(This column, about how the 2008 Beijing Olympics showcased both the bright and the dark sides of China, was published in DNA edition dated August 20, 2008.)
Over the past fortnight, China has given the world much cause for wonderment in the way it has organised the Beijing Olympics and the manner in which it has demonstrated its ascent as a sporting superpower. The world, in turn, has been sufficiently impressed with, and even rapturous about, what it’s seen of Chinese prowess, both at the spectacular opening ceremony and in the subsequent sporting action. The story of how China’s state-sponsored institutions have marshalled an army of gold medal-winning sportspersons to rise to the top of the medals ranking is truly inspirational, particularly when seen from a country of about the same population that has huffed and puffed its way to a solitary gold medal.
Away from the sporting arenas, however, several other aspects of the Olympics atmospherics, and Chinese authorities’ knee-jerk responses to them, have shown up a side of China that hasn’t exactly burnished its international image. In fact, they have served to reinforce and validate some of the worst stereotypical impressions and images of China in the minds of foreign audiences. These are, sadly, of a paranoid, authoritarian regime that lies, cheats and fakes and envelopes itself in secrecy.
When China bid for and won the Olympics in 2001, and later when it sealed the deal with the International Olympic Committee, it made a clutch of promises as a concession to the libertarian spirit and “universal values” associated with the Olympic movement. These related, in the main, to opening up, even if only a crack and solely for the duration of the Games, China’s closed society, which is characterised by strict censorship of the media and a pathological intolerance of dissent. Accordingly, the world’s media was promised unfettered freedom to report on China during the Olympics, and so-called “protest areas” were to be set up in Beijing, where demonstrations were to be permitted, subject to approval by public security officials.
Suffice it to say that within the first week of the Games, China had trampled on these promises with heavy jackboots, inviting well-merited criticism that Chinese officials had “lied through their teeth”. Foreign mediapersons reporting on random Free Tibet protests have been physically restrained, and have otherwise had their work interfered with, by overzealous security officials; in one case, a British television journalist was detained after having had his hands stomped upon by policemen.
More perversely, Chinese authorities have used the establishment of the “protest zones” as a honeypot to entrap and arrest disenchanted Chinese who, acting in good faith, applied for permission to stage demonstrations. It was a chilling throwback to Chairman Mao Zedong’s ‘Hundred Flowers Campaign’ in the 1950s, when non-communists were first encouraged to speak out, and when they did, were persecuted as counter-revolutionaries.
In other areas, and even on the playing field, suspicions of Chinese foul play have been compounded by the authorities’ inept handling of controversies. Doubts that a gold medal-winning Chinese woman gymnast was underaged were reinforced by archived online articles in the official Chinese media, which showed her up to be less than the required 16 years. But rather than addressing the criticism and offering credible proof of her age, authorities clumsily covered their tracks by first deleting the giveaway articles and then reposting them with post-facto revisions of her age.
Chinese social relations are characterised by the concept of ‘face’, which is an important marker of social standing and prestige. China has certainly ‘gained face’ with its demonstration of its Olympics organisational capabilities and its sporting excellence: it has built spectacular Olympics venues that showcase the country’s rise as an emerging economic superpower, and is hosting a carnival of sports that, for the most part, has been faithful to the spirit of the Games.
But the Beijing Olympics have also shown up the other, far less attractive face of China, where a paranoid, insecure regime hides its authoritarian streak beneath a mask of mass-manufactured goodwill, and resorts to wilful misrepresentations of the truth. On those counts, sadly, China has seriously ‘lost face’ at these Olympics.