 percent of respondents believed the torch protests damaged the reputation of the Chinese government. Meanwhile, support for a full boycott of the games had more than doubled in the United States since May 2007. And in many western countries where polls have been taken, majorities or at least significant numbers favored a boycott of the opening ceremonies.

What Can Be Done?

How can the Chinese government improve its image after the battering it has taken? In fact, there are a number of things that can be done. One problem for Beijing is that the government is constrained when it comes to making concessions on Tibet—the current focus of foreign criticism of China’s human rights record—due in part to its own harsh rhetoric and the nationalist sentiment it has helped ignite. While Beijing is willing to sit down for dialogue with representatives of the Dalai Lama, it is unlikely that meaningful progress will emerge from such talks, and almost certainly not enough to quell anti-China sentiment and media coverage while lifting China’s image in the world of public opinion.

A positive area the Chinese government has not fully exploited is its reduction in the number of executions. Dui Hua and others, examining spotty data, have concluded that a big drop took place in 2007, perhaps a decline to between 5,000 and 6,000 from roughly 8,000 in 2006. But since the number still accounts for over 90 percent of all executions worldwide, Beijing might find it hard to highlight the positive effect of reforms instituted in January 2007.

Just as talking up the drop in executions—and promising even sharper reductions—would improve China’s image, especially in Europe, so too would the release of the remaining prisoners from the period of the “two turmoils” in 1989: the martial law established in Lhasa in early 1989 and then in Beijing in June.

Dui Hua Executive Director John Kamm appealed for the release of the remaining “June Fourth” prisoners in a speech in Hong Kong on March 29, 2008—an “Olympic pardon” in the spirit of the historical Olympic Truce. Dui Hua estimates that 60 to 100 individuals convicted of crimes committed during the April to June disturbances that swept China are still in prison. Kamm said the total imprisoned had dropped in recent years, and he named some of the best-known June Fourth prisoners known to the foundation (see Olympic Pardon and “June Fourth” Prisoners). All of these prisoners have had their sentences commuted at least once for good behavior, and many have only a year or two left to serve on their sentences.

Olympian Victory Through A Pardon

Releasing the remaining June Fourth prisoners would go some way to putting the bitter legacy of Tiananmen Square to rest and be received favorably outside of China without unleashing strong negative nationalist sentiment at home. The official and public declaration of an Olympic pardon for long-serving prisoners who have nearly completed their sentences would represent an even bolder move, one that could significantly alter foreign opinion towards China. An Olympic pardon would also result in the release of most individuals serving sentences for counterrevolution and hooliganism, crimes removed from China’s criminal law in 1997, which would smooth the way for China’s ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Under China’s constitution, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress has the power to grant pardons for prisoners. It has exercised this power when pardons were given to captured Nationalist Party (KMT) officers and other prisoners on seven occasions from 1959 to 1975. For the Chinese government to offer such generosity of spirit to long-serving prisoners who no longer pose a threat to society would also set an important humanitarian precedent; though some Olympic host countries have debated in the past whether or not to grant such a pardon, none has thus far done so.

Whether further reducing the number of executions or issuing an Olympic pardon, Beijing has a steep hill to climb—and little time to do it before the Olympics—to improve China’s image in respect to human rights. It remains to be seen if Beijing can muster the political will to do so. But Beijing must act, and it must act quickly.

Related link: