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Big Brother Versus YouTube: Let the Beijing Games Commence

July 21, 2008

By Leonard, Mark
istockAnalyst.com, OR
Story Source: Spectator, The; London
Saturday, July 19, 2008

'For years we couldn't wait for the Olympics to start. Now we can't wait
for them to be over.' That is how a Chinese friend described the
horrible limbo in Beijing as a control-freak state tries to anticipate
and eliminate any possible challenges to its glorious coming-out party
on the 8th of the 8th, 2008. It is clear to any visitor to the Chinese
capital that while China hopes to clean up the medals tables, the
sporting contest is at best a sideshow to the real Olympic competition
-- the battle to define how China is seen by its citizens and the world
outside. For the Chinese people the Olympics are the final proof that
China has reclaimed its rightful place in the global premier league;
putting behind it two centuries of humiliation at the hands of foreign
invaders. For the world outside, the Games are meant to embody an
official narrative of China as a 'harmonious society'. The organisers
had promised the trinity of a 'green Olympics', a 'high- tech Olympics'
and a 'people-centred Olympics', designed to show off China as a beacon
of economic prowess and modernity that has traded pariah status for
global respectability. But as China ricochets from one PR disaster to
the next -- with stories about sweatshops combining with Tibet and
Beijing's choking pollution -- the authorities are now trying to manage
expectations downwards with a focus on the more modest goal of a 'safe
Olympics', flooding the city and its environs with security forces
primed to thwart potential terrorist attacks.

The Chinese Communist Party combines a laser-like focus on detail with
awe-inspiring ambitions for the big picture. Where other Olympic cities
like Athens or Sydney were kept desperately busy just completing
building work on stadiums and transport links, Beijing's concern extends
from controlling the weather to micromanaging the behaviour of its
citizens. Last year, when the Chinese government hosted the tenth
anniversary of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation -- an alliance of
autocrats which Beijing and Moscow have formed with five central Asian
republics -- the authorities treated the occasion as a dry run for the
Games. They seeded clouds to prevent rain; sent police along the major
streets removing washing lines and unseemly clutter; and declared a
public holiday to decrease congestion. The organisers of the Olympics
are going even further -- wiping out entire neighbourhoods to
accommodate Olympic buildings, closing factories to reduce pollution,
running 'public education campaigns' against spitting, appointing 1,500
'civilised bus-riding supervisors' and holding 'queueing awareness
days'. Visas for foreigners have been curtailed to stop human rights
protesters from entering the country; Chinese activists imprisoned or
kept under surveillance; security checkpoints set up on roads around
Beijing; and foreign governments bullied to attend the opening ceremony
(more on this later).

The awesome preparations show how ludicrous it is to suppose that sports
and politics can be kept apart. The truth is that in China almost
everything is political -- it is less than a decade since the Communist
Party allowed people to get married without asking the permission of
their local party secretary -- and anyone who studies the history will
realise how central sports have been to the construction of the Chinese
nation. For Sun Yat-sen -- the founder of modern China -- sports were
seen as a literal solution to China's plight as the 'sick man of Asia';
Chiang Kai-shek's nationalists talked of 'training strong bodies for the
nation' in order to defeat Japan; Mao Tse-tung continued the tradition
by putting a military man in charge of his first national sports
commission in 1952; Chou En-lai used ping-pong diplomacy to engage
Richard Nixon in the 1970s; and China's original bid for the 2000
Olympics (which was blocked on human rights grounds) was designed to
heal the damage from the Tiananmen massacre. During each of these
episodes, politicians have micromanaged every aspect of China's sporting
progress (Chou En-lai even personally put together the national
table-tennis team and coached it in diplomatic etiquette, urging its
players to put 'friendship first, competition second').

But in spite of all the preparation, the Beijing authorities have
sometimes been dazzled by the blinding lights of prime-time exposure.

Although the authorities provoked the attention, they often did not know
how to handle it. That is because for most of the last few decades,
Beijing's foreign policy was driven by a determined quest to keep a low
profile. Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China's opening and reform
policy, declared that China must 'hide its brightness', avoid
controversy and focus on growing its economy. He feared that China would
be seen as a threat by the rest of the world and that other countries
would gang up to prevent its rise. But with the Olympic Games, Chinese
strategists have moved from seeking invisibility to actively trying to
shape their country's image through a mixture of charm and steel.

The most fashionable theory in Chinese think-tanks is the American
academic Joseph Nye's theory of 'soft power' -- the idea that a country
can assert itself not only through the 'hard power' of military and
economic coercion, but the attractiveness of its ideas, its culture and
the political institutions it builds. Beijing has tried to build up its
own soft power by sharing its development expertise while stressing its
commitment to multilateralism and peaceful integration (in contrast to
Washington's neo-liberalism, unilateralism and imperial urge). And it
has used a battery of public diplomacy techniques -- from international
TV stations to cultural institutes -- to promote a 'Chinese Dream' as an
alternative to the American Dream. The Olympics is the most dramatic ad
for this new China.

When its charm offensive fails, Beijing has been adept at bullying
foreign governments to temper their criticism. When I was in Beijing in
May, French diplomats were reeling from a 'Skip France' campaign
organised by the Beijing municipal authorities. According to their
account, Chinese tourists who wished to travel to France were told that
tickets were not available and visa applications dropped from 300 a day
to just ten. Chinese foreign policy experts explained to me that the
goal was to punish Nicolas Sarkozy for saying that his attendance at the
Olympics would depend on the human rights situation in Tibet. It worked.

Last week, Sarkozy announced he would attend the opening ceremony to
'deepen [France's] strategic partnership with China'.

China has found Western NGOs (nongovernmental agencies) less compliant
than their national governments. When, on 8 August 2007, the Beijing
Olympic Committee started the official countdown to the Games with a
giant clock in Tiananmen Square, the limelight was stolen by an
unofficial event launched by a group of Canadian activists.

These protesters had climbed on to the Great Wall of China and unfurled
a banner saying 'One World, One Dream, Free Tibet'. In the last few
months there have been campaigns by activists for human rights,
supporters of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, persecuted
peasants and environmentalists. Of all the campaigns, the most visible
one was the 'genocide Olympics' campaign over China's role in Sudan
which attracted support from Mia Farrow and Steven Spielberg.

But to the surprise of outside observers, criticism from Western NGOs
seems to have bolstered rather than undermined the regime's popularity
at home. Although discontent is simmering below the surface -- there
were 87,000 protests last year alone -- Chinese citizens and
intellectuals are more focused on inequality and corruption than the
concerns of the Western campaigners, which they interpret as support for
'separatism', 'cults', or a desire to keep China down. Moreover, China's
government has successfully mobilised the swelling patriotism of its
citizens in campaigns against Western interference, such as the boycott
of the French supermarket chain Carrefour.

Many in the West had hoped that giving the Olympics to China would -- in
the words of the Beijing Olympic Bid Committee's Liu Jingmin -- 'help
the development of human rights'. Some predicted that repressive laws
would be lifted, political prisoners freed and the media given new
freedoms. But human rights activists tell a different story about
crackdowns on protesters in Tibet, the imprisonment of activists such as
the land rights campaigner Yang Chunlin, housing rights campaigners Ye
Guozhu and Wang Ling, and the celebrated anti-Aids activist and blogger
Hu Jia. They also claim that the runup to the Games has seen a growing
phalanx of people held under house arrest because of vague crimes such
as 'separatism' or 'subversion'. As Amnesty International says: 'It was
hoped that the Games would act as a catalyst for reform but much of the
current wave of repression against activists and journalists is
occurring not in spite of, but actually because of the Olympics.' The
outside world tends to talk about how revolutionary economic reforms
have gone hand in hand with political stagnation. But the Olympics shows
that China has modernised its politics as much as its economy -- just
not in the direction of liberal democracy. The state has largely
withdrawn from people's everyday lives, giving Chinese citizens
unprecedented freedoms to consume and organise their professional and
personal development. But this growing freedom in the personal realm has
been matched with an increasingly sophisticated control of the public
sphere. In the 1980s, many Chinese intellectuals supported multiparty
elections and the separation of the party from the government. But since
Tiananmen, political reform has taken on a new meaning. While there are
still prominent thinkers -- such as the political scientist Yu Keping --
who believe in the country's incremental embrace of democracy, many
modern intellectuals argue that China would be better to avoid elections
altogether and instead focus on introducing the rule of law while making
the one-party state more responsive. The last few years have seen the
party use opinion polls, focus groups and public consultations to put
the one-party state in touch with public opinion. What is emerging is
not Western-style democracy, but a high- tech model of 'deliberative
dictatorship' that has increased the legitimacy of the one-party state,
and lessened calls for genuine democracy.

But though the Olympics will strengthen the Beijing government's
standing at home, it is likely to weaken it abroad. Maybe the big story
of the 2008 Olympics will not be of Beijing's 'Big Brother' watching its
citizens, but rather the story of thousands of journalists and fans
watching Big Brother, and recording its every move on mobile phones,
cameras and blogposts. In an interesting new book, Owning the Olympics:
Narratives of the New China, the academics Monroe Price and Daniel Dayan
claim that the development of new technologies such as digital cameras
and the internet site YouTube could turn the surveillance society
against itself.

In the past, we have defined surveillance as the powerful monitoring the
powerless; the use of information technology by state institutions to
monitor individuals. But increasingly, the availability of new
technology allows individuals to monitor the state institutions
themselves. The authors use the phrase 'sousveillance' -- French for
monitoring from below -- to capture a new phenomenon where the powerful
can be filmed and held to account for their actions in the court of
public opinion. Sousveillance famously made an appearance with the
beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, the hanging of Saddam Hussein in
2006 and the protests in Burma in 2007. But the Beijing Olympics could
take this to an industrial scale. The Beijing authorities could see all
their painstaking attempts to show a kinder, gentler image to the world
overturned by some rogue footage of an overzealous security official
responding to protesters captured on a mobile phone or digital camera.

The stakes for the Beijing authorities could not be higher. The Olympic
genie will never be put back into the bottle. Beijing will find that its
actions on the world stage continue to be held up to minute scrutiny
long after the Games are over. They will need to get used to prime-time
attention. Moreover, with George Bush on the way out and the promise of
an American Renaissance under President Obama, global public opinion and
journalists are on the look-out for a new bogeyman to blame for the
world's ills. In the last few months the media has grown accustomed to
criticising China for its policies on Burma, Sudan, Tibet, Zimbabwe and
climate change.

If the authorities in Beijing are not careful they could find that these
charges stick, and that China unwittingly fulfils a new global role; not
as a modern harmonious society but as an all- purpose rogue state.
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