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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Beijing's unofficial Olympic slogan

March 14, 2008

International Herald Tribune
By Howard W. French
March 13, 2008
Take pride, but no politics, please

SHANGHAI: The official slogan of this summer's Beijing Olympics may be
"One World, One Dream," but Beijing's real mantra has been something
more prosaic, and in the end, much more problematic: no politics.

Over the coming months, China will offer the world an astounding
spectacle. Not the Games themselves, but rather the spectacle of a
nation that is in the midst of breathtaking change and yet clings to
habits of statecraft so dated that they seem like relics of the Middle
Ages.

In elevating the Olympics to an official source of national pride,
China has put its most precious commodities on the line: national
face. And by investing so much face in the successful execution of the
Games, it is making extreme demands on its citizens and on the world.

The following list is not exhaustive, but it gives an idea of what is
being demanded: Smile, approve of us, behave, do not criticize, don't
dare protest and, back to the mantra, banish all thoughts of politics
from your minds.

That's asking an awful lot, and like requiring someone to hold their
body rigid for an extended period, it will demand an immense and
painful effort, and it brings the risk of self-injury.

Consider the government's cascade of systematic denials of the
pertinence of just about every critical issue that comes up, including
human rights in Tibet, China's Muslim northwest and the rights of the
tens of thousands of migrant workers whose round-the-clock work in
Beijing has made the hosting of the Games possible. All too often,
they are phrased in the antique wooden tongue of an old imperial
court.

On the migrant issue, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Qin
Gang, responded to a report by Human Rights Watch detailing
exploitation of the workers with a verbal equivalent of the stiff arm:
"I believe that everybody is well aware that Human Rights Watch has
some problem with its sight. It is biased. It has some problems with
its eyes. It has weakness in seeing things properly."

Boy, I guess that settles things.

Foreigners who persist in touching upon what are quaintly known in
China as sensitive issues, thereby putting the government on the spot,
risk being treated as unfriendly to the country, or even downgraded
further to the status of enemies.

And this brings us to another aspect of the Olympics. As with so much
the Chinese government does, the promotion of the Games and their
protection from criticism contains a mildly disturbing element of
popular manipulation, of managing people's feelings for them, and of
policing the divide between things Chinese and foreign.

The Olympics are intended to quicken Chinese heartbeats in their love
for the motherland, and people will be encouraged to see nitpicking
foreigners (Steven Spielberg, for example) for what they supposedly
are, offensive outsiders who fall into a long tradition of hostility
to China.

This brings to mind a saying about propaganda, which is defined as a
kind of magic practiced by people who don't believe in it for people
who do.

A crude, practical example of how this all works was delivered last
week after the Icelandic singer Björk ended a concert performance of
her song "Declare Independence" in Shanghai with the cry "Tibet!

Tibet!" Beijing said that act not only broke Chinese law, but even
more preposterously, "hurt Chinese people's feelings."

Presumably, the infraction was the singing of a song not approved by
the censors, who decide even what foreign performers can say here.
Expect tighter controls in the future.

Let's pause here to get an important item of business out of the way.
China's successes are good news for the world, not just for Chinese
people, and one hopes that the Olympics will succeed. May they bring
people closer, allowing curious outsiders to appreciate China as it
really is, the scene of awesome recent achievement, but like every
other country, also a dynamic mixture of good and bad.

The problem is that by turning the Games into a massive exercise in
national face, it is the Chinese government itself which has
politicized them. This all but compels anyone who is even slightly
curious to meditate on what has been accomplished here, how this
nation arrived at the place it finds itself today and where it is
headed in the future.

And if in the end, the Chinese government finds it has to rethink its
outdated communications strategy, a stubborn leftover of a
not-too-distant past - when the state had almost total control over
the lives and minds of its people, and foreign relations were limited
at the height of Cultural Revolution to a single embassy in Albania -
all the better.

News of the last week alone amply demonstrates that's going to take a
lot of work, though. As monks have mounted rare protests in Tibet in
recent days, for example, Beijing has suppressed domestic

reporting of the demonstrations, while dismissing them to inquiring
foreigners as the work of "some ignorant monks in Lhasa abetted by a
small handful of people" in the words yet again of Qin of the Foreign
Ministry.

A few days earlier, in a delayed announcement, China said that it had
foiled two terrorist attacks in Xinjiang, a heavily Muslim,
far-western so-called autonomous region. When questions were raised
about the spotty details, the region's party secretary spoke angrily
of "irresponsible reporting by foreign media and some so-called
politicians and academics."

A novel approach was taken, meanwhile, to the news that the world
marathon record holder, Haile Gebrselassie, had decided to skip the
Olympic marathon race because of concern over Beijing's heavy
pollution. It just wouldn't due to denounce the runner as part of an
anti-Chinese cabal, so China's media all but unanimously kept silent
on this item, leaving the People's Daily to quote Qin again, saying
that Beijing's environment was healthy, without ever explaining why
such assurances were necessary.
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