HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- With a year to go before

the 2008 Olympics get under way, questions linger over

China's efforts to improve its human rights record.


Observers and pressure groups have criticized the

efforts of the Chinese government and the International

Olympic Committee (IOC) since Beijing won the bid in 2001,

rejecting assertions by both that the Games will lead to lasting

positive change in the world's most populous nation.

After praising Beijing's preparations as "excellent across the

board," the IOC official charged with overseeing Beijing's

preparations, Hein Verbruggen, sparked further anger from

advocacy groups with his recent comments that, "...the way

the Games are being used as a platform for groups with political

and social agendas is often regrettable.''

The International Federation for Human Rights claimed his remarks

will "embolden'' hard-line elements within the Chinese Communist

Party to ignore international pressure over human rights promises.

But the IOC says, there is a widespread misconception that a list

of "human rights promises'' was ever sought by the IOC in the first place.

"There were some declarations made by senior Chinese leaders in

Beijing who raised the human-rights question proactively and

talked about how the Games would be part of the process to

help human rights development," says IOC's director of

communications Giselle Davies,. "But that was never a

[piece of] criteria on which the IOC judged and assessed

Beijing's bid.

"The IOC decision is not made in a political or social context.

It is very much based around what is a coming together at a

sporting event and everything for which that can be a catalyst for," Davies adds.

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And that, she believes, is a force for good. "The IOC fundamentally

believes that the world will look back and see the Games as a key

moment along a period of change and development for

good in China," she says.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch has sharply criticized Beijing.

On Thursday, the organization said China's government

has failed to live up to pre-Olympics promises of greater

human rights freedoms and has instead clamped down

on domestic activists and journalists, according to

reports from The Associated Press.

"The government seems afraid that its own citizens will

embarrass it by speaking out about political and social problems,

but China's leaders apparently don't realize authoritarian crackdowns

are even more embarrassing," Brad Adams, Asia director

of New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in a

statement carried by the AP

On first glance it would appear Beijing is sensitive to

certain international concerns. In June, Chinese officials

and the IOC moved quickly to launch an investigation

into allegations by the advocacy group Playfair 2008 that

four official souvenir makers were using child labor.

Earlier that month, Beijing took the landmark step

of allowing the mother of a victim of the 1989

Tiananmen Square crackdown to mark the anniversary

of his death publicly.

But others believe that since 2001 there has been a

tightening of controls on political dissent and freedom

of speech, as Beijing has sought to contain the social and

political fall-out from the country's breakneck economic development.

The IOC says, for example, that the Olympic Games

has led to improvements in China's labor system in

which workers endure long hours in harsh conditions

for less than the legal minimum wage.

Han Dongfang, the Hong Kong-based labor rights

activist for the China Labour Bulletin organization,

which monitors workers' rights in China, insists

"It's about markets and it's about cheap labor ...

Labor rights have become worse over the past few years.''

He says that any real change in China can only

come from the inside as a result of pressure from

workers and the development of free trade unions and

the right to collective bargaining -- and not from

international pressure.

"The Chinese leadership does not care about

international pressure. It is not China who

is knocking at the door of the international community

looking for favors -- it is the other way around,'' Han says.

The IOC says "enormous'' progress has been made in terms

of the freedom the news media will have to report on the

Olympics, following the 2001 pledge by the secretary

general of the Beijing Olympic Bid Committee Wang Wei.

"We will give the media complete freedom to report

when they come to China," he said at the time.

Not so, says veteran China scholar Willy Wo Lap Lam,

author of the recently published "Chinese Politics in the

Hu Jintao Era."

"The police and secret police departments in every city

have lists of dissidents and 'dangerous' people who are

not supposed to talk to the western media," Lam says.

"So, instead of following these Western reporters around,

the police will simply post more 'guards' outside the dwellings

of 'suspect' people in each city and county. They will ensure they

can't talk or work with western journalists.''

Professor Joseph Cheng of Hong Kong's City University agrees

with Lam. "China's only concern as far as the Olympics is

concerned is to showcase itself to the international community.

To this end it will treat foreign journalists and visitors

very well - but all the troublemakers will 'disappear',

" he says.

"Twenty years ago they put trouble-makers under harsh

house arrest or worse. Today, they give them a holiday.

Either way, they won't be speaking to foreign journalists.''

Lam adds that any pledges Beijing did actually make does

not necessarily mean human rights will improve.

"The main pledges made by Beijing are clearing up

the environment and curbing traffic jams.

Both of these are achievable through draconian methods,

" Lam says.

Furthermore, while the world-at-large may be expecting

an Olympics-led metamorphosis, the reality is very

different, he says.

"Beijing will not relax controls over dissidents,

NGOs as well as 'agitators' for Tibet or Xinjiang.

There will be tighter surveillance of potential

troublemakers," Lam says.

"The South Korean Olympics in 1988 marked the

beginning of genuine political liberalization. For China,

it is a very different story. The Chinese Communist

Party sees the Games as an opportunity to show the

world China's great achievements in the economy

and infrastructure and to demonstrate their diplomatic

clout. Internally, the Games will help the Party foster

'internal cohesiveness' using national pride to justify

the Party's ruling status.

"No Chinese Communist Party leader wants to use the Games
as a juncture to push forward reforms.''

Beijing venues - China's question marks
A Burmese monk, a Sudanese rebel and a pro-Tibet independence supporter
Although the IOC claims otherwise, China's much criticised human
rights record is a cause for concern in the build-up to the Games.

China is the largest arms supplier to Sudan, a country embroiled

in a four-year conflict with rebels in Darfur.

The country has also been criticised for its continued support

of the military junta in Burma, where pro-democracy

demonstrations were crushed in 2007.

China's occupation of Tibet, as well as persecution of members

of the banned Falun Gong sect, have been the source of numerous global protests.

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