This is very long, but for-the-record:
First, a reminder: I think that it will be best for China, the world, the athletes, the spectators, and the Olympic Movement itself if the Beijing games come off as a big success. No one will benefit if China feels disappointed or under-appreciated about how these years of work ultimately pay off.
Also: as I can’t say often enough, I am a Friend of the Chinese People!
And: I’ll be here in August. I want to have a good time when the Games begin.
But I am getting a bad feeling about the buildup to these events. It’s not just the air— I do still believe that last-minute measures will make it acceptable by Games time. (Reasoning and quotes in this article. Also, I'm out of Beijing till the start of July -- giving it a chance!) And it’s not about a lot of the transportation infrastructure, although crucial subway lines that are supposed to be running before visitors arrive still have mounds of fresh construction dirt around some entryways. I am confident that they will handling passengers by the time they're needed for the Games.
Rather I’m puzzled by a series of deliberate and inadvertent decisions that, if you didn’t know better, you might think were designed to turn the whole spectacle into a source of friction rather than pride for China. None of these steps is news on its own. Collectively the pattern is discouraging, and puzzling too.
Some are clearly inadvertent.
For instance: the embarrassing recent disclosure that the bank and credit card network was not yet ready to handle large flows of people drawing money from international accounts. Or the difficulty in ordering tickets on line or trying to pick them up once ordered. As Adam Minter and Sky Canaves explain, the problem is that the ticket-ordering form asks for only First and Last names. When foreigners show a passport as ID to pick them up, as they must, bank clerks have been rejecting anyone whose passport also shows a middle name –because the name is different from the one shown on the ticket. (My wife and I got ours without incident; the reason, I think, is that the Bank of China clerk was not exactly sure which lines in our passports were meant to show our names.)
Or: the ludicrously selective “intellectual property” crackdown. You can still buy pirated versions of any movie, handbag, wristwatch, or software right on the street. But knockoff versions of Official Beijing Olympics caps or T-shirts? Forget it! These poor vendors seem to have been chased into hiding.
Or: the actual working reality of the spectacular, beautiful, enormous new Terminal 3 at Beijing Capital airport. Visually it is as pretty an airport as anyone has seen in a long time. But on each of my dozen trips in or out, there has been a significant flow problem -- a Sahara-size concourse with super-jammed choke points in a varying areas. The baggage stand, the passport lines, the trains going from one part of the terminal to another. Airports are terrible everywhere; I hope that when big Olympic crowds come through the chokepoint issues will have been figured out.
With goodwill and flexibility, things like this can be laughed off.
The real puzzle is the string of deliberate decisions:
- A radical crackdown on visa-issuance, at just the time the country is supposedly inviting the world to visit Beijing. This is so widespread and serious that it’s the talk of business people and even hoteliers.
- A crackdown on foreign and international journalists, at just the time the authorities know that the world’s attention will turn to Beijing. The tone of world coverage has been understandably and properly sympathetic in the wake of the Sichuan earthquake. But it is easy to imagine how this could change.
You don’t have to know a lot about the foreign press to know how the increasing controls are going to backfire. Particularly nutty touch: leaving international broadcasters in the dark about whether they will be able to broadcast live from Beijing, rather than being subject to censors' delay. After a “Sichuan spring” of relatively free press and blog discussion after the earthquake, domestic press controls are closing in again too.
- A noticeable increase in security presence around Beijing. To an extent, this is a chronic Beijing issue. It’s the big imperial capital, and you feel the Hand of the State in daily life here vastly more than in other parts of the country. It’s like the contrast between Washington DC and Berkeley. But it feels different even in the last two months. Bag-screening at some subway stations now. I understand that by Olympic time visitors will go through security screening after they get off airplanes too. Perhaps that’s a rumor; perhaps it’s necessary for the Olympics. But it’s not subtle.
I am not sure how to explain this. Hypotheses:
- No one in a position to make these decisions understands how they’ll look to foreign eyes. In specific, they don’t recognize that the Chinese government will lose ten times as much “face” and respect by crude, highly visible control measures than they might lose if some unplanned protest or demonstration got air time.
- They understand all this, but they don’t care. The fearful instinct toward control is so powerful that the government willingly accepts the trade-off: bad PR as the price of airtight control.
- Some people understand, but they’re not the ones making the choices. The security and propaganda ministries are famous strongholds of keep-the-lid-on thinking. (Think: China’s neocons.) Presumably the foreign ministry understands some of the problems the policies are creating. And the international business community lives in the real world of trans-border interaction all day long. But the ones who know the outside world have no leverage over the hardliners. The US has had its versions of this problem in the last 7 years.
I don’t know which of these might explain the pattern – if any of them does. One way or another, the Chinese government that has worked so hard to make these Olympics happen is now perversely working to screw up their international effect. So I will hope, sincerely, that the impression changes in the next 6+ weeks, and that a good Games is had by all.