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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."

Chinese desperate for Games to be a memorable spectacle

August 3, 2008

Rosie DiManno, COLUMNIST
The Toronto Star
August 2, 2008

BEIJING --Seven years ago, this city busting with pride after being
awarded the 2008 Olympic Games, I went to meet a shy young man who
dreamed about playing in the NBA some day, if the Communist
gerontocracy would allow it.

He arrived for the interview pedalling a beat-up bicycle, his lanky
7-foot-5 frame hunched over the handlebars.

Yao Ming didn't know what the future held, for him, but grasped that
the Games would be a transforming and transcendent occasion for his country.

Next Friday, the Houston Rockets star will likely be China's
flag-bearer at the opening ceremonies.

His face is on billboards and bus shelters, staring down from giant
silkscreen canvases draped over high-rise office towers that weren't
even a gleam in a developer's eye a decade ago.

Both Yao, and the nation, have come a long way since 2001 -- if not
far enough to please a growing faction of political critics, human
rights activists and intractable anti-Sino flame-throwers.

Yao is these Olympics personified, a pioneer in China engaging with
the world, enjoining with it, but intrinsically and eternally Chinese.

All of China would like the world to understand something of the same
about them, I think: They are not their government yet not
necessarily in passionate and preoccupied opposition to that regime either.

Offend these Games and they will all lose face. That means a great
deal to the Chinese.

They have become extremely proprietary about the Olympics, their
Olympics. It's as if every citizen has bought into the "I will do my
part" concept, one of the many mottos attached to the Beijing bid
when it was presented to the International Olympic Committee.

I've seen that attitude expressed over the past few days: In the
faces of middle-aged women concentrating intensely under their
broad-brimmed hats as they trimmed hedges around Olympic venues; in
the elderly man using a besom broom to sweep water from a sudden
rainstorm into the drain, as if the puddle were a personal affront to
him, upsetting the symmetry of the street; in the young police
officers who stand rigidly at their posts along Olympic route roads,
militarily erect, as un-flinching as Buckingham Palace Beefeaters in
the rain and the brutal sun; in the thousands of volunteers aching to
be helpful, with their hesitant English, a girl rushing over to open
the soda fridge in the media restaurant, a boy enquiring if he might
help a reporter carry her bag to her room – it was just a little purse.

It's like they all have something vital at stake, as if the very
success of these entire Olympics depended on their own tiny
contribution. And it's very sweet. They want so fervently to make a
good impression.

But these will be the most scrutinized Olympics ever, China's value
system and its legitimacy as a global superpower under the
microscope, all sorts of agendas clashing.

They are rapidly shaping up as the Protest Games -- if by proxy and
off-site -- rather than the People's Games, as envisioned by the
People's Republic of China. Every news cycle seems to bring with it
"The Scolding of the Day" for Chinese authorities: Censorship of
dissident Internet sites, as bidden by the government; allegations of
Chinese athletes threatened with dire consequences should they fail
to win gold; scandal over the age-eligibility of a young gymnast
medal prospect, her birth certificate perhaps doctored by sports
officials; air quality in the capital so bad that some events, like
the men's marathon, might actually be cancelled.

That was the buzz at yesterday's main press conference, officials
unaccustomed to aggressive interrogation from journalists painfully
dodging questions about the endurance race scheduled for the last day
of the Games. While admitting a smog-sensitive "contingency plan" is
in place, Liu Wenbin, director of sports for the organizing
committee, wouldn't say what it was.

"Before the closing ceremonies, all sports events will be terminated.
The contingency plan for the marathon ... we might have another
schedule for it, but that will also be before the closing ceremonies."

Whatever that means.

There is escalating mistrust between a defensive Beijing and a
snappish international media, a far different feeling from that hot
summer night seven years past, when hundreds of thousands poured into
the capital's streets to celebrate their selection as Olympic host.

The world loved Beijing then, and Beijing loved the world right back.

It must be understood that the Chinese public -- all 1.3 billion of
them, 15 million in Beijing -- yearn for the mutual rapture to
continue, are desperate for these games to be a memorable spectacle.

Such ferocity of feeling can't be ordered by government diktat.

There is a strong nationalist streak in China that comes naturally,
not the sole product of propaganda and big lies endlessly repeated.
It is somewhat chauvinistic for the West, and in particular the
Western media, to fancy ourselves as bearers of enlightenment,
rescuing the Middle Kingdom from existential dimness during this
period of temporary liberalization, invoked by Olympic détente.

One might keep in mind that even the Dalai Lama approves of bringing
the Games to Beijing.

And we might all consider observing the Olympic truce.

* Columnist Rosie DiManno is on assignment in China, covering the
Beijing Summer Olympics.
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