Beijing 2008: Where Will the Media Stand?

Posted by Filed Under: News and Opinion

flagsThere’s nothing like the prospect of prohibiting free speech to rile up the media. In a short span of days, the British Olympic Association’s inept and naive move to prohibit their athletes from criticizing China during the Olympics went from “You’re gagged,” to “ummm … we’re thinking twice about it” to “You’re free to speak,” as the Association backpedaled in the face of an onslaught of critical press and outrage.
This public relations snafu captures succinctly the giant media mess that these Games will, and already do, represent. The enormous social, political and economic issues at stake, for China and the world, mean that many are going to be sensitive about what is said and many others are going to take advantage of that sensitivity. These Games are a legitimizing “coming-out-party” for the newest global superpower. When many look at China, they see an economic miracle that has brought hope and hundreds of millions out of abject poverty. Others see the stubborn persistence of a regime that continues to violate human rights and represents the greatest new threat to the world.

countdown clock BeijingThe Chinese believe it is unfair to raise the spectre of Communism, or even the Mao card anymore. Many Chinese are understandably proud of their recent physical and economic accomplishments and are genuinely at peace with the pace of reform in their country. While the West howls about the shameful lack of journalistic freedom in an unapologetically authoritarian regime, Chinese citizens will point to the economic growth of the past 30 years as well as the continuous spread of reforms that have allowed for more personal space and freedom.

A Complicated Situation
Beyond the moral quandary of what to make of China—friend, foe, or something in-between, what complicates this situation even more is that the Chinese government and people are sensitive about criticisms and perceptions of their country and their Olympics. Having been in China when the Olympics were announced and then again last fall, I can say that most jaded Westerners simply cannot understand the socio-political importance of these Games to China. Heaped onto this messy plate are international economic issues, as every nation in the world is working hard to keep good relations with the newest superpower. Nothing about “China relations” is particularly easy or black-and-white.

However, any attempt at a gag order is foolish on multiple fronts. Even if athletes say nothing but positive things, certainly every journalist looking for a negative angle will find one and the activists who have made Chinese human rights a mission will make sure those journalists are supplied with information. For a country as enormous, diverse and complex as China, there is no shortage of positive or negative stories and so much depends on the biases, beliefs and agendas of those going to the Games. (ESPN has already shown its leaning with several less than flattering stories already.) If the government tries to limit what is said, or in any way attempts to control it, that attempt will then become the issue that overwhelms every other story.

I have no doubt that this could be one of the finest run Olympics ever, and the Chinese will do everything imaginable to make sure everyone is impressed. However, even if the Olympics are a machine of efficiency, goodwill and PR mastery, and are bereft of political statements from those who gain the attention of the lens, I see no way that China will avoid a large amount of commentary centering on the country’s appalling environmental situation.

A Tough Environment for Athletic Competition
smogEven without cars and factories, Beijing’s climate in August is two degrees short of horrendous—hot, muggy and oppressive. It is just about the worst environment for elite athletes. And unlike Atlanta, Beijing will be hobbled further with suffocating pollution that thickens the already dense air, creating a situation that is, at times, unbearable even for casual sports. The authorities have enacted plans to keep half of Beijing’s cars off the roads during the Olympics but so far, they have not convinced factory owners in the bordering upwind province to shut down their factories two weeks before and during the Games. Last year Jacques Rogge warned that “endurance events such as the marathon could be postponed or cancelled to protect competitors from the poor air pollution.” If “weekend warriors” cannot cope with the mid-day suffocation, what can we expect from the world’s finest athletes? Those in outdoor sports certainly will not be pleased, and I’d wager against many world records.

Whether the topic is competitive conditions, pervasive pollution, human rights, the Chinese athlete-factory system, or simply commentary from reporters unaccustomed to conditions in non-developed nations, there is the potential for a lot of negativity to come out of these Games. One ill-advised gag order only stirs an already simmering pot further. For China-watchers everywhere, this summer is going to be a fascinating media event and it would serve the government well to quit attempting to control what it cannot and to dial down expectations within China for an overwhelmingly positive international response. The same goes for the Olympic teams. While there is a point to be made about the selfish moves of making individualistic, antagonistic political statements when you are a representative of a nation and a team, Olympic committees would be wise to pursue these goals in a less controlling manner that better illustrates the values we hold dear.

  1. Mark Iocchelli on February 18th at 9:52 am

    wow. Thanks for such a well-balanced, thought out piece. I admit my initial reaction to this situation was l lot more biased against China than it is now. There is a lot to think about here.

    The one thing that really distressed me here is that an “evolved” country like Britain would strip away the rights of ITS athletes to bow down to China’s will. Disturbing.

    I’m been to your blog. Fascinating stuff you are writing there. I will take a deeper look once I’m over the flue.

  2. Nora on February 20th at 3:03 pm

    Yep, wow.

    I think what this really drives home is the fact that nothing is cut and dry, and there will be a lot to consider when following the coverage. I think no matter where you stand on any of the issues, it just goes to show that you need to try to be as well-informed as you can before reacting.

  3. 21stCenturyMom on February 23rd at 2:40 pm

    I have so much contempt for the Chinese governement. You did a great with this piece, pointing the way without offering your own judgement and your conclusion is 100% spot on. The Chinese can only make my contempt and the contempt of other worse by trying to control the media and the athletes.

  4. gia on February 28th at 1:07 am

    a very well written out piece..I am a highschool student doing a debate on this moot, and I am on the more difficult, affirmative side of the argument of the gag order, this piece gave me some great ideas for my speech and helped me understand the situation very much in depth.
    thanks a lot!

  5. Rimal on February 28th at 1:59 am

    Yes, thanks a lot for this very interesting and informative piece.

    I the same as the above person have to do a debate on this moot, but I am on the negative side. Thanks again for this piece of work.

    The person above me, is your school competing in the Auckland School Debating

  6. Jonathan on February 29th at 6:09 am
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