Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 06:35 | SYDNEY
Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 06:35 | SYDNEY

Olympics: The bad news will get out


Sam Roggeveen


11 April 2008 11:36

The images you see scattered throughout this post are collected from the free photo-sharing site, Flickr, and are one manifestation of the 'citizen journalism' that the internet facilitates (with global reach and at negligible cost). I'll return to their larger political significance in a moment.

In February I wrote a post arguing that although things looked a little grim for Beijing on the question of air quality and China's policy on Darfur (Tibet had yet to erupt), China would get through its Olympics OK. After all, there have been boycotts and screw-ups and terrorist attacks at the Olympics before, and although these seemed like world-shattering events at the time, they did not have a lasting impact. 

I broadly stand by this judgement on the grounds that political observers ought to avoid what I think Hedley Bull called 'the parochialism of the present'; that is, the tendency to believe that the events happening to us and around us are really, really important. The media will report all kinds of anti-China dissent in the coming months, but that doesn't mean it matters in the long run.  

But events surrounding the torch relay have dented my confidence in that February judgment; as has this essay from Moises Naim (via Global Dashboard) from November 2007, which predicts that China will be surprised and embarrassed by the scale of demonstrations surrounding the Olympics. It already looks prescient. Naim makes the point that it will not only be impossible for Chinese authorities to stop protestors from getting into the country with spectators, but China will also not be able to stop news of protests getting out. This is where citizen journalism outlets like Flickr and YouTube come in. As Naim says:

...perhaps the changes that most threaten China’s political performance during the Olympics are that the number of Chinese cell-phone users has boomed from 140 million to more than 600 million since 2001, while the number of Chinese Internet users has soared from 17 million to 162 million since 2000. Bloggers, chat rooms, social networks, and other online communities were far less prevalent seven years ago than they are today. And the development of Web-enabled cell phones that can double as videocameras is made even more politically consequential by the rise of YouTube, which was founded less than three years ago.

No public relations campaign, regardless of how massive, can alter reality. And the reality is that thousands of protesters with causes that enjoy public support around the world—and in China—will stage highly visible and creative protests during the Olympic Games. It is equally true that the Chinese government will try to suppress them. Inevitably, thousands of videocameras will record the ensuing battle. The path from the streets of Beijing to YouTube will be almost impossible for the regime to monitor and blockade.

Of course, the other option for the Chinese government is to agree to some of what the protesters demand. And slowly, modestly, it has already begun to do so by, for example, nudging Sudan to accept international peacekeepers. But the demands are too many and too varied. Many seek to alter the very nature of the regime and the political and economic power upon which it is based. Therefore, the government will inevitably attempt to control and repress the activists. And that will be a new and frustrating experience for a centralized government that is not used to containing well-organized, media-savvy foreigners who work through highly decentralized, international, nongovernmental organizations that know how to mobilize public opinion to advance their causes.

The 2008 Olympic Games promise to be a great spectacle. And we will all be watching.

Photo 1 (London torch relay) by Flickr user Kaustav Bhattacharya; photo 2 (Paris) by Neno; and photo 3 (San Francisco) by  Laughing Squid; all used under a Creative Commons licence.