After long months of controversy, the Olympic Summer Games will finally open in Beijing next week. However, the world’s eyes are on not the athletes but on the Chinese authorities and the way they handle protests, which will inevitably be held.
The danger is that China will overreact, as it tends to do. If so, the Olympics, instead of being China’s coming out party, may leave China with a worse international image than before, something that would be bad for it and the rest of the world.
The manhandling on July 25 of Hong Kong journalists trying to cover the chaotic scenes of people scrambling to buy Olympic tickets is a warning of what could lie ahead. The way the media is treated is particularly sensitive since Beijing had promised the International Olympics Committee when it won the right back in 2001 to hold the Games that the press would have total freedom in which to operate.
So far, the signs are that this will not be the case. Key international Web sites, including those of the BBC and of Hong Kong’s Apple Daily, were not accessible to reporters in the Chinese capital on Sunday, despite official promises that all Web sites and pages were available.
If Beijing fails to deliver on its promise, the media will really go to town. News of censorship will dominate the front pages and the actual sporting events will be relegated to the back pages.
The Chinese government has announced that public protests will only be permitted within three city parks during the Olympics and that would-be demonstrators must first apply for permits from the police.
It remains to be seen whether foreign protesters would abide by such rules and, if they do, whether permits would be issued.
The restriction of protests to designated parks is reminiscent of what happened to the much publicized Democracy Wall in Beijing in the late 1970s. After it had served its purpose by undermining Deng Xiaoping’s political rivals for power, wall posters were banned on the streets and allowed only inside one park. Predictably, the restrictions led to the shriveling and death of the wall poster movement.
Despite the limitations on protesters, such is the political environment in Beijing that it would be a step forward if the authorities were to allow even limited demonstrations during the Games and to continue the practice after the Olympics end.
Of course, if the police do not approve any permits, then the world will quickly see through the designation of demonstration sites for the farce that it is.
In the next few weeks, during the staging of the Olympics and the Paralympics, Chinese officials must rein in their public security people, who normally override all other departments. Beijing must understand that the worst thing that can happen is not to be embarrassed but to be caught trying to censor the media. It must simply thicken its skin and allow the media to shine lights into dark corners. If there are embarrassments, so be it.
One positive sign, ironically, is the way Beijing handled the claim by an obscure militant group calling itself the Turkestan Islamic Party. The group claimed credit for attacks in various parts of the country in recent months, including fatal bus bombings, and declared that it would carry out a jihad against the Olympic Games.
“We will try to attack Chinese central cities severely using tactics that have never been employed,” the Islamic group warned ominously. In a separate communication, it threatened suicide bombings and the use of biological weapons.
The Chinese government has been saying for months that the Olympics may be the target of terrorist attacks, especially by Muslim Uighur separatists in Xinjiang, in western China. The acknowledgment by the militant group seemed a godsend, justifying Beijing’s tough security measures.
But instead of capitalizing on these assertions, China dismissed them, saying the aim of the Islamic organization was simply to worry the public and upset the Olympics. Chinese police said there was no evidence so far the various incidents that have occurred were related to terrorists.
This was a smart thing to do. In the long run, it will give the government greater credibility each time it announces the uncovering of separatist groups or the arrest of people on suspicion of plotting against the Games.
Hopefully, China is learning that truth is the firmest pillar on which to rest its case. And the media should be given a chance to ascertain for itself the distinction between truths and falsehoods.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator. E-mail him at Frank.firstname.lastname@example.org.