China feels heat of Olympic flame

Times Staff Writer

In the shadow of the $440-million “bird’s nest” Olympic stadium, migrant workers toil for a few dollars a day. A few miles away, bulldozers destroy a neighborhood where petitioners gather to seek justice from the government. Farther afield, foreign journalists endure sporadic harassment despite promised press freedoms, with Chinese reporters, bloggers and activists facing far greater restrictions.

As Beijing prepares for the 2008 Summer Olympics in August, planners hope the outside world sees the glam architecture and ignores the poverty and social tension in the shadows.

“The Chinese way to say it is, we’re looking for ‘big face’ from the Games,” said Liu Junning, an analyst with the Chinese Cultural Studies Institute in Beijing.


New concerns emerged Tuesday when film director Steven Spielberg announced his withdrawal as artistic advisor for the Games over China’s support for the Sudanese government despite ongoing violence in the Darfur region.

The public relations blow came as eight Nobel Prize winners, 119 U.S. lawmakers and several entertainers signed a letter urging Chinese leaders to use their “significant influence” with the African nation to halt the genocide.

China doesn’t have a monopoly on attracting the anger of activists or on attempting to put its best foot forward. But the enormous gap in this restless country between wealthy 21st century cities and benighted 19th century rural areas, between egalitarian rhetoric and the reality of today’s cutthroat capitalism, raises the stakes.

Beijing is working much harder to airbrush out the negatives than previous Olympic hosts, reflecting in part a regime accustomed to controlling its media and critics.

“It’s a legitimate question whether China should spend these huge sums on the Olympics when 900 million farmers are still very poor,” said Zhou Xiaozheng, a sociologist at People’s University in Beijing. “But after emerging from a century of revolutions, wars and political movements, the government sees this as a landmark opportunity to gain recognition from the outside world.”

Although China often touts its 5,000-year history, the Games are in many ways a celebration of rebirth. All the rushed building projects and rapid-fire politeness campaigns are pixels in an image Beijing is keen to project: that a newly confident and prosperous China, increasingly engaged on the world stage, has shed centuries of isolation and internal turmoil to assume its rightful place at the big table.


Even as it struts its stuff, however, China is trying to send a somewhat contradictory message: Sure, the panda is huge, but it’s still cuddly.

By introducing 500,000 foreign visitors to its culture, food, hospitality and friendly people, and gaining global television exposure, planners hope to reinforce the message that Beijing’s rapid economic rise and military expansion are not a threat to its neighbors or the global order, and that it’s about more than money.

Downplaying its rapid ascent is not only good public relations, it is a key element of its development strategy. China needs enough time without foreign conflict to build wealth and solve its many domestic problems. Only then will it become a leading nation and, many here secretly hope, supplant the United States sometime this century as global kingpin.

On the domestic front, the Olympics provide a Communist Party more and more worried about its monopoly on power a way to unify an increasingly diverse and cynical population behind a shared vision at a time of growing social tension, land grabs and entrenched corruption.

“The Olympics are certainly a good diversion from China’s problems,” said Joseph Cheng, a professor at City University of Hong Kong. “They’re also seen as a way to promote nationalism and legitimize the regime.”

China isn’t alone in using the Olympics for domestic purposes, some say.

“Having been at the 1984 Los Angeles opening ceremony standing near President Reagan, I can tell you every country exploits the feel-good aspect, and often well before opening day,” said David Wolf, Beijing-based president of Wolf Group Asia, a public relations company. “What China is more saying is, ‘This is what we can accomplish if we work together.’ ”


As Chinese bureaucrats try to anticipate every detail, however, two areas they may not be able to control are giving them headaches -- protesters and the environment.

But that hasn’t stopped them from trying.

The way Beijing sees it, it’s got a pretty good story to tell. In the last quarter-century, the country has raised 400 million people out of poverty, filled the world’s shelves with affordable consumer goods and become a model for the Third World.

But a recurrent fear is that a few civic groups, including activists for Tibetan and Taiwanese independence; human rights organizations; media freedom groups; and the banned Falun Gong will use the Olympics to humiliate China.

The government is haunted by the prospect that the $38 billion it has spent on the Games and related projects, its meticulous preparation and bid for global accolades, could be undone by a few images of banner-waving protesters getting roughed up by police.

Spielberg’s announcement that he would stop advising Beijing brings him closer to Darfur activists who had accused him of sanitizing China’s image.

“I find that my conscience will not allow me to continue with business as usual,” Spielberg said in a statement.


In New York, actress Mia Farrow tried to find a Chinese official willing to accept the Darfur letter signed by Nobel Prize recipients and lawmakers (Spielberg opted to issue his statement separately). She finally slipped it under the door of the Chinese Consulate.

Jody Williams, a signatory and 1997 Nobel Peace Prize recipient for her campaign against land mines, said by telephone from Virginia that the group was aware its approach could make China more defensive, but “trying to talk to them politely has not borne much fruit.”

China sells arms to and purchases substantial oil from Sudan, where, according to United Nations’ estimates, 200,000 to 400,000 people have died and 2.5 million have been displaced because of the conflict. Tuesday’s letter acknowledged Beijing’s support for a U.N. resolution to deploy peacekeepers to Darfur, but said it didn’t go far enough.

“China wants to be a big power, but it also wants everyone to shut up and do things their way,” Williams said. “The world doesn’t work that way.”

China did not immediately respond to the latest developments. But an article in the leading Communist Party newspaper in late January said China would never compromise its core interests and blasted critics. China faces “accusations from all over the world, including misunderstandings, sarcasm and very harsh criticism,” the article said, adding that the actions hurt the feelings of China’s 1.3 billion people.

“It remains an open question how China can manage these so-called troublemakers,” said Patrick Horgan, managing director of Apco Worldwide, a consulting company. “The potential for difficulty in that area is high. It’s a real challenge for China indeed.”


Beijing is particularly worried about demonstrations.

In August, the Paris-based media group Reporters Without Borders staged an unauthorized news conference across from the Beijing Olympics media headquarters in a bid to draw attention to the 33 journalists and 55 dissidents in Chinese jails. Several reporters covering the event were harassed or detained, and members of the group were deported.

This followed a promise by China in early 2007 to give foreign media “complete freedom to report.” Foreign news outlets report continued surveillance, intimidation of sources, detention and, in several cases, assaults on reporters or their sources.

Beijing has also stepped up intelligence-gathering on activist groups, created a database of 8,000 foreign reporters, increased its use of cameras and listening devices, tightened visa requirements and run its police and community groups through special training programs, media reports say.

The second area where all of China’s planning overdrive may fall short is the environment. The World Bank reported in July that at least 460,000 Chinese die prematurely each year from breathing polluted air and drinking dirty water. Its original estimate of 750,000 deaths was reportedly downgraded under pressure from Beijing. According to the World Health Organization, China has 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities.

In an effort to blunt the bad publicity over its environment, China is forcing factories to relocate, and plans to restrict vehicles and temporarily halt some manufacturing during the Olympics.

“We’re reasonably confident for the half-month in August Beijing will have its clean air,” said Yang Ailun, an air-quality campaigner with Greenpeace China. “But what sort of long-term solution is that?”


Beijing is also hoping -- atheist governments don’t pray, at least officially -- for rain shortly before the Games and a stiff wind to drive the noxious air away so athletes can compete without developing respiratory problems. In a bid to ensure that nature cooperates, Chinese scientists have been honing their rain-seeding and rain-mitigating technology.

“I’d give them better odds on controlling the weather than the Falun Gong,” said Cheng of the City University of Hong Kong.

Times staff writer Rachel Abramowitz in Los Angeles contributed to this report.