Back in 2001, Wang Wei, the head of Beijing's 2008 Olympic bid campaign famously told the International Olympic Committee "We will give the media complete freedom to report when they come to China." The motto of the Beijing bid delegation was "New Beijing, Great Olympics," promising a slow but steady improvement of human rights in China and hinting at democratization. The IOC, a body who historically awards the Games to cities that are not only ready, but cities that also need to develop, practically salivated at the idea of a Beijing Olympics and all that it would represent. As ESPN's Jim Caple wrote in an editorial Tuesday:
The four other finalists for the 2008 Olympics were Paris; Toronto; Osaka, Japan; and Istanbul, Turkey; each is a fine, attractive city, and all are most certainly less controversial than Beijing. We would not see "Free Saskatchewan" protests leading up to Toronto. But that's precisely the point: Whether it was the IOC's intention or not, due to all the surrounding sagas, Beijing has made the Olympics interesting again.
And this couldn't be more true. Beijing has certainly made the Games "interesting." But as the Games draw near, what has been most "interesting" is not China's coming-out party, but how China has reneged on all of its promises for the Summer Games, pulling off a swindle of Olympic proportions.
In just the last week, we have witnessed the sad reality of reporters in the official Beijing Olympics Main Press Center going online to do research for their stories only to discover that numerous sites they relied on had been blocked. The Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday that its own Olympics blog had been blocked by the Chinese government and that hundreds of other sites would be censored, not in the hotels or in Olympic housing, but in the press tents. As of Wednesday, MSN's Taiwan site, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Huffington Post, and numerous Falun Gong and Free Tibet sites remain blocked not only for the Chinese people, but for the Olympic press as well.
If you cling naively to any hope that the IOC will swoop in like Superman and demand the Chinese keep their pre-Olympic promises, don't hold your breath. The IOC, we learned this week, struck a deal with the Chinese government to allow sensitive non-Olympic-related websites to be blocked during the Games. IOC press chief Kevan Gosper told the press, "I regret that it now appears BOCOG (Beijing Organizing Committee) has announced that there will be limitations on Web site access during Games time. I also now understand that some IOC officials negotiated with the Chinese that some sensitive sites would be blocked on the basis they were not considered Games related." Rather than stand up to China on press freedom during the Olympics, our international Olympic body shamefully cowered and became complicit with the censors.
But that wasn't even the worst incident in the world of press freedom this week.
On Monday, two Japanese reporters covering a grenade attack that killed 16 people at a border patrol station in western China's Xinjiang province were beaten by local Chinese police. One told his network in Japan, "My face was pushed into the ground, my arm was twisted and I was hit two or three times in the face." While the Chinese government apologized Tuesday, the event shows that Chinese officials, on both local and national levels, have been trained to react violently, particularly when it comes to what they consider dangerous press freedom. Perhaps the Japanese reporters should have known better than to cover a terrorist attack in the Olympic host country four days before the Olympics.
China makes no mistake about it. They're not going to let a little thing like the Olympics change their ways. The news story receiving the least attention this week that deserved the most was from China's state news service Xinhua titled "Press freedom shall not go above laws." Xinhua, which is merely a mouthpiece for the government, justifies all crackdowns on subversive websites (like the Philadelphia Inquirer) on the basis that Chinese law outranks freedom of the press. Here is a piece from the story:
Journalistic freedom, at any time, is a relative but not absolute conception. Even for the media in the United States, contempt of court and violation of citizen's privacy are banned by laws....
The openness to media complies with both international conventions and the Chinese laws. Just like other countries, China regulates the Internet according to law.
The Chinese laws forbid anyone to spread illegal information, such as preaching an evil cult like the Falungong, or do anything that harms national interests through the Internet.
It appears China is actually for an unfettered freedom of the press, as long as that freedom doesn't conflict with Chinese law, which expressly limits the freedom of the press.
We have all been duped. The IOC, NBC, reporters working in China, those who love the Olympics, all of us. The Chinese government made essential and unequivocal promises they had no intention of keeping in order to win the right to put on the show that starts Friday. By not demanding a free press during the Games, the rest of the world has conspired with China, allowing it to conduct business as usual, shutting off anything and everything thought to "harm national interests." We have given China the immense power to censor, not just for its own people, but now for ours.
And two weeks from now, after the Games have ended, China will be more powerful than it's ever been.