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17 Aug, 2008

China’s 2008 Olympics the best ever, yet ceaselessly maligned in the Western media

Originally Published: 17 Aug 2008

After the Beijing Olympics 2008 end next week, China should undertake a careful study of the media coverage to pinpoint what has been a clearly designed campaign to play up all that is supposedly wrong with it and downplay its phenomenal eight-year effort to host the best Olympics ever.

In recent months, the anti-China media barrage has been persistent, consistent and too well orchestrated to be a coincidence.

It began with the Tibetans taking advantage of the Olympic torch relay to publicise their cause. It then moved to the issue of pollution and air quality in Beijing, followed by security concerns where the word “Islamic terrorism” involving China’s Muslim minority invariably cropped up, and just recently the story of the little girl whose singing was lip-synced at the opening ceremony.

Other reports have focussed on how Chinese athletes are drilled and regimented in their pursuit of gold glory, and how many of them lose their childhoods in the heavy-duty training programmes.

The recent stories related directly to the Olympics follow numerous reports over the last two years that have sought to highlight China’s alleged role in Darfur, and blame it for the increase in oil and food prices as well as global warming.

Some Olympic corporate sponsors have also come under fire as part of the guilt-by-association campaign.

An American swimmer becoming the greatest Olympian ever has garnered reams of publicity, but the fact that Chinese are thrashing the Americans in the total gold medal tally is being meticulously downplayed.

China has worked hard, practised hard and is now playing hard. The Chinese saw the Olympics as a symbolic coming of age for their country and people. For the most fabulous opening ceremony in Olympic history to go off so flawlessly must have been a huge blow to China’s critics.

All they could find was a little girl who had lip-synched because the real singer was not cute enough.

Thankfully, others have stepped in to rectify the information imbalance.

For example, the United Nations Environment Program has highlighted the efforts to improve air quality conditions in Beijing, many of which may be institutionalised after the Games are over.

UNEP pointed out on its website that it has been working with the Beijing Olympic Committee for the last three years, and that China has spent US$17 billion on a large-scale green drive, including tougher standards for vehicle emissions and phased-out ozone-depleting substances.

Beijing’s public transport network has been expanded with three new subway lines and the introduction of some 3,800 compressed natural gas buses — one of the largest fleets of in any city in the world.

At the Olympic venues, 20% of their energy comes from clean wind sources, solar power features prominently in the Olympic Village, and the Bird’s Nest stadium has an advanced rainwater recycling system, the UNEP website notes.

Another UN agency, the UN Development Program, says that over one million venue, city and social volunteers were mobilised to ensure a successful Games, and will be further mobilised as a force for development after they are over.

These websites as well as many of the Chinese online media have played a major role in providing an alternative, more positive, picture that better reflects the images clearly seen on TV – immaculate stadiums, superb facilities and efficient organisation.

For much of the Western media, that’s not worth a mention. As the Games draw down, China is being hectored and lectured about promoting human rights, freedom and democracy, even while the West tramples on its own human rights, freedom and democracy.

Sports events historically have been used to promote the host country and its achievements. The spirit of competition always yields winners and losers, but it does inspire countries to pursue higher standards, develop infrastructure and leave a positive legacy for future generations.

Although China has done this well, it has been ignored in most Western media outlets, raising broader issues about the parochial and patronising portrayal of the achievements and progress of non-Western countries.

Indeed, if the Olympics can be politicised and used by anyone seeking access to the oxygen of publicity, so can other high-profile sports events.

India now has to worry about the upcoming Commonwealth Games in New Delhi in 2010. Will political issues about Kashmir and the separatist movement in the North-East Frontier Provinces come to the fore?

Will there be negative coverage about India’s poor sporting tradition? India has so far won one gold in Beijing, the only gold it has ever won in the entire history of the Olympics. But the pride of that victory was offset by the Indian cricket team’s loss, yet again, to Sri Lanka in a Test series at the same time.

In the West, China is played off against India, usually by harping on India being the world’s largest democracy and China a single-party dictatorship. But in terms of discipline, focus and single-minded drive to higher levels of achievement, China is a winner by a long shot.

As freedom of speech is a constitutional right in India, it cannot afford to be seen to be suppressing those who will seek to legitimately exercise it.

Over time, however, developing countries will have no choice except to adopt the tit-for-tat tactic.

We in the “South” are pretty good are rising to the occasion when we seek to root out our own rotten eggs. But we are useless at taking the fight abroad.

Why aren’t we in Asia protesting the agricultural subsidies in the West that contribute significantly to the impoverishment of our farmers? Or the wars mounted by the U.S.-led coalition of the willing in pursuit of non-existent weapons of mass destruction that kill millions and waste billions? Or the speculative skulduggery that leads to massive swings in oil prices? Or the travel advisories that hurt our travel & tourism industries? Or the human rights violations by racial profiling at airports?

Perhaps using high-profile sports events in the West, such as their hugely popular soccer, tennis and athletic tournaments, would be a good place to start getting some publicity for our causes.

If they can do it, why can’t we?