China’s Fight to Spin the ’08 Olympics

Beijing's preparations to host the 2008 Summer Games have spawned a number of Olympic slogans. "One World, One Dream" is the primary theme. You also see signs around town celebrating a "Green Olympics" or even a "Humanistic Olympics." But I'd like to see public commitments to a more accountable Olympics as well. To be sure, the city has undergone a stunning physical makeover. But Chinese authorities have yet to embrace the openness, transparency and media freedoms that the world has come to expect from an Olympic host.

The Beijing Olympics are almost exactly a year away. The gala opening will commence on 8:08 p.m. on the eighth day of the eighth month of 2008--playing on the Chinese belief that eight is a lucky number. But Beijing authorities are already locked in a contest of ideas. In a series of "one-year-to-go" celebrations this week, they've been highlighting the best about Beijing (or at least trying to, through a soggy haze of pollution). But China's critics are competing just as hard for attention, pointing out Beijing's shortcomings.

Today Tibetan activists abseiled down part of the fabled Great Wall, unfurling a 42-square-meter (about 134-square-foot) banner proclaiming, ONE WORLD, ONE DREAM, FREE TIBET 2008; six protesters were detained by Chinese authorities. In a luxury hotel in the city center, meanwhile, three members of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) held a packed press conference to call on the government to fulfill its Olympic promise of improved media freedoms. They distributed a 79-page report titled, "Falling Short: As the 2008 Olympics Approach, China Falters on Press Freedom," which, among other things, highlighted the plight of at least 29 imprisoned Chinese journalists.  Although CPJ Asia Program Director Bob Dietz acknowledged initial concerns that the meeting might be shut down by authorities, he said, "Colleagues said there are government representatives in the audience, but they haven't tried to stop us [yet]."

You couldn't say the same about the previous day's presser organized by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Speaking to media within sight of Olympic venues, the RSF visitors held a press conference that morphed into a guerilla protest. Demonstrators appeared on an overpass near a building used by the Beijing organizing committee for the Games (known as BOCOG), and displayed posters and T shirts showing the familiar five-ringed Olympics logo--with handcuffs instead of rings. Security guards and police moved in, temporarily detaining a number of journalists, snatching cell phones away, and trying to prevent television cameras from filming (in at least one case by obstructing the camera lens with an umbrella).

In the run-up to the Olympics, Chinese authorities should be opening up even further to international journalists, not interfering with their work. In 2001, when China was making its bid to host the Games, senior BOCOG official Wang Wei made a promise to international journalists: "We will give the media complete freedom to report when they come to China." Yet, with just one year to go before the Games, a July survey conducted by the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC) found that, among 163 respondents, 67 percent felt Beijing had so far failed to meet that pledge. (Full disclosure: I am president of the FCCC.)

The respondents reported experiencing 157 cases of interference in their reporting, from being barred from public areas to being detained to incidents of violence against correspondents, their sources and staff. Although 43 percent said reporting conditions had improved sine Jan. 1, a whopping 95 percent said reporting conditions did not meet what they consider to be international standards.

Some progress has been made, and it's welcome. For example, on Jan. 1, 2007, the government implemented new, liberalized regulations governing reporting activities by foreign correspondents during the Olympics period. But the situation for domestic Chinese journalists, meanwhile, has hardly improved--and in some ways has worsened. "With the exception of some window dressing of easing restrictions on foreign reporters, the problems [of press restrictions] have not been dealt with yet," CPJ's Dietz said. A similar message was pounded home by hard-hitting reports released this week by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

China's transparency gap affects more than just media. Without more openness, a skeptical audience may doubt if Beijing's proud pronouncements are justified, or even real. China's countdown to the Games coincides with a string of international product-safety scandals, involving massive U.S. recalls of "Made in China" exports. Here again, the official reaction in Beijing has been ambivalent. Some authorities have tightened regulations and disclosed more information about the country's quality-control regime; others have blamed Western complaints on envy and protectionist sentiment.

At least parts of the Chinese bureaucracy see the urgency of their quality-control problem, even if their measures haven't always tackled the systemic issues. The founding head of China's State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA) was executed recently for taking bribes from pharmaceutical manufacturers in return for approving their products. After unveiling new regulations requiring independent oversight of the drug-approval process, the current SFDA deputy director was quoted by local media as saying, "Transparency is the enemy of corruption."

The coming Games mean intensified pressure for change. "The leadership is keen to reduce future embarrassing incidents that tarnish the "Made in China" brand," said Drew Thomson of the Nixon Center in Washington, D.C., in recent testimony on the Hill before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. He believes China's desire to improve its governance of the food and drug sector provides the U.S. an opportunity "to strengthen collaboration, which will contribute to increased transparency as well as a safer food supply."

I hope it will, anyway. For a fast-growing nation at China's stage of development, greater transparency is the only way to appear credible. Using heavy-handed tactics and media repression to hide Beijing's ugly bits from public view is counterproductive. It simply persuades the global audience that there's a lot of ugliness to hide. And it suggests the triumphal glitter and glamor is all just for show.