Tens of thousands of Chinese disappear in run-up to Winter Olympics (& Australia collaborates)

January 24, 2022

Above: journalist Huang Xueqin dared to write about China's nascent #MeToo movement on behalf of abused women. She vanished the day she left home in September to fly to Britain to study on a scholarship funded by the UK government.



[Note by Tom Gross]

I attach two articles below (both from the London Sunday Times) concerning human rights issues in the run-up to this year's two big sporting events: the Winter Olympics which start at the end of next week in China, and the Football World Cup being held later this year in Qatar.

Meanwhile, footage has emerged of human rights activists being manhandled by police in Melbourne outside the Australian Open tennis this weekend for wearing t-shirts with "Where is Peng Shuai?" printed on the back. A banner with the same message was confiscated.

Peng Shuai, the former doubles world No 1 tennis player and Wimbledon champion, has barely been seen in public since November when she posted allegations on social media of sexual assault by former Chinese vice-premier Zhang Gaoli.

The increasingly authoritarian Australian government has been accused of cozying up to China while clamping down on human rights at home under the guise of Covid restrictions.

Czech-born former world No 1 Martina Navratilova yesterday condemned as "pathetic" the decision by the Australian authorities to stop fans asking about Peng Shuai's whereabouts.

A fundraising page to raise money to print more "Where is Peng Shuai?" T-shirts to be handed out for free during the Australian women's final next Saturday has collected more than $12,000 in two days.


The London Sunday Times reports that Teng Biao twice disappeared into Chinese detention. When he saw Peng crop up in a propaganda video last month, heavily promoted by state media, in which she said she was "free and happy" and had never endured sexual abuse, he immediately recognized the classic Chinese communist party playbook technique.

"Disappearances are a necessity for this dictatorship," Teng told the Sunday Times. "But China doesn't just practice enforced disappearances, it also relies on forced appearances, as we saw with Peng. They parade you in front of the cameras when it serves their purposes, to say what suits their purposes."

He knows this because he was himself forced to record a videoed confession to subversion in words written by his captors. "I was abducted off the street and taken away by the secret police," Teng said from exile in the US. "I was transferred between locations with a hood over my head. They slapped me about the face, cuffed my hands, forced me to sit on the ground in fixed position for hours, legs twisted below me, back straight. If I moved even slightly, I was severely beaten."


The Australian Open's major commercial partner is the Chinese state-owned premium liquor brand Guojiao 1573. The fifth show court at Melbourne Park has been renamed the "1573 Arena" as part of a five-year deal estimated to be worth over $50 million.

This year's Australian Open has already proved controversial after the Australian government overruled its own courts to expel the world's greatest player and reigning Australian champion Novak Djokovic, despite the fact he tested negative for Covid.


Regarding the second article below, on Qatar, the human rights situation for foreign laborers building the football stadiums and other World Cup facilities does appear to have improved somewhat since criticism was mounted after Qatar was first awarded the 2022 World Cup (including by me in articles such as this). But it is still very bad.

As the Sunday Times says: "The stakes for Qatar are high. It is hoping for a miracle in the desert later this year that will help it go on to become a global sporting hub. It will host a Formula One grand prix every year from next year, and stage the Asian Games, an athletics tournament, in 2030. Next up is its plan to bid for the 2036 Olympic Games."

-- Tom Gross



'Your only right is to obey': China's thousands of disappeared

Determined to avoid embarrassment at the Winter Olympics, Beijing is crushing dissent with a system of 'black jails' into which tens of thousands have vanished

By Philip Sherwell, Asia Correspondent
The Sunday Times (of London)
January 23, 2022


When the police came for Xie Yang, he knew what to expect. The human rights lawyer was first sucked into China's programme of mass disappearances in 2015, and later recounted the horrors he encountered during months in the communist state's clandestine "black jail" network.

He described how he had been shackled to a metal chair, punched and kicked. How interrogators hung him from the ceiling and beat him. How they threatened to leave him an invalid if he did not confess his crimes.

Xie used to tell friends: "Don't let silence become a habit." But the torture he suffered left a psychological scar. In court two years later, he earned his release by admitting on video that he was "brainwashed overseas" and by denying his previous claims of mistreatment.

This month he was abducted again from his home in the southern province of Hunan under the charge of "inciting subversion of state power". Orders were issued to his family not to give interviews.

His immediate "offence" was to protest about the treatment of a teacher thrown into a psychiatric hospital last month after she criticised the authorities.

But the timing suggests an additional reason: a determination to erase awkward distractions from the countdown to next month's Winter Olympics, an event intended by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to showcase the glory of the People's Republic in Xi Jinping's tenth year at the helm.

Last week Chinese officials warned that even foreign athletes who make political statements during the Games will be subject to "certain punishment".

The stakes for Chinese protesters are far higher.

As the country's most powerful leader since Chairman Mao Zedong, Xi has crushed rivals and critics -- real or perceived. The bedrock of that strategy is the use of systematic detention and disappearances on a huge scale.


Yang Maodong, an activist known by his pen name Guo Feixiong, vanished in December after a public battle to win permission to visit his terminally ill wife in the US. This month, two days after her death from cancer, his family were told that he too had been charged with subversion.

The locations of Xie, 50, and Yang, 55, are unknown, but there is every possibility that they are languishing in a vast network of "black jails" operated by the state security apparatus.

Detainees undergo "residential surveillance at a designated location" (RSDL) -- a cumbersome euphemism for being held off-grid for up to six months, with no contact with families or lawyers. Long, crushing days of isolation ensue, punctuated only by intense bouts of interrogation and torture.

Arriving in the system seven years ago, Xie received a chilling welcome.

"You are now under RSDL," he was told. "Your only right is to obey."

His experiences are among survivors' testimonies recorded in Locked Up: Inside China's RSDL Secret Jails and The People's Republic of The Disappeared, reports compiled by Safeguard Defenders, a human rights group tracking RSDL cases.

Victims describe being kept in padded suicide-proof cells, without natural light under constant supervision by guards. They relate "physical and psychological tortures including sleep deprivation, food deprivation, extended time in combined shackles and cuffs, beatings, forced medication, denial of medical treatment, sexual abuse, stress positions held for extended periods (such as being hung by the wrists) and threats of physical harm to them and their loved ones".

By scrutinising public court records, the group estimated that between 27,000 and 57,000 people went through RSDL after it was put into law in 2013. The figure peaked at up to 15,000 cases in 2020, the last year documented.

Peter Dahlin, the organisation's Swedish director, was himself detained in 2016 and eventually made a stage-managed confession that he broke the law by supporting Chinese civil rights lawyers.

Recently he spotted that the court data relating to RSDL was quietly being scrubbed. The only glimpse of the scale of disappearances was itself being disappeared.


Survivors of the detention system see a familiar pattern in the fate one of the country's most famous Olympians -- Peng Shuai.

The tennis star and former Wimbledon doubles champion largely vanished from public view in November after accusing one of Xi's former top officials of coercing her into sex. She has not been seen at all since December 19.

Like Xie, Teng Biao is a human rights lawyer who twice disappeared into detention. When he saw Peng crop up in videos, heavily promoted by state media, in which she said she was free and happy and had never endured sexual abuse, he immediately recognised the classic CCP playbook.

"Disappearances are a necessity for this dictatorship," said Teng, 48. "But China does not just practise enforced disappearances, it also relies on forced appearances, as we saw with Peng. They parade you in front of the cameras when it serves their purposes, to say what suits their purposes."

He knows this because he was himself forced to record a videoed confession to subversion in words written by his captors. "I was abducted off the street and taken away by the secret police," Teng said from exile in the US (he and his family flew there after he was allowed to take a teaching position in Hong Kong in 2012). "I was transferred between locations with a hood over my head.

"They slapped me about the face, cuffed my hands, forced me to sit on the ground in fixed position for hours, legs twisted below me, back straight. If I moved even slightly, I was beaten.

"But the hardest part during the 70 days was the uncertainty, not the torture. You're never told how long you'll be detained, how long you'll live in the dark, knowing that your family also has no idea of your whereabouts. The isolation was complete."

Peng, 36, laid out her claims about Zhang Gaoli, 75, a former vice-premier, in a social media post that was almost immediately censored, but not before it was widely downloaded. Her case has proved particularly awkward for the Olympic movement.

She herself has played at three Olympic Games. Before his retirement, her alleged abuser ran Xi's government working group with the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Thomas Bach, the head of the IOC, which has been conspicuously uncritical of China's human rights record, then held a video call with Peng, that was widely dismissed as a "charade".

"China disappeared Peng Shuai because she had the courage to speak out against sexual abuses by a senior party official," said Michael Caster, co-founder of Safeguard Defenders.

"Beijing has disappeared tens of thousands of its citizens for no less arbitrary reasons -- to silence and intimidate. We must not allow China to use the spotlight as Olympics host to manipulate the narrative and whitewash its record."

Ai Weiwei, the artist who helped design the latticed splendour of the Bird's Nest national stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, was detained for 81 days just three years later.

Since then, the system of mass disappearances and coerced appearances has been expanded and codified into law.

During Xi's decade in charge, the state has used it to consolidate power in restive regions and to curb scrutiny on sensitive issues.

In Hong Kong, pro-democracy campaigners such as the former student leader Joshua Wong and the newspaper mogul Jimmy Lai have been silenced by indefinite detention. Bo Lee, a British citizen, was one of five Hong Kong booksellers abducted and smuggled across the border to mainland China in 2015 for selling content that infuriated Beijing. He later appeared on Chinese state television to insist he had not been abducted.

In the western province of Xinjiang, an estimated one million Muslims, predominantly ethnic Uighurs, have been swept into internment camps under the guise of fighting Islamic extremism,

Before Xinjiang, Beijing honed its tactics during its brutal repression of Tibet's religion, culture and language. Among the many Tibetans who have vanished for long stints is the Panchen Lama, the second holiest figure in Tibetan Buddhism. He was abducted aged six in 1995 and has not been seen since.

Four citizen journalists were swept into RSDL after publicising accounts of life under lockdown in Wuhan that undermined the regime's propaganda about the "people's war" against Covid-19. The family of one of them, Zhang Zhan, says she is now close to death in jail on hunger strike. Huang Xueqin, a journalist, angered the authorities with her coverage of China's nascent #MeToo movement. She vanished the day she left home in September to fly to Britain to study on a scholarship funded by the UK government.

Foreign connections offer little protection. Cheng Lei, an Australian citizen and prominent television anchor for the state broadcaster, disappeared in 2020. Her close friend Haze Fan, a Chinese reporter for Bloomberg News, was last seen more than a year ago.

Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, two Canadians, were arrested in China in 2018 in retaliation for the detention in Vancouver of Huawei's chief financial officer. They spent almost three years in custody. Yang Hengjun, an Australian writer and democracy activist, has just entered his fourth year of incarceration for alleged espionage. Friends say his health is deteriorating rapidly.

China rarely comments on individual cases, but it has accused groups such as Safeguard Defenders and the UN working group on enforced disappearances of "maliciously" misrepresenting RSDL.


Xi's own father, one of communist China's founders, was purged from public view several times. Yet as leader, under the banner of fighting corruption, Xi has enthusiastically embraced such methods to eliminate rivals.

Last year, as part of a campaign to "rectify" China's law enforcement and judiciary, about 170,000 officials were prosecuted and 3,000 disappeared, according to the CCP's own figures.

The campaign of "rectification" -- a mantra under Mao -- "aims to bolster Xi's authority and eliminate potential rivals", said Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. "But it also aims to bend China's entire legal system to his will and ensure society must obey and submit."

Meng Hongwei, a serving director of Interpol, went missing while visiting his homeland in 2018 and was then jailed for 13 years for taking bribes when he was China's vice-minister of public security.

The country's entertainment and business elite are increasingly targets too, although their stature often shields them from RSDL. Fan Bingbing was China's best-paid actress, a crossover Hollywood star of the X-Men and Iron Man franchises, but she disappeared in 2018. She emerged several months later after agreeing to pay a fine of $127 million for tax evasion. Zhao Wei replaced her as the most famous name in Chinese entertainment -- an actress, film director, pop star and technology investor. Then, in August, her 68 million social media followers discovered that her accounts had disappeared. Her location and her alleged crime remain unknown. Last month, China imposed an unprecedented $210 million fine on Huang Wei -- a hugely popular "influencer" known as Viya -- for tax evasion in 2019 and 2020. She too is nowhere to be seen.

The clampdown on celebrities reflects the party's suspicion of anyone who amasses a following that could make them an alternative source of power and influence.

It also comes as state media relentlessly champions Xi's new policy of "common prosperity" -- instructing the country's wealthy that they must hand over a larger chunk of their wealth as income redistribution.

They come no richer or bigger than Jack Ma, the multibillionaire behind the Alibaba online retail empire. When Ma, a CCP member, tried to defy Beijing's regulatory crackdown on China's Big Tech, he lost the battle and, once ubiquitous, his image rapidly faded.

"The world is turning its eyes to China and China is ready," Xi declared confidently in his new year address as he looked ahead to the Olympics. He does not want those eyes to focus on coronavirus flare-ups -- vexingly persistent, despite Beijing's hardline "zero-Covid" strategy -- or diplomatic boycotts of the Games by the US, Britain and other nations.

The silencing of Xie Yang, Yang Maodong and the thousands of others who vanish each year into the sprawling machinery of China's custodial system have enabled him to keep an iron grip on the national conversation.

Later this year, the 20th party congress seems certain to award the leader an unprecedented third term in power.

When Xi takes his seat in Ai's stadium for the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics on February 4, his position will never have looked more impregnable.



Qatar 2022: inside the most controversial World Cup ever

Plagued by charges of corruption and human rights abuses, the Qatar World Cup kicks off in ten months' time. John Arlidge reveals what awaits 1.5 million fans

By John Arlidge
The Sunday Times (of London)
January 23, 2022


It's noon on a Monday in December but it feels like a British summer's day. The temperature is 23C, there's scarcely a cloud in the sky and the grass is as green as on the first day of Wimbledon. Looking out from the 37th floor of Al Bidda Tower over Doha's Corniche, I can see new football stadiums in every direction -- Khalifa, Stadium 974, Lusail. Standing next to me is Hassan al-Thawadi, the man in charge of the biggest and most controversial event this year, the World Cup in Qatar, which kicks off in just ten months' time. "Any nerves?" I ask him. "Definitely," he replies.

The 43-year-old Qatari has good reason to be apprehensive. From the moment back in 2010 that Sepp Blatter, the Fifa president, announced Qatar had won the right to host the tournament, it became the most troubled sporting event since the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which some western nations boycotted after Russia's invasion of Afghanistan. Many wondered how such a small country that had never competed in a World Cup had managed to win the secret ballot to host it. How could players compete in 50C summer temperatures, critics asked.

This newspaper soon revealed that Mohamed bin Hammam, the country's top football official, used secret slush funds to make dozens of payments totalling more than ?3.8 million to senior officials in world football to create a groundswell of support for the emirate. A 2014 probe into the corruption ordered by Fifa and conducted by a lawyer cleared Qatar of wrongdoing -- but an indictment lodged by US prosecutors last year alleges that three Fifa executive committee members received payments to back Qatar's bid. After the graft was exposed, human rights abuses were revealed, notably the exploitation of migrant labourers, that still persist today. Thousands have died building stadiums and infrastructure, critics say.

Qatar bid to host the tournament "to introduce our beautiful country and the Arab world to billions of people", Thawadi tells me on the first day of a week-long visit to the emirate. I've travelled to Doha to see the stadiums and infrastructure, visit the labour camps and talk to the executives in charge of the first World Cup to be held in the Middle East.

To welcome the world, the government is spending ?5.2 billion on seven new stadiums and another ?150 billion on whizzy transport and general infrastructure. The total bill comes to ?450,000 per Qatari, but that's not a huge reach. Qatar's vast gas reserves -- the third largest in the world -- and tiny native population of 350,000 make it the wealthiest country on a per capita basis. GDP per head is more than ?400,000. The UK figure is ?30,000.

If splashing pennies from heaven were the benchmark of success, the country -- a peninsula the size of Yorkshire in the Arabian Gulf, 250 miles west of Dubai -- would already have lifted the 18-carat gold trophy. The stadiums are among the finest ever built. The 90,000-seat Lusail is a similar shape to Manchester City's Etihad ground but almost twice the size, and its lattice walls, designed by Sir Norman Foster + Partners, look as great when lit up at night as Bayern Munich's Allianz Arena. Al Bayt stadium, where I watched Qatar beat Iraq 3-0 in the Arab Cup in December, resembles a giant Bedouin tent, complete with carpeted interior walls. A huge flaming torch welcomes fans. Every game will look fantastic on television.

The ruling al-Thani family wants to do more than put on a good show, though. It hopes to use the biggest global event in history to take place in the Middle East -- and the biggest sporting event post-Covid -- to enhance Qatar's status and foster East-meets-West dialogue through "the openness and tolerance of the hospitable Qatari people", as the emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, puts it. It's part of a multibillion-pound programme of spending on sport, education, the arts and media -- the government funds the Doha-based Al Jazeera news network -- to position Qatar as the mature, responsible face of the Gulf, somewhere between racy Dubai and conservative Saudi Arabia.

It's not going well. Qatar is struggling to put the beautiful game ahead of the ugliness surrounding the bid process and human rights abuses. Newspapers have reported that official records indicate more than 6,500 migrants who worked in Qatar from 2010-20 died, many of them construction workers. Qatar disputes the figure. Whistleblowers who have leaked evidence of human rights abuses protest they have been detained in an effort to silence or intimidate them. Some journalists flying in to report on the conditions in labour camps have been arrested and held for hours. One reporter found workers who toiled all summer in direct sunlight and had to use their drinking water to cool their burning feet.

Managers of clubs in Europe where most of the top international stars play are unhappy about the interruption to their domestic season -- Qatar 2022 became the first winter World Cup after Fifa acknowledged the heat would make a summer competition impossible. Qatar's attempts to use petrodollars to garner some much-needed positive PR have backfired. When last year David Beckham was announced as a Qatar 2022 global ambassador and one of the "faces" of the tournament in a deal thought to be worth ?100 million over several years, fellow professionals including Gary Lineker condemned him for taking the Qatari riyal. Claims that the tournament will be carbon neutral have also raised quizzical eyebrows, to put it mildly. Greening the desert and cooling stadiums -- including the stands -- uses a lot of power and water.

And this is all before a ball has been kicked. When that happens many will heed Amnesty International's call to protest. England is likely to be among many teams that ask to visit workers' camps to check on conditions. England players have been accused of hypocrisy for taking the knee before domestic league games in support of the Black Lives Matter movement while ignoring the plight of the thousands of African migrant workers who have built the Doha stadiums in which they will play. There are likely to be demonstrations on the Corniche for women's empowerment and LGBT rights: same-sex relations are illegal in Qatar and carry a punishment of up to five years in jail. There are concerns about the treatment of women's rights activists, highlighted by the case of Noof al-Maadeed, 23, who disappeared in Doha without explanation for several weeks last year.

Amid all the bad blood it's remarkable that anyone can agree on anything, but there are two things that almost everyone predicts will happen in November. The teams that have qualified, including perhaps Scotland or Wales when the play-off places are determined, will go and fans will follow. There have been calls for boycotts, but players want to play on the biggest stage and, despite some fans' political objections, most are so dedicated to their national side they would follow them even if the tournament were in North Korea. The first tranche of the three million publicly available tickets goes on sale this month and will be snapped up. Many corporate hospitality packages are sold out.

British fans who buy tickets will find getting to Qatar straightforward. Qatar Airways is one of the world's largest airlines and it partners with British Airways, which means there will be direct services to Doha from Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester and Edinburgh. Qatar Airways' boss, Akbar al-Baker, has expanded Doha's new Hamad airport to handle 200,000 passengers a day. Supporters are unlikely to be able to bring duty-free booze with them. Alcohol is only legally available in hotel bars and restaurants in Qatar. However, beer cheaper than the ?10 a pint it usually costs will be available in fan zones near the stadiums but not inside them. There will be alcohol in some of the corporate hospitality boxes -- plutocrats are not easily separated from their champagne.

Those found to be drunk and disorderly in public outside corporate hospitality or fan zones will be "escorted away to sober up but not arrested or detained", officials say. Qatar is working with UK police forces to make sure any fans with a history of criminal behaviour do not make it past immigration.

Getting to and from games will be easy. New 12-lane highways carve giant black streaks across the sand. The box-fresh metro system is the world's first three-class "tube" with gold, standard and family carriages that can be used by women who don't want to travel alongside unmarried men -- or mobs of chanting fans. With winter temperatures around 27C by day and 20C by night, it's comfortable to walk from the taxi drop-off points or the metro stations to and from the stadiums. Dedicated fans will be able to see four games in four stadiums a day (if they hurry). Hosting the tournament in such a small country will also save fans from having to book last-minute flights and hotels in faraway cities as teams advance through the knockout stages, as usually happens.

Claims that local fans are uninterested in football and will watch largely in silence appear to be misplaced. The games I attended during the Arab Cup in December were raucous enough and the atmosphere will probably be the same when fans watch teams from outside the region. To entertain supporters between games, the Corniche will become a giant fan zone and Doha's museums and galleries are being spruced up.

However, Qatar's small size and tiny population -- 2.8 million, 90 per cent of whom are foreigners -- throw up challenges. The emirate is expecting 1.5 million visitors over the month-long tournament but will have just 130,000 rooms in hotels, on cruise ships and at "glamp" sites in the desert, 20,000 of which will be taken by teams and their staff, Fifa officials and journalists. Locals are being encouraged to share their homes with visiting supporters via Airbnb and other agents to create an extra 64,000 rooms. That still won't create enough beds at the start of the tournament, when fan numbers are at their peak. Supporters who are trying to book accommodation before they buy tickets are already complaining that they cannot find any -- or any affordable -- rooms online.

Will it all be enough of a success that the footballing and wider world can put to one side the corruption and exploitation?

The evidence on the ground suggests that the practical issues will probably be resolved by a combination of cash and the natural ingenuity and determination of football fans. Those who can't find accommodation in Qatar will easily do so in neighbouring Dubai and Abu Dhabi and fly in and out -- a one-hour hop. If the political protests are small, they'll probably pass off reasonably peacefully. Police are having "sensitivity training" and have received orders not to do what they normally do in the Gulf when demonstrators take to the streets -- crack heads. Government officials hope that once the tournament starts the thrill of the games will prove more alluring than the power of protest. They may well be right.

Workers' rights remain the big issue. Barely a week goes by without a newspaper or TV news channel unearthing fresh evidence that many contractors in Qatar regard migrant workers as largely expendable. This newspaper has reported how labourers worked shifts of up to 20 hours in summer, with only a few short breaks and insufficient water. Some have had wages withheld or unpaid altogether.

Over coffee and pastries in a local hotel, one government official concedes that by failing to address the workers' rights issue sooner "it has become a disaster". Another, speaking privately as all officials in Doha do for fear of offending the emir and losing their job, attempts an explanation. "When you're a wealthy country, a monarchy, people think you can change everything in one day. But the business lobby here is very powerful."

The Gulf states of Qatar, Dubai and Abu Dhabi have been built and have prospered using an economic model based on hyper-cheap migrant manual labour, mainly from south Asia and Africa. Persuading the biggest and most powerful contractors in the region to reverse decades-old practices that have proved very profitable "takes time", the official says.

However, there are signs of change. Ask Max Tunon from Manchester. If anyone holds the key to the success or failure of the World Cup it's him, because he's the head of the Qatar office of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), a United Nations agency that sets and monitors international labour standards. "We're in a much better position than when the ILO arrived in 2018," he tells me in his office on the sixth floor of the drably named Building 35 in downtown Doha. "The government is committed to big changes."

After three years of tense negotiations between ministers and the ILO, an ancient practice known as kafala, which prevented workers from moving jobs or quitting and going home without their employer's consent, has been scrapped. An annually reviewed minimum wage of ?210 a month has been introduced, excluding food and lodging costs which are usually met by employers. It's the first of its kind in the Gulf. Workers' representatives are now elected to work councils to negotiate with management; a multilingual online complaints system for labourers has been instituted; and two new courts for labour disputes are being set up, taking the total to five. New restrictions on working in the summer heat have also been introduced.

Critics argue the new laws do not go far enough -- nor are they adequately policed -- and point out that independent trade unions remain banned. The reforms "are for face-saving, rather than concern about workers", says Barun Ghimire, a human rights lawyer who acts for Nepalese workers. Labourers claim it is still difficult to move jobs because employers threaten to deport them or report them for "absconding", which can lead to arrest.

Tunon, 42, who worked for the ILO in India, China and Thailand before moving to Doha, acknowledges "there are gaps in implementation". He is heartened, however, by the government's recent decision to create a dedicated Ministry of Labour, headed by Dr Ali bin Smaikh al-Marri, formerly chief of the independent Qatar National Human Rights Committee.

The reforms will help to reduce deaths in future, but what about the 6,500 so far? That figure, based on records held by the governments of south Asian nations, is controversial. Qatar dismisses it as "highly misleading", because it represents all deaths among all the five million south Asian nationals who worked in Qatar from 2010-20 -- not just work-related deaths, far less World Cup work-related deaths.

Thawadi, who studied law at Sheffield University and has forensic lawyer-like focus on the issue, claims there have been just three work-related deaths at stadiums since 2010, and 35 non-work-related deaths. That's partly because Fifa wrote strict worker welfare and safety rules into tender documents for World Cup contractors. The ILO has investigated migrant worker deaths and found that in 2020 there were 50 across all of Qatar, not just on World Cup projects. Critics say all local analysis of work-related deaths underestimates the total because it relies on government figures that are limited to deaths at the workplace and do not take account of deaths from chronic conditions such as kidney disease caused by working in the harsh environment. Whatever the total, it is far too high for a country as wealthy as Qatar.

What do labourers say? Are conditions improving? I phone the government communications office and ask to visit a camp. The next morning I arrive at a dusty desert settlement where 1,800 migrants work ten-hour shifts, six days a week for the local contractor HBK, which is building the Lusail stadium. I'm introduced to Vijay Shankar, 36, a plumber from Bihar in India. "When I first came here 15 years ago to work for another company I earned ?160 a month," he says. "Now it's ?300."

He shows me his room in one of a series of three-storey dormitories. He shares with three other labourers in a space 20ft by 12ft. Each gets a low metal bed with only a pull-around curtain for the barest semblance of privacy and a small metal locker for personal possessions. There is air conditioning, wi-fi and basic -- but clean -- showers and lavatories. Laundry is done by the company and the food is OK, he says. "We complained about the thickness of the dal and they fixed it." I walk around the other rooms and confirm they are all the same.

How does it compare with his experience 15 years ago when he first came to work in Qatar? "We had 18 men in a dormitory. The toilets were holes in the floor. We had to buy and cook our own food, wash our own clothes, travel to go shopping on our own -- there's now a free bus." I ask him whether there are still bad camps in Qatar, like the ones he used to live in. He nods nervously, mindful of the fate of critics of the regime.

The HBK camp is a World Cup project where standards are supposed to be decent. So I ask the government to see an independent camp. The next day I arrive at Labour City in the industrial zone, ten miles into the desert from downtown Doha, home to some 70,000 workers who toil on mainly non-World Cup projects. There I meet Mohamed Abdullah, a 45-year-old Ghanaian security manager. He is less shy than Shankar. "I have friends in other camps and it's true that many are really not good," tells me. "Toilets are not cleaned. Too many people in one room."

His boss, Main Jarboui, 35, a Tunisian who describes himself as "a knucklehead who speaks the truth", confirms that some contractors "are playing games. It costs money for companies to comply with the new laws. The way they see it, rules cost money. Standards cost money. It's cheaper to escape the rules." Whistleblowers confirm men can still be crammed up to a dozen in a small room.

The three men's comments go to the heart of the problem Qatar 2022 faces. Big contractors working on World Cup projects have -- albeit belatedly -- raised rates of pay and standards of accommodation and food to meet the new laws and the conditions imposed by Fifa. However, some private-sector contractors that work on projects not directly related to the World Cup -- and therefore do not have to observe Fifa's standards and are less closely monitored -- are dragging their feet. Even Thawadi admits: "We have the good, the bad and the ugly."

What about the other concerns? I ask Thawadi if gay fans will really be welcome. "Everybody's welcome," he tells me, before adding quickly, "Public displays of affection, regardless of sexual orientation, are not part of our culture, so we ask people to respect that." Women will be free to enjoy the games in exactly the same way as men. Unlike in some Middle Eastern nations, Qatar has no restrictions on where women fans can sit, nor rules on what they're expected to wear.

Thawadi's claim that Qatar 2022 will be carbon neutral has prompted derision from environmentalists. Zeina Khalil Hajj, head of global campaigning at 350, a climate protection NGO, says: "Events such as these have a grave additional environmental and climate impact." Thawadi says local sourcing of materials, efficient water use, the development of an 800-megawatt solar farm, the creation of the metro, the replacement of diesel buses with electric ones and the government's purchase of carbon credits to offset flights will go a long way to minimise the carbon footprint. One stadium will be recycled -- dismantled and transferred overseas for other tournaments -- while another will be almost halved in size after the removal of the top tier of seats and a third converted into a hotel and sports health facility. Thawadi's answers reveal a man caught between the conflicting demands of liberal western critics on one side and local conservative forces on the other.

What about the ruling al-Thani family's claim that it is hosting the world's biggest party to foster tolerance and create East-meets-West dialogue? That is true. The al-Thanis have already invested more than ?20 billion in education and culture, creating two national museums and a national library, which have helped to introduce people in the region to western culture and westerners to Islamic art. There's currently a big Jeff Koons show in Doha. Sheikha al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, head of Qatar Museums and sister of the emir, says, "It's important to learn from different cultures."

The trouble is that Qatar's rulers do not always learn the right lessons. "They've been very naive when it comes to the World Cup," argues one local political observer who, like all political analysts who want to stay in Qatar, speaks privately. "They should have realised sooner that their great wealth would attract greater scrutiny than previous host nations and moved faster to deal with the entirely predictable issues. They've ended up overwhelmed."

Qatar's woes have prompted some to argue it is too weakened to pull off a triumph later this year. Government officials point out that Qatar has overcome far bigger challenges. Five years ago its neighbours, led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, imposed an economic blockade, closing borders and demanding it do everything from changing foreign policy to closing down Al Jazeera. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi were angry at what they saw as the emirate's "malign" influence on regional politics, in particular, they claimed, its support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar refused to comply and established new trading routes, largely with Turkey and Iran. Eventually its opponents ended the blockade and began a new era of cold peace with the emirate.

On the last day of my week in Doha I speak to Dr Paul Brannagan, author of Qatar and the 2022 Fifa World Cup: Politics, Controversy, Change, which is published in March. In the book he uses the phrase "soft disempowerment" to describe what happens when a nation tries and fails to use sport to raise its profile and improve its image. "Governments tend to think that if you host an event it's going to boost 'soft power', but that's not always the case," he says. He cites the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, which were criticised because contractors used child labourers, ending India's hopes of hosting the Olympics.

The stakes for Qatar are similarly high. It is hoping for a miracle in the desert later this year that will help it go on to become a global sporting hub. It will host a Formula One grand prix every year from next year, and stage the Asian Games, an athletics tournament, in 2030. Next up is its plan to bid for the 2036 Olympic Games.


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