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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Was China truly ready for the Olympics?

August 26, 2008

For China the Olympic Games were the most important event of the last
few decades, a showcase for its organisational capacities and proof
of its athletes' physical prowess as they triumphed in the medal
count. It was a show that the government in Beijing wanted "free of
politics" but which itself "politicised" first. Here is an analysis
by Li Datong, a Chinese journalist fired for criticising censorship.
by Li Datong*
Asia News (Italy)
August 24, 2008

Beijing (AsiaNews/OD) -- One of the questions I was asked in an
interview with the BBC the day before the Olympics opening ceremony
threw me a little: "What do you expect from the games?" After
thinking for a moment I replied: "I hope to see the very best of
sporting competition."

It may not have been the answer the reporter wanted, but it was an
honest one. The Beijing Olympics of 8-24 August 2008 are no doubt the
most political such event for decades. The Chinese hosts have a
political motivation - to showcase China's arrival as a world power
by organising the most spectacular and impressive games in history.
International media reports on the Beijing Olympics have also been
highly politicised. Both are responsible for bringing politics into
the Olympics. This bickering - born of differences in culture,
understanding of history, political systems and levels of social
development - has taken the shine off humanity's greatest sporting
event. This is regrettable and irritatine.

The opening ceremony itself also received wildly differing
evaluations in the media (including online) - and even among my own
friends. For the vast majority of viewers in China and abroad it was
a spectacular success - but for intellectuals critical of China it
was "all body and no soul", "all about the ancient and avoided the
modern" and "only looked at China, not the world." Zhang Yimou, chief
director of the ceremony, did not have full artistic freedom; in a
documentary on the approval process for the ceremony, a senior
government official is shown criticising Zhang's initial proposal as
"failing to show off the accomplishments of reform." The appearance
of the character he depicted in the representation of movable-type
printing was a nod to the Chinese government concept of a "harmonious
society" - and thus, in effect, Zhang's compromise between politics and art.

Despite tight security, foreign protestors were still able to hang
their "Free Tibet" banner on poles near the Bird's Nest stadium. On
the internet I saw photos of peaceful foreign protestors being
roughly held to the ground by police. On the first day of the games
an innocent tourist from the United States was murdered by a mentally
unstable Chinese man (who went on to kill himself). Then there are
the terrorist attacks in Xinjiang. All this has cast a shadow over
the games, and it is clear that psychologically China is not yet
mature enough to hold the Olympics - and that the west is not yet
ready to allow China to enter the Olympic club.

The old dream

Since 1896 only sixteen nations have hosted the Olympic games. Almost
all bar Mexico are industrialised nations (and in some cases) even
superpowers. The scale of the modern games means that only the
powerful and rich nations will be able to hold them for some time to
come. The west does not understand China, and is uncomfortable with
its sudden arrival in this class. The doubts raised about China's
suitability are almost entirely political.

In 1908 an article in Tiantsin Young Men asked three questions: when
would China participate in the Olympics? When would China win a gold
medal? When would China host the Olympics? These questions
demonstrated concern for China's status among intellectuals. Today
they prompt the Chinese media's description of the Olympics as a
"century-long dream". For China the Olympics are not a symbol of
sporting prowess, but of becoming a powerful nation. The country
renewed itself through three decades of economic reform and became
capable of hosting the Olympics and winning the medals - and China's
leaders decided it was time for the dream to come true.

But this decision, based only on the "hard-power" ability to organise
the event, quickly faced challenges. First, Tibetan protestors used
the global focus on the Olympics to win an unprecedented
public-relations victory and force the government to reopen talks
with representatives of the Dalai Lama. Several incidents of
disruption to the torch-relay as the Olympic flame was carried around
the world turned its journey into a humiliation. The western media
continued to apply pressure on China on the issues of human rights
and freedom of the press. Domestically, protests triggered by a range
of social injustices became a nightmare for the authorities, and
essential anti-terrorism measures were unnecessarily expanded to
control political dissidents and members of the public giving voice
to the unfair treatment they had suffered.

The new normal

History is, for China's leaders, a source of both pride and shame,
and so they are overly concerned about their and the country's
"international image". Hence there were at the opening ceremony
miming 9-year-olds and computer-generated fireworks being broadcast
to the screens of the world, while the "protest parks" were empty.
The leaders fail to understand that the fakery casts genuine
achievements into doubt, and their clumsy cover-ups bring only
greater dishonour.

In fact, China's leaders did at one time better understand the
reality of the political scene. The late politicians Hu Yaobang and
Zhao Ziyang once openly said "we must get used to governing while the
public oppose and demonstrate", and "we must learn to govern despite
small or medium-scale disorder." Unfortunately this vision and
psychological readiness was brought to an end by the Tiananmen Square
incident in 1989 and has not yet returned. China's leaders need to
reform their own view of what is the "normal" state of a nation.

But when frictions have arisen with the west, the Chinese government
has always compromised - even in a way that is forced, unwilling and
inauthentic. This reflects the government's desire for acceptance and
respect as an important member of international society, a sentiment
that itself is essential in helping to make further reform possible.

When China's leaders can calmly face up to domestic and international
protesters, and when China's president can get as excited about a
sporting event as his United States counterpart, rather than sitting
ramrod straight . . . then we can say "China is ready"!

* Li Datong is a Chinese journalist who worked for Bingdian (Freezing
Point), a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily, one of the most
influential papers in the country. In January 2006 he was fired for
criticising censorship and the party's influence on the press. This
article has also appeared in Open Democracy (  www.openDemocracy.net).
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