Mark Leonard

Big Brother versus YouTube: let the Beijing Games commence

Mark Leonard, Britain’s pre-eminent analyst of modern China, says the Olympic genie is out of the bottle. The prospect of global scrutiny has actually increased repression as the authorities try to stamp out dissent. But digital technology is impossible to police

Mark Leonard, Britain’s pre-eminent analyst of modern China, says the Olympic genie is out of the bottle. The prospect of global scrutiny has actually increased repression as the authorities try to stamp out dissent. But digital technology is impossible to police

‘For years we couldn’t wait for the Olympics to start. Now we can’t wait for them to be over.’ That is how a Chinese friend described the horrible limbo in Beijing as a control-freak state tries to anticipate and eliminate any possible challenges to its glorious coming-out party on the 8th of the 8th, 2008. It is clear to any visitor to the Chinese capital that while China hopes to clean up the medals tables, the sporting contest is at best a sideshow to the real Olympic competition — the battle to define how China is seen by its citizens and the world outside.

For the Chinese people the Olympics are the final proof that China has reclaimed its rightful place in the global premier league; putting behind it two centuries of humiliation at the hands of foreign invaders. For the world outside, the Games are meant to embody an official narrative of China as a ‘harmonious society’. The organisers had promised the trin-ity of a ‘green Olympics’, a ‘high-tech Olympics’ and a ‘people-centred Olympics’, designed to show off China as a beacon of economic prowess and modernity that has traded pariah status for global respectability. But as China ricochets from one PR disaster to the next — with stories about sweatshops combining with Tibet and Beijing’s choking pollution — the authorities are now trying to manage expectations downwards with a focus on the more modest goal of a ‘safe Olympics’, flooding the city and its environs with security forces primed to thwart potential terrorist attacks.

The Chinese Communist Party combines a laser-like focus on detail with awe-inspiring ambitions for the big picture.

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