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Media: Beijing doesn't like to give the world's press an inch, let alone go the extra mile

August 4, 2008

The Chinese government wanted the Olympics to be a window for the
world. Instead it has persisted in keeping the curtains drawn and
soured its own event, writes Isabel Hilton
The Independent (UK)
August 3, 2008

Nearly two years ago, at a dinner given for the boss of a
multinational that is also a sponsor of the Beijing Olympics, the
question was put on the table: what can be done to ensure that the
international press does not spoil the Beijing Olympics for the
Chinese government?

The boss was worried. He could see that the Olympics carried immense
symbolic value for a government on whose favour his business
depended. He could also see this was a perilous highwire act: a
government that routinely reacted to domestic criticism by silencing
the critics would have to be exposed to the less tractable, and
certainly irrepressible, energy of the international media.

The guests at the dinner did their best but there was only one real
answer: the international press could not be controlled. There were
two possible courses of action: to meet in full the commitments
Beijing had made on press freedom and human rights; or simply to
learn not to mind negative coverage. Neither course was followed.

The first was always unrealistic. Failure on the second has had the
perverse effect of poisoning relationships further and has not helped
China's aim to use the Olympics to present a positive image to the world.

The moment when the first wave of sports journalists logged in the
shiny new press facilities in Beijing last week, only to discover the
International Olympic Committee's promises of uncensored access to
the web were economical with the truth, China's reputation sank
another notch. With a week to go to the grand opening ceremony ­ when
Beijing might have expected warm colour pieces on the spectacular
venues, the modern subway lines or the enthusiasm of the Chinese
people ­ the big story continued to be the nature of the country's
political system.

The blocked sites were no surprise to anyone who has experienced the
frustrations of surfing behind the firewall. The three "Ts" ­ Tibet,
Tiananmen and Taiwan ­ and the "F" of Falun Gong reliably trigger an
unscheduled diversion either to a government propaganda site or the
blank wall of a server error message. Add to that such apparently
innocuous destinations as Wikipedia ­ which contains views that the
government regards as unsound ­ or, intermittently, YouTube, and the
visiting journalists begin to understand why it might be that so many
Chinese citizens have such a very different perception of their
recent history to interested observers outside China.

Despite a partial opening of the internet on Friday that gave access
to previously blocked sites such as Amnesty International, others,
mainly those of internal opponents, remained blocked. A games planned
to close the gap between China and the outside world and celebrate
its integration as a global player could have the opposite effect.

Even the tough-minded Chinese leadership might now be reflecting on
how it all went wrong. When the bid was won in 2001, officials said
the Olympics were "another milestone in China's rising international
status" and would bring the "respect, trust and favour of the
international community". Instead, Beijing has been plagued by
disasters at home and is visibly irritated at the fin de regime
rumours that these events have engendered in a superstitious people.
Internationally, the event that was meant to display China as a
responsible rising power, risks being judged as an exposé of authoritarianism.

This unanticipated outcome matters in Beijing. For many years the
government has worked to promote China's impressive economic rise as
peaceful and unthreatening, in implicit contrast to the militarism of
the US. China needed time, space and access to raw materials and
energy to feed its economic machine; for that, international goodwill
was a prime requirement.

At home the concerns are related but slightly different: once the
Party abandoned the ideology that justified its perpetual rule,
China's growth was the means of keeping the loyalty of a people who
had spent much of the 20th century in war and poverty. That recent
misery, the story went, derived in turn from the incursion of
imperial powers into China in the 19th century and of Japan in the
20th ­ a narrative that has fuelled the truculent nationalism that
has seized so many of China's privileged younger generation.

It was only part of the story of China's historic weakness, but it
was the line the Party stuck to, not least to divert scrutiny from
its own less than perfect record. The last 150 years have certainly
left a scar on the psyche of the nation, and so the past three
decades have been experienced by many Chinese as a purging of the
shame of humiliation, an embrace of relative political normality and
economic success, and a reward for the long and tragic night China had endured.

That was the story the Games was meant to celebrate. As things are
now, one striking aspect of this slow train crash is its naivety. The
government insists it is illegitimate to politicise the Olympics, but
the Games have always been a political as well as a sporting event.
Leaving aside Berlin 1936 and Munich 1972: China withdrew from
Melbourne in 1956 in protest against Australia's recognition of
Taiwan; the Moscow and LA games played out Cold War tensions; the
Seoul Olympics played an important part in the liberalisation of the
South Korean regime; China has its share of people with domestic and
international grievances seeking attention; and the regime's own
hopes for Beijing 2008 went far beyond sport.

That the issues in contention when China bid for the Olympics were
the same as they are today ­ the environment, human rights, press
freedom ­ is evident from the commitments made by the Chinese
government to win the deal. But instead of anticipating the degree to
which it would be held to those promises, the government concentrated
on the physical fabric and domestic opinion, through a prolonged
propaganda campaign aimed at mobilising the people for a moment of
triumph, when China's considerable achievements would be celebrated
uncritically.

At home, the government can still, for the most part, create its own
story -- and silence those who challenge it. But it did not seem to
foresee that story being challenged in the wider world.

Now feelings are hurt and pride is at stake. A fierce security
crackdown has strangled business, cut the flow of visitors, alienated
the international media and soured the mood. Beijing's immense
investment and the popular enthusiasm for the event are felt to be
unappreciated.

The best hope for Beijing 2008 is that the excitement of the event
itself will soon take over, that Beijing will harvest a satisfactory
crop of gold and that not too much face will be lost. If pride can be
saved ­ if the government can salvage at least some of its original
ambitions ­ then in the quiet of the following months some more
profound lessons might be drawn from this bruising experience. But if
the mood remains sour ­ if China were to end the month feeling
resentful and unappreciated ­ the opponents of the past three decades
of slow but steady liberalisation will gain in strength, buoyed by
confirmation that China faces a hostile world and must act
accordingly. That breach would take a long time to heal.

Isabel Hilton is editor of chinadialogue.net
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