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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.

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In Beijing, petitioners seeking redress from the central government for injustices they claim to have suffered at the hands of local authorities have been cleared out of the shanty-towns they inhabited. Many have been forcibly returned to their home provinces.

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Many nongovernmental organizations working in fields such as the environment, public health, and social welfare, and whose members are knowledgeable about such sensitive issues, are treading water until the Olympics are over, according to one foreign NGO official with wide contacts in the Chinese NGO community.

Overseas leaders of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement claimed last week that more than 1,800 of its adherents had been arrested in China in recent months in what a statement called an effort to "stamp out" its practice in advance of the Olympics.

The government's efforts to silence critics, or to prevent them from contacting foreigners, are political. But as international attention turns increasingly to China in the approach to the Games, they also reflect an even deeper desire – rooted in the country's culture – to present an attractive image that Olympic host cities normally show, Chinese and foreign analysts say.

"The Olympics mean an enormous amount to the authorities," says Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine. "They are a sign of potent expansion, of being in a league people hadn't thought they were in."

Concern about best impression

The government's obvious anxiety to create the best possible impression at the Olympics "is part of the political culture and part of the social culture," says Dr. Liu. "They are intertwined. It has a lot to do with the concept of face."

That concept, incorporating elements of a person's reputation and the respect he commands, "rules Chinese social relations," says Zheng Lihua, an intercultural expert at the Guangdong Foreign Studies University.

How much face a man – or a government – enjoys is central to his authority and legitimacy. Because face is lost if scandals are exposed, a Chinese saying that "family dirt must not be revealed" carries far more weight than its Western equivalent about washing dirty linen in public. And it extends from the family realm all the way up to matters of state.

"If I am a father and you protest, I lose face," Liu explains. "If I am a head of state, and a scandal would hurt the country, my duty is to mute any protest and defend face."

Following a widely cited sociological theory, Professor Zheng explains the importance of face by the difference between "China, which is a shame-based culture, and the West, which is guilt-based."

Though this is not a hard and fast rule, Zheng suggests, in general terms "guilt means you try to be good in the eyes of God; shame means you try to be good in the eyes of your neighbors."

However true this may or may not be, says Sidney Rittenberg, an American who lived in China for 35 years through the most tumultuous years of the Communist revolution and its aftermath, "preservation of outward dignity is all important" in Chinese society.