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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

China's Olympics of opposites offer glint of hope

August 24, 2008

The Irish Times
August 23, 2008

CHINA -- A glittering Games has so far delivered only the promise of
real change, writes Clifford Coonan in Beijing

A GLITTERING Olympics beneath clear blue skies in a dynamic new city,
accompanied by the applause of a global audience. Tales of glory and
heartbreak, and a fantastic haul of gold medals to boot. The
Communist Party will be very happy this weekend when the closing
festivities of the Beijing Olympic Games mark, as predicted, China's
re-emergence as a global superpower.

But China is a country where very often you can say one thing and the
opposite is also true and, in line with this dictum, it's been an
Olympics of opposites.

On the one hand you had the spectacular opening ceremony; the
fabulous organisation of events; the warmth and optimism of the
Beijing people and the wonderful atmosphere in the city.

You had president Hu Jintao promising further reforms, even political
ones, post-Olympic.

"While constantly deepening economic reform and achieving sound and
fast economic and social development, we will continue to pursue
comprehensive reforms, including reforms of the political system," he said.

Even the air was clean, most of the time. After months of fretting,
it proved possible to clear the smog, although it cost a fortune in
lost production with the closure of the factories and the coal-fired
power plants responsible for much of the bad air.

For sure, there is a lot for the Beijing leadership, and the people
of the capital, to cheer about. But the shiny image of the Olympics
masks some unpleasant realities.

A fierce security crackdown did mean no bomb attacks such as the
explosion at the Atlanta Games. But a similarly draconian clampdown
on dissent, which defied promises about freedom of expression, has
left foreign and domestic human rights protesters waving banners at
the fringes of the world's biggest sporting event, far from the
consciousness of billions of viewers.

You have the worried husband whose dissident wife's trial on
trumped-up charges has been delayed until the Olympic bandwagon
leaves town. Or the little girl singer who did not fit the
Politburo's image of China and was forced to give way to another girl
with a better look. Or the little old ladies threatened with a labour
camp sentence for demanding the right to protest about their forced
eviction. In the run-up to the games, thousands of Beijing residents
were removed for the Olympic makeover; dissidents were rounded up,
and 400,000 security officials patrolled the streets.

The Foreign Correspondents Club in Beijing says that, since the
beginning of the Olympic period on July 25th, it has been notified of
over 30 confirmed cases of reporting interference, including 10 cases
of violence against journalists, more than the total number confirmed in 2007.

The contradictions go even deeper. TV audiences did not see a poor
country when they tuned into the Games. China hired architects Herzog
de Meuron to design its Olympic stadium and yet there are still 300
million people living on roughly a euro a day here.

For many groups lobbying for more freedoms in China, the Olympics
have been a disaster.

"The 2008 Beijing Games have put an end - once and for all - to the
notion that these Olympics are a 'force for good'," said Sophie
Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "The
reality is that the Chinese government's hosting of the games has
been a catalyst for abuses, leading to massive forced evictions, a
surge in the arrest, detention and harassment of critics, repeated
violations of media freedom, and increased political repression."

Among the Chinese, there is hope the goodwill generated by the games
will combine with the generosity of spirit China witnessed following
the Sichuan earthquake in May to produce a gentler but more confident China.

"The leadership will be happy with the Olympics, and not just the
gold medals, but the performance of the people. I'm optimistic that
the values and tolerance learned during the Olympics and the
earthquake in Sichuan will continue," said Prof Mei Renyi, director
of American Studies at the Beijing Foreign Studies University.

One of the most potent examples of the warmer, happier China was the
reaction to 110-metre hurdles hopeful Liu Xiang hobbling out of
contention, despite expectations of a triumph having been built up
beyond belief. People were deeply disappointed, but they did not call
for his head on a spike. This can be read as a sign of a more
tolerant society emerging in China. That China will come out with
around 50 gold medals probably helps.

"The fact we are first in the gold medal table makes the world pay
attention to China. Every Chinese is very happy and proud. The
Olympics forces China to be on the international stage," said Liu
Hongyun (29), an English teacher from Beijing.

"The Olympics has been a great opportunity for China to learn some
international things. For example, that audiences should not cheer
tennis players as they're about to serve!" said Ms Liu.

Zhang Guodong (39), a mechanical engineer from Beijing, said the
Olympics has given an opportunity for Chinese people to think about
the country and where it's going. He said attitudes have changed.

"People who won bronze or silver or even no medals, such as Liu
Xiang, or some athletes who could not compete because of their
injuries or other reasons, are all heroes," said Mr Zhang.

The very air itself poses a major challenge for the government. When
people taste a good thing for two months, it's hard to go back to the
way it was, particularly in a country where pollution is becoming a
political issue as farmers and urban residents alike take to the
streets to protest at the building of poisonous chemical plants and
are unhappy that their legacy to their children - and in most cases
that's a single child - will be yellow air and black rivers.

For the rest of the year, the government's attention will turn to the
economy and to celebrations for the 30th anniversary of the launch of
the "reform and opening" policies that have swept away state controls
over much of economic and cultural life. Inflation was running at
over 6 per cent in July and while the economy is growing by
double-digit percentage points, the global outlook is less than rosy
and that will affect China at some point.

With these headaches to contend with, it remains to be seen whether
the Olympic spirit is enough to teach China to accept criticism and
keep on a path of reform.
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