Olympics: April 2008 Archives

The Olympics and You

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Come tomorrow we're going to be inundated with all things Olympics here in China yet again. Big celebrations are being set up here in the capital and in other parts of this country as well to mark the 100 day countdown to the Games. As such, the media organs are going to be going non-stop trying to show what a glorious set of Games China is going to be putting on. And it's through the lead up to this media blitz that I got thinking about what the impending Games are going to be all about for people on a personal level.

I was asked by a friend of a friend to be interviewed by the People's Daily last week, because the paper wanted to get some foreigner's reactions 'in the can' about the 100 day countdown and the Olympics themselves for tomorrow's edition. The questions, which were emailed to me, were fairly generic in nature, but one of them did force me to think for a bit. The People's Daily wanted to know what the Olympic Games mean to me on a personal level. It is an interesting notion. We're consistently bombarded on the web and through the Chinese media about just how much these Olympic Games this summer mean to China and the Chinese people. And the foreigners living here and abroad all like to speculate about just what the Games will do as far as China's public image is concerned. But I have to admit I've never really given any thought to what the Games mean to me. I've never attended an Olympics before. Sure I've watched them on television and have rooted for my own country, even though Canada never really does very well in the Summer Games. I even have a bit of a personal, albeit very minor, connection to the Olympics, given that my sister narrowly missed out representing Canada in the Olympic Marathon in Seoul in '88. But the more I thought about the People's Daily question, the more I realized that I don't care about the Olympics at all. At worst for me, this summer's Games will mean thousands of people jamming up the subway system and my neighborhood, along with inflated prices for all things laowai as the local retailers do their best to take advantage of unsuspecting foreigners. At best, I'll be able to look back afterward and say that I was in Beijing when the Games took place. But as far as any sort of soulful connection to the Olympics in one form or another, it's just not there for me. But, in the end, that's me. As for the answer I gave the People's Daily, you'll just have to buy a paper (though I don't really know if it was for the print or online version, or both).

He Zhenliang.jpg On the opposite side of the coin, I had a chance to sit down for a one-on-one interview with China's Mr. Olympics, He Zhenliang. He's the guy that most people credit for getting the Olympics here to China. He's a very amiable and accommodating fellow, and an interesting guy to chat with, given that he was - in his early years - a translator on numerous occasions for Premier Zhou Enlai. But if anyone out there in China had an excuse to wash his hands of all things Olympics, it would be him, given all the crap that he had to deal with in trying to actually get the games here to Beijing. He Zhenliang Headshot.jpg But in chatting with him, you couldn't help but realize that this guy really, really thinks the Olympics are going to change this country. Sure, he's a diplomat and gave all the 'correct' answers, but still, you could tell that he believes in these Games to the very core of his soul. To me, it sort of epitomizes the feeling I get from most Chinese people whenever they talk about the Olympics. For whatever reason, there seems to be some sort of collective agreement that these Olympics are going to kick ass and prove to the world that China and the Chinese people aren't getting the respect they deserve. As such, Chinese people have really taken these Games to heart and have developed an almost intimate and personal connection to them. Hence the anger surrounding the torch protests and the like. But the one thing I can't really put my finger on is whether it's the actual Olympics themselves that the Chinese have come to love or whether it's the Games' ability to put China under the global spotlight. A term I hear being kicked out a lot is that these are 'China's Olympics.' You hear it so often that you almost tend to forget that the Olympics are 'the world's' Games and that China just happens to be the host this year. So what will be interesting to see is just how much the Olympics mean to Chinese people 4 years down the road when London is the host. Are the Chinese people having a May-December romance with the Games or are they willing to take the five rings and put them on their fingers and commit for the long-haul? Olympic Rings.png
Who loves ya, baby...

At the Danwei Plenary Session last month, moderator Jeremy Goldkorn issued a proviso before the discussion began: he would be referring to the western media and the Chinese media, even though "western media" is not, by any stretch, a homogeneous creature. One of my good friends, and sometimes contributor to this blog, has complained vociferiously that "the west" doesn't exist and should, at the very least, be defined before discussion can continue.

Traditionally I have overlooked this. To me, "the west" means white, English-speaking countries: Europe, the UK, Ireland, Australia, United States, Canada. Perhaps it's also a code-word for "colonial" powers (although it doesn't fit each of the countries I listed). Chinese people I have met have told me that media from these countries - and the power they hold as a collective - is unduly influential on a global scale; thus the campaigns against networks such as CNN over their news coverage.

"The West" is now the bogeyman to the Chinese: "The west" was responsible for past humiliations, "the west" is ruining the torch relay, "the west" doesn't understand Chinese culture. In fact, in a previous post, we get a psycho-analysis of a western mind.

This is all fine and good, but overlooks some glaring omissions which came to light this week. First, to blame "the west" for the FT movement is ridiculous; the Tibetan Government-in-Exile is based in India, for starters, and last I checked it wasn't a card-carrying member of the west. Nor is Japan part of the definition of "the west" that I offered above, and look how they handled this past weekend's torch relay stop in Nagano:

Protesters hurled rubbish and flares Saturday at the Beijing Olympic torch and brawled with Chinese supporters in a chaotic Japanese leg of the troubled round-the-world relay.
At least four people were injured in the scuffles in the mountain resort of Nagano, where more than 85,000 people packed the streets including Chinese students who turned the town into a sea of red national flags.
After relative calm elsewhere in Asia, the torch met at least hundreds of protesters here ranging from Buddhist monks and pro-Tibet demonstrators to nationalists, who provocatively waved Japan's old imperial flag.
Protesters threw trash, an egg, a tomato and flares as the torch was paraded through the streets despite more than 3,000 police guarding the route, who had raised security to a level usually accorded to Emperor Akihito.

The torch, which was run through Seoul on Sunday, didn't fare much better:

The Olympic torch relay has met with more protests and scuffles on its latest leg in Seoul, the capital of South Korea....
...One human rights demonstrator tried to rush at the torch shortly after the run began from Seoul's Olympic Park, in an attempt to hinder the relay.
South Korean policemen rescued a man after Chinese students attacked him during the torch relay.

To be fair, the report from Al Jazeera says that pro-China demonstrators vastly outnumbered the people protesting Chinese government policy. But the conclusion remains the same: people feel angry enough about China's policies that they are compelled to turn out and protest the torch relay.

There will be conspiracy theorists, probably in this comments section, that will say India, South Korea, Japan, et al have all been influenced by the west, are "slaves of the west", or whatever convenient excuse people choose to create. But the bottom line is the FT movement - and the backlash against the Chinese government (not the people, I'm at pains to add) - is far from a western phenomenon.

My colleague at Tianjin Television asked me over the weekend why "westerners" like the Dalai Lama so much. My response was that the Dalai Lama is, largely, respected by people in countries all over the world. China is the lone country which continues to demonize him. I suppose there is a possibility that China's assessment of the Dalai Lama is correct, but I doubt it.

What I'd like to know is how "the west" is defined in China, and how China feels about fellow Asian countries also protesting the torch. Because this time, France had nothing to do with it.

Mind you, neither did Carrefour.

Below is a video that was submitted in the comments section of Paul's previous post. It is a video that aims to raise awareness of aboriginal issues in light of Vancouver hosting the Olympic games in 2010:

Now, part of me is quite tickled that somebody did this, because it gives Canadians a chance to really draw a line in the sand over how to handle protests and concerns over human rights.

As readers of this blog will be aware, I am a Canadian citizen. I am from Victoria, which is just outside of Vancouver, another city I lived in for many years. I'm obviously extremely proud that Vancouver will host the world in 2010, and feel fortunate that my two hometowns, Vancouver and Beijing, have both been bestowed with this honor.

That being said, Canada is not perfect; far from it, in fact. Does the Canadian government have problems in the way it has historically dealt with the aboriginal issue? Absolutely. In the past, aboriginal children were forced to abandon their own traditions and attend Catholic schools. Many of these children were sexually abused. This just scratches the surface of the atrocious way aboriginals were treated by our forefathers. It is Canada's original sin, and remains a divisive issue today.

Over the years, Canada has drastically changed its aboriginal policy. However many would argue it is still not successful. Many aboriginal people live on reserves and the rates of alcoholism are unacceptably high; so are high school drop out rates. This is, I would submit, an embarassment for all Canadians.

But let me point out a couple of things:

  1. Aboriginal Canadians have a free right to protest
  2. Concerns of aboriginal Canadians are freely aired in Canadian media directly and through representative groups
  3. Aboriginal Canadians have unfettered and free access to practise whatever religion they choose, without state interference
Now, these are all rights and freedoms that Tibetans don't currently have, so comparing the two doesn't really work. But let's continue anyway. Whereas Chinese people are offended that people would dare criticize its policy, Canada is open to having this discussion. I'm not angry about this Youtube video, because I agree something needs to be done. But even if I disagreed with it, people have a right to raise the issues they are concerned about. This is the bedrock foundation of free speech.

Canada has matured over the years, and has now granted aboriginal Canadians all the rights, freedoms, and equality of all other Canadians. Despite this, the problem hasn't been solved. So you know what? I'm open to hearing what China thinks we should do, or anybody else for that matter. And if a country wants to boycott the Vancouver Olympics, I disagree with it; but I respect that decision.

The United States, too, is often the target of international protests and outrage. Think back to the lead-up to the Iraq invasion when millions of people protested US policy in cities all over the world. Did Americans lash out? Only to the degree they wanted to call "French fries" "freedom fries". Really, Americans don't care what other people think of them. Stable, successful countries can handle criticism in a mature way. That's part of the reason that I'm proud to be a Canadian.

Problems are solved through open and free discussion; this is not something to be scared or ashamed of. Airing concerns openly - with the possibility of some hurt feelings - is much more desirable than the mirage of glory and patriotism.

china-anti-french.jpg Chinese protesters are turning up the heat on France over the torch protests which happened in Paris. As the picture to the right shows, protesters painted a swastika on the French flag, and wrote that Joan of Arc was a prostitute.

The bezdomy ex patria blog writes:

Perhaps not the best way of communicating your ideas to the French people. It's not hard to imagine how Chinese people would react to having symbols of their World War 2 occupier added to China's national flag or the moral integrity of China's national heros slandered. Somebody needs to relearn that "do unto others" principle- and no, it does not end with "....before they do unto you".

A commenter on the previous blog pointed us to the photo (from Japan Probe) and this article in the Daily Yomiuri, which claims torch protests in Japan could draw even a more vile response from China:

"Reaction [in China to protests in Japan] would be huge in comparison to the reaction against protests in France," in which Web sites called for a boycott of French products sold at Carrefour stores, an international issue expert said, pointing out that negative feelings toward Japan remain strong in China due to historical issues.
A man in his 30s who runs a Web site that is popular with many Chinese "patriots," told The Yomiuri Shimbun, "Chinese people won't forgive [Japan] if the Japanese do the same things as the Americans and Europeans, such as making distorted reports about the Tibet issue."

With Japan and China's conflicts in the recent past, no doubt protests along the Japanese torch route would lessen the attention paid to France.

We're exploring the possibilities of doing a regular podcast here on ZHN, like other ones we've worked on in the past. Until then, this will have to do.

I've been getting an increasing number of requests to appear on radio shows in Canada to discuss China's reaction to the Tibet mess, torch protests, and looming Olympic games. I appeared on the nationally-syndicated Adler Online during Friday's program, and will guest on Hamilton and Toronto's Ben Guyatt Show and Victoria's Al Ferraby show this week.

You can download the mp3 for the Adler spot below (13 MB). As you'll hear in the interview, Charles Adler, the host, says that the west sorely lacks information on how the Chinese people feel, and more importantly, why they feel that way. It's a substantive interview, one of the longest segments on the program I've done.

The torch relay mess is also having an impact on the Vancouver Olympic Games, scheduled for 2010. VANOC, the organizing committee, has announced it will have an extremely short torch relay or none at all. Right now, it is considering going to London, Paris, and Vimy Ridge (where Canadian soldiers were instrumental in a World War I battle). It may also tour the United States. Canadian Olympic officials are seeking to avoid the fiasco China now finds itself a part of.

The Adler interview, however, focuses mostly on China. He asks genuine questions in trying to understand why China feels the way it does. I think many in the west are perplexed with China's reaction to concerns about Tibet. He asks whether the protests have prompted the Chinese people to put pressure on their own government for policy changes in Tibet. The question is completely understandable from a western perspective, but completely absurd if one has spent any time in China. It's this kind of information - and culture - gap that needs to be bridged. But I feel like many (not all) western media outlets are making a genuine effort. At the very least, reportage of China's point of view has increased. Conversely, China still refuses to report on any of the reasons why Tibetans may be unhappy.

I often feel like the Chinese press criticizing western media on bias is like a 400 pound man telling a 250 pound man to lose weight. Sure, the guy needs to shed a few. But the criticism is coming from an odd source.

You can download the Adler interview here:

Adler Online - Cam MacMurchy - April 11 2008.mp3

There's been a lot of discussion on this blog and around the blogosphere in general about the protests surrounding the torch relay. And I have noticed an increasing amount of comments from people (mostly Chinese I'm presuming) who are now starting to contend more and more that there is some sort of larger-scale conspiracy taking place to sully China's image ahead of the games, and that it's the 'West' that is trying to hold back China as a rising global power. And, to a very small degree, there may be some validity to part of this contention. Allow me to give you a thumb-nail sketch of what is most likely happening on the ground in San Francisco in advance of the torch relay there as an example of how this could be argued.

First off, let me point out that there is no sort of broader-scale Western government conspiracy taking place to darken China's image. Unlike here in China, the Western media is not controlled by the government. Media outlets in the West are free to report on anything they wish. And in fact, if any government organization even hinted to the media that it should be covering these protests, it would be a way bigger story than the actual protests themselves. Where the conspiracy aspect comes in is from the very small minority of people who have an axe to grind against China, or are - what I would deem -- 'professional protesters' who feel obligated to get behind a cause because they think it's the right thing to do and the media that covers the events.

When I use the term conspiracy, I use it in this dictionary-based context:

Conspiracy: The act of conspiring.
Conspiring: To act or work together toward the same results or goal.

Other definitions of conspiracy include the terms 'evil,' 'illegal,' or 'wrong.' I'm not going get into the debate of whether or not the torch protests are any of the adjectives listed. But I will say that these protests are - in effect - a conspiracy, as in the fact that it's more than two people or groups getting together to push or be involved in a cause.

Activist groups in the West have learned how to use the media very well over the years. Unlike in the 1960's in the West, where groups of people would use grassroots methods like posters and word-of-mouth to tell people about some type of protest or march, today activist groups are experts when it comes to public relations. GG Bridge banners.jpg I can guarantee that the media outlets in San Francisco have already received dozens of news releases from various organizations, telling the media that they will be at location X at time Y, and spokesperson Z will be available for interviews. These groups will also have set up transportation strategies to bring as many people as possible to the protest, and will have worked days in advance to create signs and banners. They will also have outlined a strategy to create the greatest amount of media coverage possible for themselves, by putting their most colorful and boisterous members in the direct line of the cameras, and will generally throw their full support behind the most militant in the group who are willing to even break the law to get the media to cover their protest. Anyone who thinks these protests are spontaneous events is truly naive.

As for the media's coverage of the events, here's what's likely happening. Depending on the resources that any given media outlet has available (AKA: reporters, cameras, etc) they will likely be at the locations designated by the protest organizations an hour to two hours in advance, and may have pre-planned coverage mapped out. media scrum.jpg Many reporters, during this time, may also be engaging in 'off-the-record' discussions with protest organizers about what their plans are, in an effort to maximize their coverage and get the best possible sound and video. This is not to say that the media agrees or disagrees with the message the protesters are putting out. For the media, its contact with the protesters is merely a way of getting the job done more efficiently. Because of the competitive nature of the media industry in the West, there is intense pressure on reporters to get the best possible coverage to try to 'one-up' the competition. And it's because of this media culture in the West that the minority gets the majority coverage. If there were no protests surrounding the torch relay, the media coverage of the event would be much more minimal. Resources would likely be reallocated elsewhere to other more interesting and attention-grabbing stories. Activist groups have learned this, and have tailored their efforts accordingly.

Noting all this, one could argue that a conspiracy of sorts is taking place: A conspiracy by the protesters to get their message across, and a conspiracy by the media to get the best story possible.

But the one thing that I hope the Chinese understand is that the people protesting the torch relay represent a narrow minority in Western society. I'm using my own figures here, but I would presume that of the 7.2 million people who live in the San Francisco Bay area, about one percent - at most - of the population will turn out to protest the torch relay. Of the remaining 99 percent, I would say that 95 percent have no or little interest, one way or the other, in Tibet, the torch or the Olympics in general. So while the concept of a conspiracy may be in play in a dictionary-based form, the notion of a broader anti-China campaign is simply just not the reality.

1parisEPA_468x311.jpg One of my good friends, a Chinese girl, just told me that she wants "to cry". This, following the revelation that the IOC is considering suspending or cancelling the international leg of the torch relay (h/t to the Absurdity, Allegory, and China blog). Already, after the protests in London and Paris, this Olympic torch relay will go down in history as one of the most contentious. It's too late to change it now.

I read a quote several weeks ago when the Tibetan unrest first began. I have searched for it since, but can't seem to find it. It was from a Chinese government official who claimed that Beijing knew there would be protests during this Olympic year, but they didn't know it would get this bad. If that's the naivete that BOCOG and the Chinese government are working under, I can't possibly fathom how this Olympic games will be a success.

There are such strong emotions on all sides, but I can't help but feel everyone is aiming their grievances in the wrong directions. Chinese people, largely, feel like foreign powers are ganging up on them, once again, to keep them from succeeding. They feel like foreigners are trying to muddy China's image and embarass them in their big moment. Because of this, chanting things like "Shame on China", which occurred in London, is counterproductive and naturally leads Chinese people to become defensive. The more protests and pressure put on China, the more the Chinese people rally around to defend themselves. The more people criticize China, the more China gets its back up, and the more rigid it becomes.

This is a spiralling situation. Protests occur to force China to improve its human rights, but China becomes even more firmly entrenched. Protesters grow weary that they have little effect, and become more violent and vigilant. China becomes even more firmly entrenched. This powder keg will continue until it blows at some point, and probably sometime between August 8th and 24th.

The whole situation is quite sad, and I can't help but feel the Chinese government bears the ultimate responsibility. It asked for the games and promised to improve its human rights in the process. It then ignored its own pledge. It then failed to foresee what a lightening rod the Olympics would become, when evidence of the controversy was right under its nose. It seems unprepared and surprised with what has transpired, and its lack of planning and foresight has tarnished the image of China and hurt the Chinese people. The Chinese government has always been good at dealing with foreign governments on a diplomatic level, but it is a bumbling amateur when winning the people outside of its borders.

Since arriving in China in 2004, my colleagues, friends, visitors, and people living in Canada have all mentioned at some time or another, that 2008 would be the year of the protests. Even people totally unfamiliar with China knew this was coming. So how did China drop the ball?

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

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