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Leslie Harris

Leslie Harris

Posted: July 31, 2008 06:40 PM

General Potemkin's Olympic Village


The revelation that China has reneged on its promise to allow journalists covering the Olympics unfettered Internet access has provoked a firestorm of protest around the world. But the move should take no one by surprise.

Any casual China watcher understands that media control stands at the heart of the governments' grip on power. The real surprise is that anyone believed that China would honor this commitment at the end of the day. It now appears that at least the International Olympics Committee never really did. The IOC approved this deal with a wink and a nod and then stood by impotently as an unrepentant China boldly engaged in a masterful slight of hand a week before the Games, replacing the Olympic village with a Potemkin Village, complete with fake Internet access and a press corp, herded into a censored corral.

The Chinese government seems impervious to the criticism, and why not? They know that the Games, the athletes, media and attendees are now hostage to the venue. "Our country, our rules," Beijing seems to be saying. There's little to be done now short of boycotting the Games and there's no chance that happens.

Ironically, Potemkin built his fake villages to demonstrate to the foreign leaders accompanying Catherine the Great that the newly conquered Crimea was well on the way to becoming civilized. The dignitaries rode through towns that were little more than stage sets with carefully placed "shepherds" driving their flocks from town to town.

The world is coming to China and the country needed no Potemkin to showcase the wonders of its rich and ancient civilization, its welcoming and talented people, and its rising economic power. But the Chinese government's fear that any praise of its accomplishments might be laced with criticism has cast a pall on the country's coming out party. Like a Potemkin Village, things will not be as they appear at first blush. But this time, the hundreds of thousands of visitors riding through the stage set will know the truth.

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