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.
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.
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.
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.
Chinese national dignity has been badly trampled over the last two centuries, most humiliatingly during the 100 years following the Opium War in 1840.
The United States, European nations, and Japan used their military might to enforce their will in trade and other matters, and once-proud Chinese emperors proved powerless to resist. For more than a decade, the Japanese Imperial Army subjugated large swaths of Chinese territory.
Reasserting Chinese unity
When Mao Zedong declared in 1949 – when his Communist party took control of China – that "the Chinese people have stood up," he based much of his regime's prestige on that achievement.
The ruling Communist Party can no longer boast of victories over social inequality, corruption, or the other evils it battled 60 years ago but which have resurfaced in today's China, says Mr. Wasserstrom.
But hosting this year's Olympics "fits perfectly into the narrative … of reasserting Chinese unity and its place in the world," he says.
With the Games playing such an important symbolic political role for Beijing, officials have been quick to accuse opponents, such as the Dalai Lama, of deliberately trying to sabotage the event – as heinous a crime as his alleged pursuit of Tibetan independence.
That is a message that many ordinary Chinese citizens – raised in schools that systematically blame foreigners for all of China's historical ills – are quick to understand and sympathize with.
Despite tightly controlled access to Western reporting, the outpouring of anger against Western coverage of Tibetan unrest that has flooded Chinese websites in recent days indicates how close to the surface lies a strong strain of nationalism.
A clue to how closely Chinese citizens identify themselves with their nation lies in the two Chinese characters combined to signify the word for nation: they are guo and jia, meaning "country" and "family."
"When China comes in for foreign criticism, in our hearts we take it personally as individuals," explains Zheng.
Though Chinese citizens are free with their own criticisms of the authorities when they talk among themselves, says Mr. Rittenberg, "they tend to feel that criticism from outside is anti-China and an attempt to constrain China."
With China's modern history of foreign humiliation deeply inculcated by schoolbooks and government propaganda, "they say that 'our problems are our problems and we'll handle them in our own way in our own time,' " Rittenberg adds.
Seventy-four percent of Chinese are "extremely excited" about the upcoming Olympic Games, according to an opinion survey carried out last January by two Western marketing companies. They are just as keen as their rulers that the Games should be a success, and just as sensitive to issues of face.
Internationally, however, the Chinese authorities may meet with less understanding, warns Wasserstrom. "The Olympic Games pose a dilemma for the government," he says. "They really want them to go off without a hitch, but if their efforts to keep things clean are too heavyhanded, the story will become how controlled everything is. The government risks becoming its own worst enemy."