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This is one of the final posts on the Beijing Olympics Blog – the experiment is coming to an end, and to be honest, since getting back from China Bob has found it hard to summon up the time and enthusiasm to keep posting. To sign off it’s time to review the Beijing Olympics and Paralympics, identify lessons to be learnt for London 2012, and on a personal level to review the blogging experiment.

So, lessons for London 2012.

Don’t over-price

Despite the attention on empty seats and ticket touts it certainly seemed to Bob that most events were well attended by Chinese fans who were thrilled to be there. Bob watch Christine Ohuruogu win the 400m gold sat high in the stands next to a man from rural Shanxi province who had bought just one ticket and was determined to enjoy the night. The lack of Chinese athletes did not dampen his spirits, but prompted him to join Bob in cheering anyone British. He even had a stab at ‘God Save The Queen’!

Don’t over-price tickets in London, make international sport accessible for all.

Don’t get too obsessed by the medals table

This is something that the Beijing organisers were guilty of. There has been a great recognition of the advancement of Chinese elite sport leading up to the Olympics, and while this will undoubtedly inspire uptake of sport across the country most reports suggest that grass roots sport has not been promoted (see China Review 43 page 18. London 2012 should be able improving sports access in the UK, and the medal success should be a reflection of that, not a priority over it.

Some of the most controversial events in Beijing were related to poor judging and ineligible athletes in sports where it seemed the Chinese team were desperate to contribute to the country’s medal tally. The pressure on the people involved undermined the sporting achievements.

Let people gather

People who have attended both the Sydney and Beijing Olympics tend to agree on one thing; the atmosphere within the host city was better in the 2000 Games. This has a lot to do with the lack of spaces for fans from different countries to gather an celebrate in Beijing. Big screens were few and far between, sponsored events in the city were rare, and people without tickets were not allowed within the vicinity of the stadia. Understandably the Chinese authorities are not keen on large gatherings of people in Beijing, and this inhibited the Olympic spirit in Beijing.

Not everyone who attends the London Olympics will be able to get tickets for their favourite events but there is more to the Olympics than that. The London organisers should put together as many events as possible. Most essential of all: sites with big screens around the city where people can gather. Although London will probably have more security concerns than Beijing, there are alternatives to restricting freedoms.

Free transport for ticket-holders

Another of the success stories from the Beijing Games was the free transport. It’s not so much about saving money, but about making visitors feel welcome and facilitating a great experience. London’s transport is expensive, and this is a must for 2012.

Enable resale of tickets

Another of the many things the Chinese organisers did right was to turn a blind eye to ticket resale. Without this there would have been more empty seats, more disgruntled visitors, and less atmosphere in the stadia. However, Bob has no sympathy for ticket touts, who inflate the price of events, make it harder for real fans to get tickets legitimately and cream off profit without doing anything to earn it. Instead the London 2012 organisers must facilitate ticket resale and exchange at face value. A dedicated website and amnesty zones around the city should be set up to allow unwanted tickets to be passed on fairly.

Refreshments – not just a chance to make a buck

Sporting events have a tendency of serving terrible food for equally unpalatable prices, so it was refreshing in Beijing that the mark up was minimal (even if the food was still awful). London is an expensive place as it is, and there is a chance visitors will feel like money is being wrung out of them if food and drinks aren’t affordable.

In London the refreshments should be a chance to show-case good, healthy, local, and affordable delights. London can break the mould and make eating and drinking part of the experience rather than an unavoidable necessity for visitors. At least more choice than just McDonald’s!

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Put in place prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and due to end roughly a month after the Paralympics, the measures to afford greater independence to foreign reporters in China are about three weeks from ending. Now there is speculation about whether these freedoms will continue at all, or whether the rules will return to pre-Olympic levels.

Tim Johnson summarises the situation…

If the old rules come back into play, this is what it means:

  • Reporters will be required again to seek advance permission from the Foreign Ministry for any trip outside of their base, such as Beijing.
  • And reporters will no longer be free to interview anyone who agrees to an interview request. Rather, interviews must be vetted by authorities.

Johnson’s article reveals a lot, including a statement from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China:

“The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China urges the government to build an Olympic legacy by enshrining the pledge of openness in new rules for foreign correspondents.

“In keeping with China’s efforts to become a more open society, we urge the government to recognize in the new regulations for foreign correspondents that the free flow of information is crucial to the proper functioning of the globalized world.”

The authorities are being typically pragmatic on the matter, acknowledging the situation in an official statement without committing to any particular policy.

Johnson and Imagethief (Will Moss) are not that optimistic:

[Moss] Personally Imagethief feels that the Olympic honeymoon is now over. The downside is that I expect the reporting rules to be allowed to lapse and the air to once again silt up with grunge. The upside is that all the things that were tightened for the Olympics –visas, various petty registration requirements, limits on where you can and can’t hike/film/run/walk/drip ice cream– will relax.

[Johnson] Less than a month from now, we will find out if China will maintain its attitude of greater openness with the foreign media. My bet is that it won’t.

Bob is inclined to follow such opinions. The Chinese government are particularly adept at controlled interpretation of their own laws – a key to their ability to maintain stability and control. We will now head back into a time of more ambiguity (which as Imagethief points out, isn’t all bad), allowing the authorities to stamp out particular news stories, but to allow other infringements passed.

But will the Olympics have a legacy in reporting freedoms for foreign and local journalists…? Much like the official discussion of this topic, that question is rhetorical; it is not for Bob to say, but any legacy is certainly not as profound as the IOC may have foreseen.

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Queuing up to pass through one of the many security check points at the Olympics on one occasion there was a recording being played over the PA system: “Flags of non-participating countries and regions, and sharp objects are not permitted into the Olympic Green”.

At first this seemed like a strange combination – why should sporting Scott or a crowd of Québécois not be allowed to bear their own banners, even if athletes don’t compete under these names? Then an idea quickly dawned. There is a region/nation whose flag is particularly feared by the Beijing Olympic organisers; Tibet.

Bob is not aware of whether this is a new Olympic rule, specific to Beijing, or whether this is customary at every Games. Perhaps those better informed can comment?

Now, the Olympics is one of the few global sporting occasions, it seems, when British athletes do compete under the same banner, and not as the representative countries (which is why Team GB don’t submit a football team to the Games). Personally, this makes it particularly special, and Bob celebrates the opportunity (as an Englishman) to stand alongside Welsh, Scotts and Nothern Irish in support of one team. It is nice to spot a Union Jack in the crowd, but there would be nothing wrong with seeing it flutter next to the Welsh dragon, or Saint Andrew’s Cross.

Bob was considering putting the ruling to the test, and boldly walking up to the gate with the flag of St George tucked under one arm, but then passed a man robed in one casually strolling through the Olympic Green on Saturday 23rd. He did not appear to be hiding his illegal flag from the security.

On the face of it this appears to be a rule with Chinese nationalism in mind, masked as a standard Olympic security condition. Or perhaps that is an over-reaction?

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The latest controversy associated with the Chinese government and the Beijing Olympics has been to do with the age of their gymnasts, and specifically gold medal-winning He Kexin (何可欣). Allegations have suggested that Miss He was born in 1994, meaning that she is too young to compete in the Olympics (16 years or older), while her registration for the Olympics states that she was born in 1992.

This argument has again been spun into a battle between the ‘anti-Chinese western media’ and the ‘government mouth-piece Chinese media’.

So where did the allogations come from?

The earliest record of the allegations Bob has found is in the NYT on 27th July. Here the NYT references previous reports within official Chinese press stating He’s age as 13 in 2007 and 14 in 2008. The article also refers to official documents found online.

This is where it gets interesting…

A blogger, and online security expert known as Stryde (or Mike Walker if you’re being formal) on hearing the allegations decided to conduct a little test to see what documents could be found using search engines.

Searching on Google for cached files using the fields (site:cn 何可欣 filetype:xls 1994) Stryde found that He’s name had been removed from the one resulting file. So he tried the same trick on Baidu:

In the Baidu cache, which apparently has not been hit with the scrub brush (yet), two spreadsheets published by the Chinese government on sport.gov.cn both list He Kexin’s birthday as 01-01-1994, making her 14 years old. For as long as these links work, you can access the documents directly, either using the directions and screenshots above, or these links: cache1 cache2″

Now, these documents are not conclusive proof that He Kexin was born is 1994 (as Stryde himself acknowledges). They may be mistakes, or perhaps it is even possible that someone has hacked in and amended these (though as this comes from a Chinese government site, these options do seem unlikely).

However this has been deemed enough evidence for the IOC to call for further investigation.

The official government’s response has been to blame the mistake on a paper-work error when He transferred from one city team to another last year. Although this does not really explain why the domestic media had believed her date of birth was in 1994.

This subject has been touched upon briefly on CCTV 9 (the English language station), which in itself is a positive thing. But there has been no debate, with the simple notion that as the authorities have now provided He’s passport.

This doesn’t really wash – the idea of a school child writing their own sick note after skipping school for a couple of days without their parent’s knowledge, springs to mind.

It’s a shame that this should come after such a successful Olympics, whether or not it is true. However, it won’t dampen the spirits in China. Most will be happy with the official response, and those that Bob has spoken to who don’t believe He is 16, don’t really care. “Oh no, she is not 16” said a colleague, “but do you know what? Chen Ruolin (陈若琳), a diver, is even younger!”

Updated

Bob has subsequently realised that actually whether or not Chen Ruolin is 16 or not is fairly irrelevant judging by the fact the British diving star Tom Daley is only 14. Obviously different rules apply in diving.

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As the rain poured down in Beijing on Thursday it seemed like a good opportunity to stay in and catch up on some blogging – unfortunately Bob’s internet connection disagreed, and would not allow this post. Trying again now, on Friday. It has been difficult to fit in posts, around ticket-hunting, sport-watching, exploring Beijing and accessing WordPress. It has been hard enough just to keep up with the rapid flow of British gold medals that just seem to keep coming! Fair play to the folks at the BBC live text commentary, who keep Bob up to date with what’s going on; it can’t be an easy job being a journo out here. However, a dedicated press centre, access to BBC TV and not having to run around looking for affordable tickets must help a bit.

Bob has been fortuitous enough to see two British golds, a silver and a bronze, and that is without even making it as far as Qingdao for the sailing or Shunyi for the rowing.

On Sunday night Bob and friends were the beneficiaries of four top-grade seats in the National Indoor arena to watch gymnastics. Coincidentally this was the day in which the only male British gymnast to make it to a final was performing. The event was the pommel horse, and the man was Louis Smith. With gymnastics it is hard sometimes for the lay-person to know when someone has done well or not, but along with the American competitor Smith’s routine was identifiable for its individuality. To see the first gymnastics medal for a British male in 80 years was thrilling!

The velodrome has been the source of 7 of Team GB’s golds, and was top of Bob’s ticket wish-list. Saturday afternoon was spent fruitlessly waiting outside, in the far western suburb of Laoshan, and things did not look promising, until finally persistence paid off with tickets for Monday. It was well worth the graft to see Chris Hoy, Jamie Staff and Victoria Pendleton in dominating form, and on top of that to see the Men’s team pursuit win gold in another world record time! Alas, we had to leave before we could hear the anthem as we had an appointment in the Bird’s Nest.

We needn’t have worried, ‘God Save The Queen’ is getting regular airtime in Beijing this month, and sure enough Bob was present in the Bird’s Nest on Tuesday night to join Christine Ohuruogu in belting it out. All of this success really seems to have awoken a sense of nationalism in Bob – not normally one to carry a Union Jack or swell with pride at the strains of the anthem. Bob can’t help but wonder if it has had the same impact back home – is it great to be British at the moment?

Ohuruogu’s gold was all the more exciting because of the way it was won. Starting just below Bob (as the commentators might have described it), American pre-race favourite Sanya Richards flew off into an early lead, leaving Christine down in 6th or 7th. However, 24-year-old Brit showed amazing self-confidence and experience, giving herself a lot to do down the home straight, but with enough in the tank with which to do it. For the final 50 meters the rest of the field appeared to be running backwards while Ohuruogu powered on slaying one after the other with enough time to spare to win by a clear margin. Brilliance, pure brilliance. The volunteers in the stand nearby appeared to be infected by the excitement too and congratulated Bob so many times it was as if they believed he has run the circuit below.

Although overshadowed by the 400m gold, Germain Mason’s high jump silver medal was an even more unexpected addition to the tally, and an equally impressive performance. The man beat his personal best, only to be bettered by Andre Silnov who is quite simply in a league of his own anyway. Roger Black’s comments about racing for silver when competing in the same race as Michael Johnson come to mind, and in this case Mason stepped up to the plate when it mattered.

Bob also followed the trail to the BMX track this morning to watch Shanaze Reade. Supremely powerful Shanaze lived up to her billing in the semi-finals blowing away much of the competition. But her third fall in six races on the spectacular Chinese track came on the final bend in the final race and cost her a medal. Shanaze was sitting in second place, and crashed in an overtaking manoeuvre, risking a guaranteed silver for a possible gold. This is the first time Shanaze has been beaten all year, and she looked not only physically hurt (possible broken hand) but mentally crushed. No hear though, she will certainly be back, and could be great. Really great!

(Pictures will follow, but the connection to WordPress is just too slow at the moment…)

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Guest post by Jordan Hirsch

In mid–March, several days of peaceful demonstrations against Chinese rule exploded into violent rioting in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. On March 17th, as China engaged in the bloodiest period of its crackdown against the protestors, International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge circulated an internal memo to IOC officials, outlining a communications strategy. “China’s involvement in Tibet strictly concerns its social and political policy,” Rogge stated in the memo. “It is not related to the country’s hosting of the Games, nor to its relationship with the IOC.” Most importantly, Rogge ruled out any direct IOC involvement either in condemning China’s response or mediating an end to the conflict. The IOC would remain silent.

Will The Olympics Bring Change in China (or Should They)?But certainly the Olympics and politics go hand–in–hand. Countries compete to host the Olympics for obvious political reasons: to kindle national pride, gain international prestige, and stimulate their economies. The kidnapping and murder of eleven Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists in the 1972 Munich Games, and the years of Olympic boycotts from 1976–84 clearly evince the political nature of the Games. And, doubtless, the IOC has made politically driven decisions in selecting host countries. It rejected China’s 1993 bid for the 2000 Games only four years after the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Even the Olympic Charter seems to call for the promotion of liberal political ideals, including “the establishment of a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity,” a rejection of any “discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, sex, or otherwise,” and the use of sport to inculcate “value of peace, justice, mutual understanding, and international friendship.”

When the IOC granted the 1988 Summer Games to South Korea, then under a repressive military dictatorship, critics accused it of once again awarding the Olympics to an authoritarian regime that consistently violated human rights.

The critics were right about South Korea’s authoritarianism, but the Seoul Games ultimately contributed to South Korea’s rapid and largely peaceful transformation to democracy in 1987. Indeed, the Seoul Games seem to demonstrate that the Olympics can help to initiate progressive political change. As the Beijing Olympics approach and world leaders remain at odds over how to respond, then, what lessons can the international community draw from the history of Seoul 1988?

South Korea’s bid for the Olympics in 1980 served a number of political purposes for the ruling regime. The country had enjoyed rapid economic growth in the 1960s and ’70s, yet the prosperity had not brought with it political liberalization. When South Korean President Park Chung–hee was assassinated in 1979, another military junta, led by General Chun Doo–hwan, assumed power and continued the repressive policies. But South Koreans—especially students—vigorously opposed Chun’s new dictatorship, and began protesting at college campuses across the country. In May 1980, as South Korea prepared its Olympic bid, South Korean students and citizens flooded the streets of the city of Kwangju in a massive pro–democracy rally. The government responded with overwhelming force, with opposition leaders declaring that it had killed nearly 2,000 protestors in one week.

With a bloody stain upon its record so early in its political life, the government sought to use the Olympics to enhance its legitimacy at home and abroad.

Once South Korea won its bid for the Games, outside media descended upon the country and gave voice to dissident students and politicians. Taken by surprise and unprepared to confront the empowered opposition, the government buckled under the pressure and began making concessions.

Alongside the media attention, high–level diplomacy by the (nominally non–political) IOC proved to be the other decisive factor. By the spring of 1987, South Korea had arrived at a crucial juncture. The government had suspended debate over constitutional reforms, and the country nearly ground to a halt as South Koreans from all ages and classes united in protest.

IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch made a high profile visit to Seoul to mediate between the two sides. According to historian Richard Pound, Samaranch, a former Spanish diplomat, “had never been shy about injecting himself and the Olympic movement into world events.” Only two days after Samaranch’s visit, the South Korean government made its famous June 29th Declaration, agreeing to all of the opposition’s demands and giving way to the first democratic elections in South Korean history.

Much like South Korea, China has invested heavy political capital in the Games, taking the unprecedented steps of inviting over fifty world leaders to the opening ceremonies and crafting the longest tour of the Olympic torch in history. This is leverage that the international community has over China, especially in light of China’s still unfulfilled promises to expand media freedom.

Yet the differences between China and South Korea remain stark. China, as an incipient superpower, enjoys far larger economic and political clout. Significantly the Chinese regime is far more ideologically entrenched than were the South Korean generals and can invoke a long history of struggle for popular justice and [against] foreign intervention.”

What’s more, despite its success, Samaranch’s intervention in South Korean affairs raises questions about whether the IOC should engage in diplomacy. Under Samaranch’s model, the Olympics might become a vast political spotlight, shipped purposefully to oppressive regimes to bear international pressure upon them and induce economic and political liberalization. Such an agenda–driven Olympics, without any pretense of political abstinence, might provoke a backlash against the Games from non–Western countries and rob the Games of their universal respect—the very element that empowers their potential for moral leadership in the first place.

In advance of the Beijing Games in August, the IOC has focused its energies on maintaining the idea that the Olympics are “hallowed ground” not to be disturbed by geopolitics. Yet the example set by the South Korean Games establishes that the Olympics can, if unevenly, maintain the balance between its inherent contradiction: steering clear of politics, and upholding its principles of struggling against discrimination and promoting peace, justice, and cooperation.

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Bob is delighted to be writing the Beijing Olympics Blog from China; admittedly not Beijing, but one step at a time. Unfortunately getting here has meant that it’s been a quiet time on the blog recently just the media has been full of enough Olympic news to satisfy the most eager observe. Bob would like to share responsibility for the lack of posts with KLM who run a very relaxed corporate policy towards punctuality, and the Chinese government who have an equally vigilant policy of internet censorship.

Beijing Olympic Volunteers in Shanghai

Beijing Olympic Volunteers in Shanghai

You may notice a difference in the coverage of the Beijing Olympics Blog as Bob hopes to provide a more personal experience of the Olympics, as the mainstream press are sure to be full of any and every Beijing story going.

Bob was pleased to be greeted at Shanghai’s Pudong Airport by a host of young and eager volunteers sitting underneath a Beijing 2008 banner and wearing matching uniforms.

“Do you have information about the Olympics?”

“No, sorry.”

“Oh, do you have information about the Olympic football in Shanghai?”

“No, we just have information about Shanghai.”

“Or how to get to Beijing from Shanghai?”

“No, just Shanghai.”

Still, they did have lots of information about Shanghai!

For the record, although a lot of news coverage appears to have been given to the government’s relaxation of censorship on parts of the web – including the BBC, certain Amnesty sites and content about the 1989 Tian’anmen Square incident – they have not unblocked WordPress. This will probably be enough to appease the IOC who had demanded that the Great Firewall of China be lowered for the Games. This has made accessing and updating the Beijing Olympics Blog quite difficult, and of course it is extremely frustrating that hardly anyone in the mainland will be able to read it. The next update will come as soon as possible, all things considered J

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