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For China, Olympics are a time to display – and to conceal

As Olympic torch relay gets under way, officials are keenly attune to the face China presents to the world.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 31, 2008

Tradition: Greek actress Maria Nafpliotou lighted the Olympic torch at a hand-over ceremony in Athens on Sunday. The torch arrives in Beijing Monday and leaves for its international tour Tuesday. Protests are expected at many of its stops before it gets to Hong Kong on May 2.

John Kolesidis/REUTERS

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On a Beijing street a few weeks ago, a man began to beat his wife. A small crowd gathered, but nobody intervened until an American leaned from his apartment window overlooking the scene and began to shoot photos.

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Noticing him, a spectator stepped up to the assailant and told him to stop. "There's a foreigner taking pictures," he pointed out.

As the Olympic torch gets under way this week in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games – the proudest moment in modern Chinese history and a symbol of the country's return as a major player to the international stage – that incident sheds light on one of the Beijing authorities' key concerns as they prepare to welcome the world.

Outsiders must not be allowed to see anything that reflects badly on the government or the country – such as dissidents' complaints or the unrest in Tibet – which would lose both of them face.

The Beijing Games, expected to draw half a million foreign visitors and over 20,000 journalists next August, offer China an unmatched opportunity to display its extraordinary achievements over the past 30 years.

The government is keen to show how its economic development policies have pulled 400 million people out of poverty, how it has transformed Beijing into a modern, vibrant, and international city studded now with futuristic Olympic facilities, and how open the country is to intercourse with the rest of the world.

"Chinese leaders want the country to be more international, which means being put in the limelight. But the light is very hot," says Liu Junning, a liberal intellectual at the China Cultural Research Institute.

"It will be a time not just to show, but also to hide," he cautions. "That mind-set is deeply rooted in Chinese culture."

It is also typical of a secretive and authoritarian state founded on Marxist-Leninist principles, even one that has discarded most of its ideological baggage, suggests Gérémie Barmé, an Australian historian.

"The desire to represent an idealized reality overlaps with underlying Chinese traditions and morality," he argues. "They reinforce each other in a very powerful way," unlike, for example, in Taiwan, where a democratic political system unmasks awkward truths.

Stepped-up control of dissent

Signs of the Chinese government's sensitivity to potentially embarrassing moments have been clear for some months. Individuals and groups that might provide outsiders with evidence of shortcomings in Chinese society have been progressively silenced.

An official campaign against human rights activists and lawyers has been stepped up: a growing number complain of having been harassed or detained and one of China's most prominent and vocal activists, Hu Jia, was put on trial two weeks ago on charges of "subverting state power."

Foreign journalists have been banned for more than a fortnight from entering Tibet and Tibetan-inhabited areas of western China, preventing them from talking with disaffected Tibetans.