Sep 6, 2008
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China opens Games and pledges disabled rights

Sep 6, 2008

By Ben Blanchard

BEIJING (Reuters) - Beijing opened the Paralympic Games in spectacular fashion on Saturday, an event China's leaders hope will show them in a compassionate light.

The crowd roared its approval in the main Bird's Nest stadium at the lavish performance put on to welcome the Games, overseen by renowned Chinese film director Zhang Yimou, which featured the incorporation of sign language into dance.

Particularly well received was a ballet performance by a young girl who lost a leg in May's massive Sichuan earthquake, and an athlete who hoisted himself up a rope -- along with his wheelchair -- to light the Paralympic flame.

"The Chinese people uphold the spirit of self-reliance and perseverance, and they are proud of their virtue of supporting and helping people with a disability," chief Games' organiser Liu Qi said in a speech.

Chinese President Hu Jintao told an official lunch earlier in the day that the government was dedicated to improving the lives of the country's 83 million disabled citizens.

"We stand for equality, oppose discrimination, care for the vulnerable and respect human rights," Hu said, according to state media.

"We have adopted a range of policies and measures to encourage public care and support for people with a disability and actively promote their overall well-being, and our achievements have been recognised by all."

To ensure stadiums will not be half-empty after a successful Olympics, the Communist Party will use its mobilising power via omnipresent neighbourhood committees to entice people to come.

Incentives offered include free T-shirts, baseball caps, bottled water, lunch boxes and 30 yuan ($4.40) each to spectators to cheer Paralympic athletes.

"The leadership has decided to host a high-profile Paralympics," a source with ties to the leadership told Reuters, referring to the government's focus on an event normally totally overshadowed by the Olympics.

An unprecedented 6,000 reporters have registered to cover the September 6-17 event, organisers said. More than half are Chinese.


While there is applause in some quarters for China's efforts to tackle stigma associated with being disabled, and to improving access by adding elevators for wheelchairs in Beijing's subway for example, rights groups say the picture is not so rosy.

That includes harassment of some activists, Human Rights Watch said.

"Until the Chinese government tolerates a civil society which operates without threat of official repression and improves ordinary citizens' access to justice, its commitments on paper to people with disabilities will remain limited," said Sophie Richardson, the group's Asia advocacy director.

The opening ceremony was briefly disrupted when a Chinese woman entered the main floor area and tried to remove her clothes as the athletes paraded in, though she was "persuaded" to leave, the official Xinhua news agency said.

Conspicuously absent from the Games are several survivors of the Tiananmen pro-democracy protest crackdown in 1989, including a former wheelchair discus and javelin champion, who were left disabled after troops rolled in to put down the demonstrations.

Fang Zheng, who lost both legs after they were mangled by a tank during the unrest, has been a living testimony to the use of brute force and an embarrassment to the government.

He went on to become China's wheelchair discus and javelin champion in 1992 and 1993, but was barred from the Far East Games for the Disabled in Beijing in 1994 even though he had agreed not to reveal the cause of his injury to foreign reporters.

"I suspect Fang Zheng is under surveillance again," said Ding Zilin, spokeswoman for the Tiananmen Mothers group.

(Additional reporting by Benjamin Kang Lim; editing by Robert Hart)

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