by Antoaneta Bezlova
(IPS) BEIJING -- Obsessed with image building and sport triumphs, China has pledged to host the best-ever Olympics in 2008.
But as Athens handed the Olympic flag to Beijing this week, the prospect of increased international scrutiny over the next four years of everything -- from China's human rights record to its minorities' policies -- is beginning to dawn upon the communist government.
While crowds of cheering fans were greeting China's Olympic athletes at the airport and celebrating the arrival of the Olympic flag, Beijing police arrested two Tibetan activists and two journalists.
The activists had unfurled a banner reading 'No Olympics for China until Tibet is Free' at the Ethnic Minorities Park in Beijing -- part of the 2008 Olympic complex under construction.
The Olympic flag's handover also came just days after a global human rights group warned China to improve "its embarrassing record of continuing human rights abuses" before hosting the 2008 games.
"Responsibilities come with the international prestige China receives by hosting the 2008 Olympic Games," said Brad Adams, executive director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch in a statement.
"An embarrassing record of continuing human rights abuses is no way to welcome the world to Beijing," added the New York-based international rights lobby group.
Chinese leaders have promised world-beating Games, featuring top-notch Olympic construction, green city and brand new infrastructure.
The 2008 Olympic Games would be the first ever hosted in the communist country. In 1995, China lost its bid to Australia to host the 2000 Games.
"Holding a good 2008 Olympics is our solemn promise to the international community and is a heavy responsibility on our shoulders and glorious historical duty," Liu Qi, Beijing party secretary and president of the Olympics organising committee told reporters at the airport.
For China, hosting the Olympics is a matter of enormous national pride that average citizens and leaders alike regard like a symbolic admission into the modern industrial world.
Chinese sports officials have called on the country's athletes to perform even better at the next Games.
The Chinese Olympic team won a record of 32 gold medals in Athens and returned to a heroes' welcome this week.
While China basks in the glory of its record gold medal haul, human rights activists worldwide have launched a campaign urging radical reforms in human rights, labour and press freedom.
This week, Human Rights Watch launched a "China Olympics Watch" website, which would monitor issues of censorship and rights abuses in China in the run-up to the games.
Representatives of overseas groups that support calls for autonomy in Tibet -- a Himalayan region that Chinese troops entered in 1950 and Beijing and most of the world considers part of its territory -- said the International Olympic Committee (IOC) should tell China that its turn to host the games would be revoked if there was no improvement in its rights record.
"While China celebrates receiving the Olympic flag, hundreds of Tibetan political prisoners still languish in prison and the Tibetan people live without basic human rights," said Allison Reynolds, Director of the Britain-based Free Tibet Campaign, speaking in Beijing.
"We've come to Beijing to let the Chinese government know that the next four years will see an increase in the international campaign to achieve rights and freedom for the people of Tibet and the people of China," said Han-Shan of Students for a Free Tibet, based in New York City.
"If the situation in Tibet does not drastically improve, the 2008 Games will be tainted by massive opposition and inevitable Chinese government crackdowns," he added.
Few hours later, Han-Shan, a US citizen, and another Tibetan activist from Australia, Liam Phelan, were arrested by the Chinese police as they campaigned in the Ethnic Minorities Park in Beijing. Both were later deported from the country.
The protest in Beijing follows a month of activities in Athens by various Tibet campaign supporters.
Prior to the closing ceremonies of the Summer Games on Aug 29, Tibetans attempted to deliver banners depicting five bullet holes in the shape of the Olympic rings to the IOC representatives in the Olympic Stadium.
They were stopped by police officers who confiscated everything they were carrying.
"The activities in the two countries were carefully coordinated, and intended to demonstrate the determination of Tibet supporters to make the 2008 Games a catalyst for change in Tibet," said Paul Bourke, executive officer of the Australia Tibet Council.
Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fled to India in 1959 after a failed CIA-arranged uprising and now leads a government-in-exile which is trying to win more autonomy for the region.
A Nobel Peace prize-winner and the world's most famous advocate of non- violence, the Dalai Lama remains widely admired but his fight for Tibetan rights has gradually faded from prominence.
China's rise as a global power has made Tibet's fight for tolerance and autonomy less appealing to world leaders who are increasingly anxious not to offend Beijing so that businesses continue to enjoy the Chinese economic boom.
Despite his unique status of a spiritual guru and the political leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile, the Dalai Lama is no longer received at the highest levels.
Even countries with a strong Buddhist tradition -- South Korea, Japan, Thailand, Mongolia and Burma have all rejected visits or declined to accord him the protocol his rank had hitherto commanded.
"The destiny and future of Tibet can no longer be decided by the Dalai Lama and his clique. Rather, it can only be decided by the whole Chinese nation, including the Tibetan people," says a White Paper on Tibet issued earlier this year by Beijing.
But Human Rights Watch warns that China's human rights record will be out in the open during the 2008 Games.
"The world will be watching to see whether China is able to open up and allow its citizens basic freedoms," Adams of Human Rights Watch said.
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