Xi Jinping

No fun and Games

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 July, 2008, 12:00am


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If there was an Olympics for the introduction and enforcement of arbitrary rules designed to stop people having fun, then China would top the medals table. With the Games around the corner, the holders of the 8 million tickets are being confronted with increasingly petty regulations. Many seem designed for the sole purpose of making the celebration of sport they have paid good money to watch less enjoyable.

The multitude of rules relating to spectator behaviour inside the stadiums come from the minds of the same officials who believe that Beijingers need to be given etiquette handbooks telling them how to behave. Such is the lack of confidence in the locals that nothing is being left to chance. Some 800,000 of them are being drilled like soldiers in routines to cheer on the athletes, while a small army of volunteers will be on duty ready to tell spectators what they can and can't do.

Spontaneity has never been a quality favoured by the mainland authorities. But, in their desire for what they call an 'orderly, happy and harmonious' environment, they have taken their control-freak tendencies to new heights. Now, even some mainland media are calling on the officials to lighten up a little. But there is little sign they will. Hardly a day goes by without Vice-President Xi Jinping , who is in overall charge of the Games, stressing that security is the number one priority of the organisers, despite the fact that Beijing has never been a target for terrorists.

This approach is doing little for the mainland's reputation overseas. The whole point of hosting the Olympics was that they would be China's coming-out party, a way of showing the world how the country has changed since the days when everybody wore Mao suits and was meant to think the same. But the barrage of do's and don'ts that have emerged in recent weeks are simply reminding the world that the mainland remains a police state.

It is their fear of what their own people might do that is the real reason for all the rules. One Games official admitted as much, saying that the regulations were necessary to maintain 'order at the venues'. Keeping a grip on the unruly populace is still the number one priority of the authorities, who are under no illusions over the lack of affection they are held in. The violent protests that have taken place this month in different regions have been a salutary reminder of the tensions in mainland society.

But recognising their unpopularity, and finding effective solutions to remedy it, are two very different things. As ever, the government's only response is to clamp down. That approach threatens to turn the Olympics into the no-fun Games. It is as if they have become a duty to be discharged, rather than a global party, with the audience a threat rather than an asset to the overall atmosphere of the event. It is not the spectators who need to be taught how to behave, but the authorities.

David Eimer is a Beijing-based journalist