China’s PR Olympics

I hope that when the International Olympic Committee meets in its cushy offices on the shores of Lake Geneva to do its postmortem of this year’s games, they have the honesty to admit that the choice of Beijing as Olympic host was a huge mistake (they won’t, of course). While the Chinese people certainly have the Olympic spirit running through their veins (and the Chinese athletes have probably had an IV drip in place since they were seven), the Chinese government did exactly what many human rights activists feared. I’ve already written about all the reasons why China should not have been awarded the games, so on the heels of the Olympic closing ceremony, let’s look at the results.

After enduring what seemed like plagues of Biblical proportions in the months running up to the Olympics (the earthquake, locusts, tons of algae covering the Olympic sailing venue, choking pollution and more), China overcame them all to put on a blockbuster show for the world. The opening ceremony dazzled fans and critics alike, but the “One World” theme would have been profoundly more meaningful if China would actually let its citizens join the rest of the world rather than surrounding them with firewalls.

Every aspect of the Olympic production was carefully orchestrated to show that China deserves to stand alongside the other nations of the world, and to showcase what China has to offer. Unfortunately, this $40 billion spectacle was created on the backs of the Chinese citizens, who the government spared no opportunity to repress in the interest of global PR. Whether it was the thousands of dissidents who were preemptively arrested prior to the influx of outside reporters, the hundreds of thousands of Beijing residents who were displaced to make way for Olympic venues without compensation, or the “undesirables” — the homeless, beggars, and street vendors — who were rounded up and sent to detention centers, I cannot look at the beautiful stadiums without thinking about the price extracted by the government to erect them.

The Chinese Olympic Committee provided assurances that things would change if they were awarded the games. They would open more access to the internet, offer opportunities for protest, allow outside reporters to have freedom in what they reported. This resulted in temporary access to some Western media sources online, which has now been clamped closed. The protest zones were empty, not because everybody was suddenly happy, but because the government arrested everyone who applied for a permit to demonstrate, including two elderly Chinese women, who were sentenced to a year in a labor camp, and at least eight American bloggers and activists sentenced to 10 days in detention. If anything, the iron fist of the government tightened during the Olympics rather than loosened.

Along the way, though, the Chinese government’s carefully constructed PR facade started showing some chinks in its armor (pun definitely NOT intended!). It was revealed that the opening ceremony’s technically amazing fireworks display included some CGI effects. A picture perfect girl was actually lip-synching to the beautiful voice of another girl, who had been deemed too unattractive to represent China. The children representing the 56 ethnic groups in China were all from the Han majority. Many sold-out events were played in front of half-filled stands to prevent the gathering of large uncontrollable crowds. And the question remains whether the Chinese government issued passports to underage gymnasts so they could compete on behalf of the country.

All this is not to say that the Olympics themselves were defective. To the contrary, the athletes that gathered from all over the world to compete exemplified the best of Olympic values, and bear no complicity in the shameful activities of the Chinese government’s preparations for the games.

Now it’s back to business as usual for China — though with a shiny new veneer of acceptability by many of the world’s citizens. We can hope that the brief encounter that the Chinese people had with the free world will be a catalyst for change from within. But none of the world’s leaders — including President Bush, who attended the opening ceremony in Beijing — have said much to counter the PR cover-up. The athletes who joined Team Darfur, or others who might have felt free to make a political statement in any other country, avoided any controversial statements, worried that, like Joey Cheek, their visas would be revoked and they would not be allowed to compete.

China definitely got what it wanted out of the deal. And the rest of us got a spin job.

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