Three years ago, China and the Beijing Olympics were already on my mind. I was at Harvard University for a reunion of fellows at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism – I was a fellow in 1999. A tempest had swelled over a decision for the foundation to sponsor a weeklong training session for Chinese government officials on how to handle the media during the Olympics. You read that right. The Chinese were asking the U.S. media to give them tools to manipulate the media better. Well, that's my view. It was also the view of a journalist from China, a 1996 Nieman fellow, who said: “The Chinese know that democracy is their enemy… they want to know how to deal with the press… they want to know how to lie to the press.”
Four months later, I traveled to China – visiting Beijing, Xian, Shanghai and Hong Kong as part of a three-week study tour for a small number of U.S. journalists. When a Beijing official began his spiel about the Olympics, I didn't pass up the chance to ask about that training – and a pledge the Chinese made in their 2001 bid for the Olympics for more openness and press freedom.
I thought I saw steam rising from his head. He snapped that the American press had made too much of the matter, and it wasn't worth commenting on. I pressed, but got nothing but a look that said “How dare you” and a signal that our interview was over.
Don‘t believe the hype
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I got an inkling then that for all the hype and promises of openness and media access – fostered by the coming Olympics and by the country's explosive economic growth – the notion was little more than printed words and speeches. That has been highlighted in the run-up to the Olympics, reaching a crescendo this week with Chinese paramilitary police beating and kicking two Japanese journalists trying to cover an assault by Muslim separatists in China that left 16 people dead. Police also forced a French photographer to delete photos of the beatings.
The government has blocked Internet sites, and last March during riots in Tibet, China closed Tibet to all foreign reporters unwilling to join closely monitored trips. That area is still closed.
All this gives lie to China's Olympics bid promise to “give the media complete freedom to report on anything when they come to China.”
So today's Olympics begins with a cloud of more than the perpetual smog that envelopes Beijing on a daily basis. The transformation China is undergoing will provide an eye-opening backdrop for many who haven't been there in the last few years and haven't paid much attention to media reports. There's much to be impressed by – especially visually – in modern-day China. The Chinese spared no expense in making Olympic venues spectacular.
But the autocracy that is China remains intact, and even during the Olympics that fact should not be forgotten. President Bush acknowledged it in a speech Thursday in Thailand. He pushed for a free press, free assembly and labor rights in China, and – at last – spoke out forcefully against China's continuing repressions of its own citizens – its detentions of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists. He's set to be in Beijing for opening ceremonies today.
Stinging from the criticism, the Chinese shot back: “The Chinese government puts people first, and is dedicated to maintaining and promoting its citizens' basic rights and freedom,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang.
That's their story and they're sticking to it. How naïve of us to think “training” or the Olympics would change that.
Change – up to a point
Change, though, has come to China, and amid the competitions and the pomp and circumstance of the Olympic, the world will get a chance to see a lot of that. The gleaming and seemingly never-ending expanse of skyscrapers, the clogs of cars competing with bicycles and the throngs of people on Beijing streets will bring this superpower to life.
In that stunning venue, the games will become even more exciting for some. So enjoy the Olympics. Cheer on your favorite athletes. I certainly will. But don't forget that more than games are on view.