The Olympic Games will show the world a different kind of China, writes Antony Loewenstein
During last weekend’s Chinese Internet Research Conference in Hong Kong, Hu Yong, Associate Professor at Peking University, said that after the Sichuan earthquake, many people initially started watching TV instead of the internet, but a group of civilian reporters quickly emerged.
Zhang Dong-Sheng, Editor-in-chief of QQ.com, argued that the earthquake reaffirmed the ability of the Chinese press to act like real journalists, but there were still a lot of restrictions.
Zhai Minglei, Editor-in-chief of 1 Bao, said that fear is what holds the Great Firewall together. A poll by WorldPublicOpinion.org even found great Chinese dissatisfaction with their rulers. Furthermore, a recent study of Chinese bloggers reveals that they are more likely to criticise the status quo than the state-run press. Solidarity is no longer possible.
These developments are undoubtedly signs of progress in China. The debate may have been happening in Hong Kong, but authorities in Beijing are increasingly aware of the cultural shifts that the earthquake triggered. Local journalists are now being encouraged to avoid writing pieces about collapsed schools and grieving parents and instead focus on “heart-warming stories”. Officials are tolerating little dissent from the party line.
The impending Olympic Games is revealing this typically close-minded attitude of Beijing towards the foreign media. These issues receive little press in China itself, of course. According to a report in the Beijing Youth Daily, thousands of Chinese parents are currently naming their newborn babies, “Aoyun” (“Olympic Games”), challenging the once-popular “Defend China” and “Celebrate the Nation.”
The New York Times editorialised last week and expressed its displeasure towards the regime’s despotism (something likely to only convince authorities that the West believes it has the right to meddle in China’s affairs):
“There’s an inherent contradiction between China’s desire to invite the world to the Olympics and its effort to deny those [foreign] visitors — and its own people — the most basic freedoms. Last week, an I.O.C. official said he is convinced the Games would be a “force for good” in China. The committee and Western governments need to remind Beijing that the world is watching, and so far the picture isn’t good.”
The allegation by Washington lawmakers that their computers were hacked by forces inside China will only worsen the relationship between Beijing and America. Interestingly, this report appeared at around the same time:
“National security agencies are warning businesses and federal officials that laptops and e-mail devices taken to the Beijing Olympics are likely to be penetrated by Chinese agents aiming to steal secrets or plant bugs to infiltrate U.S. computer networks.”
The profound mistrust between China and the West is unlikely to improve in the run-up to the Games. For those outside Beijing’s inner elite, dissent is certainly growing and the internet is the perfect vehicle to express it. Writer intellectual Hu Ping explains:
“…Ever since the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989, a chasm has emerged between the thinking of the establishment and that of regular Chinese and the growing number of dissidents. It is hard to accept what intellectuals ‘in good standing’ with the state and the party have to say: Are they being truthful, or are they merely acting as mouthpieces for the establishment?”
What Beijing will never fully counter is the legitimate challenge to its rule in places like Tibet (as the Dalai Lama said during his recent visit to Australia.) Like other imperial powers such as Russia and America, Beijing refuses to hear alternative voices when provoked.
For those who of us who welcome Washington’s declining fortunes in the world in the years since September 11, 2001, China’s rise brings a new set of challenges. Colonialism is never transparent and the Beijing Games is sadly proving the sceptics right. As speakers contemplated at last weekend’s Chinese Internet Research Conference, one blogger described the current situation in this way:
“The defining atmosphere on the Chinese internet is one of political ideology. Not to the degree of the Mao era. This is the capitalist information age. The problem, though, is that everything that you do see on the Chinese internet is ideologically correct.”