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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Let the games begin

July 17, 2008

China is no doubt ready to host a flawless Summer Olympics -- but
nothing can prepare it for the army of cynical foreign journalists about
to arrive in Beijing

Andrew Potter
The Ottawa Citizen
Saturday, July 12, 2008

On the logistical side of things, there is no doubt in my mind that the
Beijing Games will be a smashing success -- it is inconceivable to me
that the people in charge would allow it to be otherwise, writes Andrew
Potter.
CREDIT: David Gray, Reuters
On the logistical side of things, there is no doubt in my mind that the
Beijing Games will be a smashing success -- it is inconceivable to me
that the people in charge would allow it to be otherwise, writes Andrew
Potter.

Even as it primps and preps for the opening of the Olympic Games on
August 8, China insists on playing the bashful host. Just this week,
Human Rights Watch released a substantial report detailing the way the
Chinese government continues to intimidate and obstruct foreign
journalists as they pursue investigative stories in the country.
Reporters are being beaten and harassed, promised visas are never
issued, and sources mysteriously clam up at the last second.

All of this continues despite repeated pledges by Chinese authorities to
lift restrictions on foreign media in the run-up to the Games, and it
underlines the fundamental tension at the heart of Beijing's Olympic
ambition: On the one hand, they are keen to send a message to the world
that China is ready to perform in the same league as the industrialized
democracies of the West. On the other hand, they want the contours of
that message to be shaped by the interests of official China. The fact
that the second goal undermines the first does not seem to have occurred
to them.

I recently spent a week in Beijing at the invitation of the Beijing
Olympic Media Centre, the media-relations arm of BOCOG, the organizing
committee for the Beijing Olympics. The trip was designed to showcase
the preparations for the Games. Along with visits to some of the event
sites we were given a tour of critical infrastructure like sewage
treatment plants and food safety inspection sites. We also spent a
morning at the China Tibetology Research Centre, an institute funded by
the Communist Party of China.

Within the obvious political confines, the centre is engaged in
significant and serious academic research, but the main point of the
visit seemed to be to convince a small group of sportswriters that
despite everything we'd heard from Richard Gere and the Dalai Lama,
Tibet had benefitted a great deal from almost a half century of Chinese
investment. They weren't entirely successful in this, largely because in
the West, even sportswriters know when they're being spoon-fed a
propaganda pablum of half-truths and bald-faced lies.

Here are three truths that all journalists in the western world take to
be self-evident:

1. all politicians lie, always;

2. the government is incompetent;

3. any public official will steal from the public purse or use his
office to advance his own interests whenever possible.

This professional disposition doesn't do journalists any favours in the
respected-profession sweepstakes, with public opinion surveys routinely
putting them in the same class as lawyers, meter maids and
child-molesters. This doesn't bother most journalists though, for the
simple reason that they at least come out ahead of politicians.

There will be 21,000 accredited journalists in Beijing, covering the
opening and closing ceremonies and all the events in between. But the
BOMC is also issuing another 10,000 visas to non-accredited journalists,
who will be digging around the edges of the main show looking for the
stories that the accredited media won't see and the local media won't tell.

When we were dealing with Chinese officials, it was hard to tell whether
they were incredibly naive, or whether they only sounded naive because
they assumed that we were incredibly stupid. And so in response to a
question about the ongoing restrictions on foreign media, BOMC director
Li Zhanjun boasted to us of new documents that had been issued promoting
"new freedoms" for foreign journalists.

These freedoms include the right to interview a Chinese citizen as long
as the citizen agrees to the interview, the right to bring into the
country tools of the trade such as cameras and voice recorders, and the
right to report events from Tiananmen Square. "So I do not agree with
the claim that the media in China are not free," concluded Mr. Li.

Ever since Beijing was awarded the Games back in 2001, the world has
been wondering whether the Chinese would be able to pull off a
successful Olympics. On the logistical side of things, there is no doubt
in my mind that the Beijing Games will be a smashing success -- it is
inconceivable to me that the people in charge would allow it to be
otherwise.

What I don't think China is ready for are 30,000 journalists, one third
of whom will have three weeks with nothing better to do than poke around
looking for evidence that the government is lying or incompetent and
that the local officials are corrupt.

The western media are going to China, and will be packing their cynical
and paranoid worldview. By the time the Games of the XXIX Olympiad are
over, the Chinese government might be looking back fondly on the time
when all it had to deal with were earthquakes, epidemics, and rioting in
Tibet.

Andrew Potter is a Citizen editor
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
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