In the months leading up to the Beijing Olympics, which began Friday, English language media have published countless stories on China and its capital. But many of these stories echo each other and few break new ground in the world’s understanding of China. Many emphasize a consistent set of outside concerns and, in portraying conflict, oversimplify the wide variety of viewpoints to be found even without leaving Beijing.
Reporting in China is not easy, and difficult conditions while pounding pavement encourage an over-reliance on the easily accessible but skewed commentary online. After the unrest in Tibet this year and demonstrations on the Olympic Torch Relay route, especially in France, a torrent of nationalist commentary and push-back emerged from people who thought China was being portrayed unfairly, and there were dozens of stories on “angry Chinese youth.”
Writers (including this one) have also written frequently about internet censorship and efforts to circumvent restrictions. In the last year, LexisNexis finds more than 350 mentions of “great firewall,” one of several ways reporters refer to China’s online controls.
But internet phenomena can only be so big in China. If the government’s July numbers are correct, the country now has 253 million internet users, more than any other country in the world. But with a population of 1.33 billion, that’s still only 19 percent of the population. That’s compared to more than 70 percent in the United States, the second largest national internet population, and a global average of 21 percent, according to Kaiser Kuo at Ogilvy.
What happens online in China, therefore, doesn’t involve most of the laobaixing, a term used widely in China to refer to “regular people.” Further, in a poll conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, more than 80 percent said they thought the internet should be controlled, and just as many said the government should be in charge of those controls.
Even if reporters do get off the internet and mingle with the 80 percent of Chinese who don’t log on, it’s impossible to tell the full story of how the laobaixing see the Olympics. But I’ll relate one story that unfolded over several weeks in my former neighborhood in central Beijing.
Across from the entrance to my alley, the flags of the Communist Party, China, and the Olympic rings flew above a small home that had until recently also been a dried fruit and beverage store. The residents had erected the flags and plastered much of the exterior with pictures of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping (whose son still lives in a large complex nearby, according to neighbors), and the current Chinese president and premier, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao.
Their home had been marked for demolition in a pre-Olympic beautification effort. In a pattern that played out dozens or hundreds of times during Olympic preparations, the residents were concerned that they might not get sufficient compensation and resisted leaving as long as possible.
On several evenings when the demolition was thought to be imminent, hundreds of neighbors and passers-by gathered on the street waiting and talking. A police van and some plain clothes officers kept an eye on the crowd most of the time, but people were outspoken and opinions divergent.
Some echoed the residents’ slogan posted atop the small home, “Premier Wen Jiabao should look out for the livelihood of the laobaixing.” Some said they thought the family should just move out, or were sympathetic but thought the Olympic flag shouldn’t be involved. Some spoke of frustration with the Olympics for making life so complicated this year in Beijing, and some said they were proud to welcome the world to their city, despite recent inconveniences. Some neighbors didn’t care one way or another about the Games but were strained by higher food prices, which they attributed to a ban on outside trucks entering Beijing. Others mused that it’s been an unusually hot summer and wondered why I kept wearing long pants.
The home was torn down in late July. The internet is still censored. Some people are enflamed about perceived anti-China statements. But if a news story makes any of this sound simple or un-nuanced, remember the multitude of opinions on one street corner.
Note: This column was prepared for a different publication that elected not to publish it. (Please forgive the lack of hyperlinks.) It was written about a week ago in Berlin, and I’m posting now from Bologna, Italy. This site will remain mellow in the coming days as I make my way to the United States, where I begin graduate school studying East Asia next month.