Buoyed but paranoid

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 March, 2008, 12:00am

Beijing seems to have entered a new epoch of pre-Olympic paranoia. In the past, cadres would greet each other with the words: 'Have you eaten yet?' Now, they ask: 'Any news of bad elements preparing to protest against our Olympics?' News of Steven Spielberg's withdrawal from his appointment as artistic director to the Games has been replaced in China's official media with US President George W. Bush's declaration that: 'I'm going to the Olympics. I view the Olympics as a sporting event.' Certainly, Mr Bush standing beside President Hu Jintao at the opening ceremony in Beijing will set a precedent in diplomatic relations.

Understandably, the US and Chinese presidents have much in common. They represent, respectively, the world's only superpower and the only possible emerging superpower; the largest consumer market in the world and the world's largest potential consumer market; the world's second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and the world's largest. One administration adopts neoconservative politics, the other, neoconservative economics. One nation uses moral authority, aid and threats of regime change to extort resources, the other, lacking any moral authority, just uses trade.

Iranian-American author Reza Aslan sees few differences in the working styles of America and China, at least on the diplomatic front. 'Hu and Bush are the same,' he said. 'Only, China does not use its military [might], but its economic might.'

Ironically, both administrations have a similar obsession with security. Mr Bush used September 11 to establish the Department of Homeland Security, with authority to pry into every aspect of American lives - including the reading habits of library borrowers. It would make Thomas Jefferson turn in his grave. The Olympics has given Beijing both the excuse and budget to put up cameras on every street corner and even in every dark alley of the capital. Kang Sheng (Mao Zedong's security tsar) would be exhilarated.

Beijing is now beside itself with paranoia just five months before the Olympics. Government departments desperately sniff around for any sign of dissent. Others are gauging public mood, or how journalists will portray the Games. It is like the hunt for revisionists only three decades ago; the Olympics has become that important to China's leadership and people.

But, clearly, the world's media is less interested in sport than politics. Global activists are condemning Beijing for everything from genocide in Darfur to totalitarianism in Myanmar and, of course, its handling of Tibetan protests. Xinjiang activists have signalled their intention to disrupt proceedings with bombs. Britain's Prince Charles refuses to attend the Games and pop star Bjork ended her recent Shanghai concert in controversy by singing in support of Tibetan independence. So, for China, the Olympics is going from a public relations windfall to a big headache. Needless to say, global pressure on China in this sensitive year has prompted some response on Darfur, mainly with special envoy Liu Guijin visiting the region four times since May. 'We are willing to listen to any comments that contain reasonable elements,' he said. 'But for those few who attempt to tarnish the Olympic Games on the pretext of issues totally unrelated to the Olympics, like the Darfur issue, we are firmly opposed to such attempts.' So, China's position is very clear.

Beijing has embraced Mr Bush's decision to attend the Games as recognition of China's moral authority to host the event; it will certainly sideline the activists. But the Chinese leadership does not realise that, in the changing world order, the US president is despised in most corners of the Earth, by most of humanity.

Still, Beijing is ready for the Olympics. The new airport looks like a luxury-goods shopping mall, tickets for a single event are now selling for US$900 per seat, and those for the opening ceremony are going for 450,000 yuan (HK$497,000). And the police are prepared for the protesters.

Laurence Brahm is a political economist, author, filmmaker and founder of Shambhala Foundation