Tag Archives: Olympics

Olympics Journalists Say More About Their Home Country Than the Host

What have the Olympic Games done to affect the world’s discussions about China? Perhaps, very little. Instead of delving into the diversity and complexity of “China,” journalists focused on sports, especially the journalists’ home team. Cultural reporting, too, reflected the journalists’ national identities.

John Burns, a veteran foreign correspondent for The New York Times remembers today his experience running a route similar to Beijing’s Olympic marathon as the only foreign runner in 1973. He left China for the last time in 1986, as he notes, “when my second posting there for The New York Times ended with imprisonment and deportation on charges of using a motorcycle trip across the Chinese heartland as a cover for spying on the country’s missile program.”

Burns had expected to see more coverage of the type of things we saw covered during the Olympic Torch Relay. Dissidents, unrest in Tibet, the situation in Xinjiang, and the challenge of clearing the Olympic air. But he notes that the coverage he’s seen has been quite different.

In condemning the West, [Mao] said, the Chinese should be careful to distinguish between the “handful of capitalists and imperialists” who made it what it was, and the ordinary people, who were China’s friends.

It’s a dictum that can serve us, too. Whatever propaganda gains the current Chinese leadership may have sought from their multibillion-dollar Olympic extravaganza, one thing that has been beyond stage-management has been the joy and pride of ordinary Chinese that have permeated the images from Beijing, speaking more powerfully than any propaganda could of the happiness that three decades of growing prosperity have brought to a people repressed by Mao.

The key to this passage is his qualification that this joy and pride has “permeated the images from Beijing.” This implies something he doesn’t discuss: whatever exists that isn’t shown on camera, or quoted by foreign journalists.

Those journalists are unlikely to elicit completely honest opinions from the Chinese people they interview. It’s difficult to get honest comments from anyone anywhere as a journalist. People may offer opinions they haven’t thought through in an effort to appear more confident and knowledgeable than they actually are. And in China, people who have negative or unenthusiastic thoughts about the government are naturally cautious when speaking to journalists, foreign or domestic. (Nevermind the challenge of speaking frankly with someone through a translator neither of you knows well.)

I share Burns’ impression of the most-watched media during the Olympics—and I had the opportunity to watch coverage in Italy, England, and the United States. TV reports have focused on athletics and visits in Beijing ranging from slightly scripted to completely staged.

One morning, I watched with a sustained cringe as NBC’s Today Show cast interacted with “China.” Al Roker’s less than stellar performance in a segment where he began to learn Mandarin was produced with goofy music and colored by a sentiment of, “Boy, these Chinese are tough to understand!” But their bungling through Chinese culture also kept the positive, wholesome American tone of the Today Show’s normal broadcasts.

Similarly, one evening surrounding the opening ceremonies I watched on Italian TV as a singer from southern Italy who had apparently toured extensively in China interacted with shopkeepers. My initial thought was that this particular fellow was a bit brash, but in the opinion of the friend sitting next to me, his behavior was typical of Italians traveling abroad. The commentary, which I caught through some translations by my friend and some Spanish-based comprehension, was centered on the experience of being a disoriented Italian. Like the Today Show, this segment came off as warm toward China, but taught us little about Chinese people—except that one interviewee was visibly uncomfortable when the singer joked that corruption in China’s government and that under Italian President Silvio Berlusconi might have something in common.

Rather than take the opportunity to attack the difficult task of learning about China and hearing the way Chinese people view a great many things, television gave us good-hearted bumbling travel journalism. Anchors were gleefully confused, ignorantly polite (bowing is habitual in Japan, but can look out of place in China), and faux-adventurous (eating “exotic” snacks I’ve never seen outside tourist enclaves).

There remain a multitude of unheard opinions. The admiration of China’s history sought after by the opening ceremony and reinforced by neophyte reporters serves only to reinforce a narrative that had taken hold even before China was selected for the Olympics: China continues to rise as a world power in the post-Cold War era. In the political and social minds of North American and European TV viewers, for better or for worse, very little is likely to have changed.

Foreign Reporters and Scoripions at Beijing's Wangfujing

Many people from outside China marvel at what Chinese eat—or, more accurately, what you can order at tourist locations. At Wangfujing’s Snack Street in Beijing, you can order a scorpion skewer. Jim Boyce, Beijing’s leading nightlife blogger, has been tracking media mentions in horror. The truth, of course, is that virtually no one eats scorpion regularly, despite a McClatchy report claiming that Beijing is a place “where donkey and fried scorpions are considered lunch.” That’s from Jim’s latest post on the subject.

The best quote of all is from Dave Barry, who’s been writing from Beijing. (An earlier column I saw was a satirical train of clichés that made me uncomfortable despite the fact that I know he’s a satirical columnist.) Here’s Dave’s take:

The market was bustling with people. But here’s the thing. The Chinese people I saw all seemed to be buying things like lamb kebabs and fruit. On the other hand, the people gathered around the centipedes and scorpions on a stick were, in almost every case, tourists or American TV reporters doing fun features on weird Chinese food. These people were basically lining up to eat scorpions. A reporter would hold up a skewer of scorpions, and the camera person would get a close-up shot. Then the reporter would scrunch up his or her face, take a bite of a scorpion, chew, swallow, and declare that it really wasn’t that bad. Then, depending on how in-depth the feature was, the reporter might take a bite of seahorse.

I watched as this procedure was repeated with several different TV crews. Then the truth hit me: The Chinese don’t eat scorpions. They feed their scorpions to TV reporters. I would not be surprised to learn that the Chinese word for scorpion is “TV reporter food.”

Much more at Boyce.

Online Voices Aren't Everything in China

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.

Obama Says He Would Hear From Dalai Lama Before Going to Olympic Ceremony

Credit: Center for American Progress Action FundWithout saying definitively he would not attend the Olympic opening ceremony in Beijing one month from today, U.S. Senator Barack Obama said as president he would skip the ceremony without hearing from the Dalai Lama that there had been progress on the Tibet issue.

“In the absence of some sense of progress, in the absence of some sense from the Dalai Lama that there was progress, I would not have gone,” Obama said at a news conference, according to the Associated Press.

From a Chinese perspective, the statement that Obama would take cues from the Dalai Lama is quite bold and constitutes a public articulation of which side the candidate has chosen in the Dalai Lama–P.R.C. disputes. While few would be surprised to hear a Democratic candidate support human rights in Tibet, it’s diplomatically significant if enunciated.

The AP article notes that Obama had encouraged President George W. Bush to skip the ceremony, as had Senator John McCain in April.

McCain, Obama’s Republican opponent, also issued a hypothetical ultimatum, similarly saying that he would only attend the ceremony if he saw improvements on human rights issues. McCain’s April statement was in some ways stronger than Obama’s most recent one, though he did not allude to taking cues from the exiled Tibetan leader.

“If Chinese policies and practices do not change, I would not attend the opening ceremonies,” said the Arizona senator, who has clinched the GOP nomination for president. “It does no service to the Chinese government, and certainly no service to the people of China, for the United States and other democracies to pretend that the suppression of rights in China does not concern us. It does, will and must concern us.”

These statements, which apparently promise to show symbolic support in exchange for concessions on human rights issues, recall the early Bill Clinton administration principle of conditional engagement: The United States would work with China on trade in exchange for rights improvements. What the candidates haven’t mentioned is that when Clinton tried this tactic, it either failed or was abandoned in favor of, say, less-conditional engagement.

Could the candidates be reacting to George W. Bush’s friendly behavior toward China in the way that Clinton reacted to George H. W. Bush’s? The current president, for one, comes near toeing the Chinese line in his most recent statement, promising to attend the ceremony. Skipping the event would be “an affront to the Chinese people,” he said.

Wasserstrom on the History of Chinese Boycotts

In The Nation, University of California, Irvine Professor Jeffrey Wasserstrom writes on some recent and not-so-recent history of anti-foreign boycotts in China:

Between the 1910s and 1930s, several foreign powers found themselves the target of Chinese student-led boycotts. In the majority of cases, Japanese products were the ones that were shunned, in protest of Japan’s encroachments into North China. One of the biggest of these took place during the May Fourth Movement of 1919, one of the many Chinese patriotic struggles that have taken place around this time of year.

In more recent years, boycotts have remained a regular part of Chinese society. In May 1999, when I happened to be in Beijing, I saw “Don’t Buy KFC” and “Don’t Drink Coke” posters go up on local campuses soon after American bombs hit the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. In spring 2005, a series of rowdy demonstrations against Japan broke out.

These protests were triggered by talk of Tokyo getting a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and complaints about how certain Japanese textbooks treated the history of World War II. Yet again there was a call for a boycott.

So while the dueling boycotts of 2008 are linked, calls to pull out of the games and calls to refuse to shop at Carrefour have very different historical echoes and fit into different historical traditions. They also summon up some very different historical moments.

Nineteen thirty-six and 1980 have been common touchstone years in Western debates on Olympic boycotts. Those calling for action against Beijing say it is time to do what the world should have done when the Nazis played host to the games in 1936–refuse to grant legitimacy to a brutal regime. Those opposing a full or partial boycott of the Olympics like to counter by pointing out how little good it did when the US pulled out of the 1980 Moscow games.

Though Wasserstrom doesn’t mention it, probably because it’s not part of his point, the differences between the Nazis of 1936, the Soviet Union of 1980, and the People’s Republic of China in 2008 are nearly too obvious to state.