When controversy arises on the mainland, most of us are instinctive in our reaction. We are conditioned to think in particularly ominous tones and believe there is a puppet master in Beijing who pulls the strings for 1.3 billion people. While it might be convenient, it's not necessarily the truth. When hurdler Liu Xiang, the surprising 2004 Olympic gold medallist, pulled his Achilles tendon and crashed into the first hurdle during qualifying at the London Olympics, he somehow rose up and hobbled home before kissing the last hurdle. Broadcasters on CCTV were choked with emotion with lead anchor Yang Jian claiming that Liu was like a heroic soldier. "When he realised he couldn't reach the finish line, he rose above himself," said Yang.
It was a touching moment particularly when his fellow competitors came to Liu's aid to help him off the track. Ironically, it was Liu's second straight Olympic setback after breaking the hearts of a nation when he pulled up lame at Beijing in 2008.
Last week, however, a mainland paper reported the brass at CCTV revealed they knew Liu was hurt and had approved in advance the scripts for their anchors to read. "Liu Xiang knew, CCTV knew and leaders knew - only spectators foolishly waited to witness moment of miracle," claimed a headline on the front page of the Oriental Guardian.
Reaction was swift as websites were flooded with disgust at the government and Liu, who was chided for being more interested in his many corporate sponsorships than his sporting duty. Within 24 hours, most of the stories of the incident disappeared online and so did the links on social websites. A few days later, the People's Daily ran this headline: "Liu's fall legit - he has scars to prove it." In the story, Liu explained he had told CCTV his foot had been bothering him before the Games because of intensive training but that he should be OK. "From the bottom of my heart," he pleaded, "I want to say sorry to those who support me." Surprisingly, not many were buying it with one blogger invoking a parable: the bird with gold tied on its wings cannot fly high. Many commentators still refused to let go of the government conspiracy theory as well.
But it's far too easy to dehumanise the process by calling it the work of the politburo. Someone had to give the orders so let's start at the top with Liu Peng, the director and party secretary of the General Administration of Sport. Sporting a decidedly unflattering comb over, the bespectacled Liu looks every bit the charmless Communist Party lifer that he is. He also had zero background in sport before his appointment in 2004. But according to a source who is one of the more reputable figures in Communist Party intel, that doesn't matter. "Party bureaucrats are jacks of all trades," he said. "If they demonstrate efficiency in one job, their portfolio will increase regardless of their field of expertise." As head of the administration, Liu has five vice-directors who work directly below him.
Liu Peng is also the guy who ran the 2008 Beijing Games and is a protégé of President Hu Jintao. Presumably, Hu gets wind of the fact that their great hurdler will not be able to race in London. Despite being responsible for 1.3 billion citizens, Hu still finds time to call Liu Peng, who was Team China's delegation head, and tell him we need to at least see our national hero in the starting blocks.
Liu Peng passes the word on to one of his vice-directors, who calls up his line guy running the track federation and gives him the word. The vice-director also contacts the state-run broadcasters and instructs them to prepare a fawning script to tug at the heartstrings and maybe throw in some maudlin violins playing in the background as the guy hobbles to the finish line.
If we are talking about a conspiracy at the highest levels then this scenario is certainly possible. I just don't think it is very probable. But the fact that most people, both in and out of China, are not looking at the very real possibility that Liu Xiang may have made the decision to try to run, rests largely with the powers that be on the mainland. Their lack of transparency and overt censorship has created an environment where one of the country's most beloved athletes is having an incredibly difficult time getting anyone to believe him. And if they aren't buying Liu Xiang's story in China, they sure as hell aren't buying it in the rest of the world.