Olympics: January 2008 Archives

Today marks an auspicious and disturbing anniversary for my neighborhood here in Beijing. I live a ten minute walk away from Tian'anmen Square, the political heart of the PRC and the favored focal point for those who oppose CPC policies. 7 years ago today, seven people walked onto the square in the mid-afternoon, doused themselves with gasoline and attempted to set themselves on fire. Five of them succeeded, two of them died and the remaining survivors, including a then-19 year old college student, will live the rest of their lives severely disfigured. This extreme act was allegedly committed by FLG members protesting against the CPC's ban of the movement. Though questions have been raised about some of the events and motives in the case, known today as the Tian'anmen Square self-immolation incident, there can be no doubt that this was a protest of one form or another. No one voluntarily lights themselves on fire unless they've got a pretty good statement to make. But the point of this post is not to discuss that particular incident itself, but to heed a reminder to those who would use this summer's Games as a launching pad for protest: Big brother is keeping a very close eye on you!

As I mentioned, I live a very short distance from Tian'anmen. I actually catch the Tian'anmen East subway station every working day, and as such, catch a constant glimpse of what's happening in the neighborhood. And I can tell you that in the last couple of months, security in and around the area has been noticeably increased. The police are now consistently doing random searches of people who appear to be either hocking crappy merchandise or are out there to try to scam unsuspecting tourists. I will admit that personally I have never been stopped or even questioned by the PSB, but then I normally don't make it a habit to hang around Tian'anmen very much. That said, when a guest was in Beijing last fall visiting from Canada, I did get a first-hand demonstration of how quickly the security forces in and around Tian'anmen will react if they see something they don't like.

I was touring my friend around the various locations in the heart of the capital, including the Forbidden City, Tian'anmen Square and so on. As boring as it was for me personally, a short blast of excitement did take place while we were in front of the main Zhongnanhai gate to the west of Tian'anmen. As I was taking a picture of my friend standing in front of the gate, a middle-aged Chinese man and woman walked up to the yellow line in front of Zhongnanhai and pulled out a sign on a piece of cardboard and started holding it up. In the span of less than 3 seconds, 4 plain-clothes security personnel were on them, stripped them of their sign and began grilling them about what exactly they were doing. And though I had a camera in my hand, I've lived in the neighborhood long enough to realize that if you don't want it confiscated, you'd better not have a camera in plain site when trouble starts brewing. Though I wanted to stick around and find out what the outcome would be, I felt it best to get my friend out of the situation and out of any potential harms-way, given that neither of us were carrying our passports (a PSB requirement for all foreigners). And as we were making our way out of the area, more and more security personnel were descending on the area. It was a real eye opener as to just how prepared they are for protest in and around the Tian'anmen area. And this was a time when nothing politically sensitive or interesting was taking place!

Now I'm not going to try to tell anyone what to do. If you have plans to come over here this summer and use the Olympics as a springboard for political points against the CPC, I personally don't care (though I think it will be a wasted effort). But I can tell you what's likely to happen if you do: If you're a foreigner, you will be detained, your visa will be revoked and you will be kicked out of the country permanently. And you'll want to hope it's as simple as that. And consider yourself lucky that you're a foreigner! I don't even want to know what happens to the Chinese nationals who want to make a public protest against the government these days. But if the protesters 7 years ago today are any sort of indication, the long road to recover from their nasty burns is still being - and will continue for the rest of their lives - in a Chinese prison cell.

So make your stand this summer if you want, but be prepared for the inevitable outcome!

I have now begun the process of mentally preparing myself for the onslaught of "new" China stories hitting the international media. As a trained journalist and former journalism instructor, I have always expounded the need for news to be new. But unfortunately, I suspect this is going to be less and less likely the case as the Olympics draw ever closer. As the foreign media steadily work their way over here to begin their coverage of the Olympics, and China, I can guarantee that we are going to be hearing, reading and seeing the same stories repeated over and over again. A case in point is the recent 'revelation' from AFPTV.

Chinese village goes back to complete Communism

NANJIE, China, January 10 (AFPTV) - Huang Zunxian's living room is lit by just one dim lightbulb. It's dark...but not gloomy. His faith in the Communist Party is his guiding light.
"As common people we only have one thing to do," says 72 year old Nanjie Village Resident Huang Zunxian, "Listen to the Party leadership, and do whatever they say. To stay healthy and contribute more to Nanjie Village, thats what we think."
The people of Nanjie Village in China's Central Province of Henan are living history, a throw back to 1960s China. They have rejected the market reforms that have swept the country and returned to a collective economy.
Residents here say they have no desire for the luxury products the rest of China is flocking to buy. There are few people in the streets, most are at work in the village-owned factories. There products range from instant noodles to consumer packaging, and the profits sustain the local economy. Instead of a salary, workers receive free housing and food, health care and education.
Wang Hongbin has been the Communist Party Secretary in Nanjie for more than 30 years. As the senior most official , he oversees the running of the village. The sign hanging over his desk is an old Chairman Mao quote, and reads "Serve the People."
"Nanjie village has developed a collective economy," says Hongbin, "To walk down the path of gaining wealth. This was Mao Zedong's thought, strategy and policy."
There is no advertising in Nanjie, but Communist propaganda is plastered on buildings, and blasted over the airways. Nanjie also has a multi-million-dollar park dedicated to showcasing the life of Mao. In it are replicas of various houses where he once lived.
Mao's prominence here, and the fact that people are still living out his ideologies, have turned Nanjie into a tourist attraction. Soveigner shops are capitalising on the steady flow of curious visitors. No one in Nanjie is opposed to bringing in money; they've just opted to share it equally.
"All the tourists are jealous," whispers shop owner Wang Xinchao, "We live by Mao's philosophy."
The village's 3,500 commune members are proud to still be living according to Mao's word. But they are a tiny holdout, as the rest of China's 1.3 billion people rush towards capitalism.

I'm not for a moment saying that the story about Nanjie isn't at all interesting. But the fact is, this is not a new story. Anthony Kuhn, an excellent journalist with NPR here in China, did the same story in August of 2006. And a google search of Nanjie+China will get you even more stories about this Maoist throwback.

I believe a lot of the expectation from the expats in China is that we're going to be getting a lot of crack journalism and enthrauling new stories about China that we've never heard before because the western media horde is on its way to help educate us. Unfortunately, I fear that what I like to term as "pack mentality" is going to kick in, and we are going to be left hearing a lot about the Nanjie's of China, and not nearly enough about what is actually happening in this country. And I suspect this is exactly what the CPC is banking on.

My attention was recently turned to an article in the China Daily written by columnist Kang Bing (h/t to JFK Miller at Shanghaiist). In the article, titled "Handing media criticism," Mr. Kang argues that media have unfairly criticized Beijing in the lead-up to the games, more-so than other host cities. He also says reporters must re-evaluate their coverage and strive to be more fair:

I have no intention to criticize my journalist colleagues regarding any of the Games. I believe they were trying to live up to the trust of their readers and viewers to ensure the Games become better and fairer. But when we look back at our past reporting, can we come to the conclusion that we, as the media, could have been fairer and better?
Beijing seems to have received more criticism than other hosts. Air pollution and traffic problems are the issues widely expounded by the media.
While some overseas media are demonizing Beijing's air pollution and traffic problems, Beijing citizens seem to be happy to get more days of blue skies each year as compared with 2001 when the city won the Olympic bid. As for the traffic, while about half a dozen new subway lines will be open to the public before the Olympics, the authorities are working out traffic control plans which, according to them, should ensure a smooth flow during the Games. Meanwhile, subway and bus lines have been added while fares have been reduced.
The Chinese capital would be lucky if criticism against it ended just there. Beijing has kept its promise to the IOC on press freedom, but some media seem to be asking the host to adopt freedom and democracy according to their understanding and explanation. When not satisfied, they threaten to call for a boycott of the Games.

The argument was picked up and dissected by JFK Miller, who I think did an admirable job of explaining that many host cities - most notably and recently, Athens - have received substantial media criticism prior to the big event. In this respect, Beijing is no different.

But this article made me consider another side of the story, which is the vastly different way foreign media coverage is portrayed by people (both foreigners and Chinese) inside and outside China. To many Chinese and long-term foreign residents, it often seems like foreign reporters only pick on the negative aspects of China. Yes, we know the pollution is bad, the traffic is gridlocked, and we still stumble on dirty squat toilets in what should be respectable restaurants. Having somebody harp on these items long after we've gotten used to them is a boring storyline, and mildly annoying.

Many of us have chosen to live in China for a plethora of reasons: careers, business opportunities, marriages, studying, or whatever your particular case is. And like Mr. Kang, we can, occassionally, tend to react negatively when somebody is slamming the place we choose to live. But that doesn't make the foreign stories untrue, or any less worthy of being published.

There's no doubt, to this correspondent's eyes, that the media is having a field day with Beijing's pollution, the country's human rights record, traffic, and other controversial issues. And I say, good on 'em. Only through a thorough vetting of these issues, in a public light, can change be possible. Face means everything in China, and losing it can spur the authorities to accomplish great things.

Also, focusing on the negative reporting isn't entirely fair. One trip to a bookstore or news shop in the United States or Canada will reveal a plethora of magazines, periodicals, newspapers, and books touting China's rise, China's glittering new buildings, China's growing entertainment industry, China's increasing influence, etc. If one only wishes to find negative coverage, that's all one will see.

Finally, with regards to Mr. Kang's last comment surrounding foreign reporters' understanding of China's obligations for a free reporting environment: foreign reporters don't give a damn what China has promised to the IOC. They are here to follow their own leads, break news, and be first with stories to beat the competition. That's what foreign journalism is about, and that's what China's authorities are going to have to contend with.

So far, the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics has been rather uneventful, but that can change quickly. As has been mentioned elsewhere, protests are not the biggest challenge facing the government, it's how it will handle them. If somebody unfurls a FLG banner in Tiananmen Square, so be it. If a posse of officers come and beat the guy before hauling him off, then we have a story. It's up to the Chinese government to determine which way it chooses to go, and how it chooses to be viewed by the world community.

If the likes of Mr. Kang are concerned about negative reporting already, one only hopes the Chinese government sends its goons to the provinces prior to the opening ceremonies.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Olympics category from January 2008.

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