29 July 2008

The Potemkin metropolis

With barely a week to go before the opening of the Olympics in Beijing, a survey of the available tea leaves foreshadows a Great-Wall-sized fiasco likely to be at least as entertaining -- from a safe distance -- as the athletic events themselves.

The problem is the regime's obsession with security, which it defines considerably more broadly than normal governments do. It's a little-known (in the West) fact, but China does actually have an Islamic-terrorist problem, and obviously the risk of an attack during, or even on, the games requires that precautions be taken. But the regime is also cracking down on "Tibetan separatists, the Falun Gong spiritual movement and ordinary people with grievan-ces against the government or society", as well as just about anyone who doesn't fit in with the tightly-controlled image the leadership is trying to project to the world. Restaurants deemed "unsightly" have been closed. The city is aswarm with guards and police. On the eve of a world-class tourist event, hotels and inns stand empty as tightened visa rules and police warnings keep foreigners away. Political dissidents and "underground Christian organizers" are being expelled from Beijing. The atmosphere is as far from welcoming or festive as can be imagined. Here's an example of what happens when you put a grim, paranoid police state in charge of organizing a party:

Plainclothes security agents surprised rights campaigner Hou Wenzhuo at a cafe on May 30, putting a hood over her head and holding her in an undisclosed detention center for 17 days. Among their chief concerns during interrogations, she said, were plans for a “human rights torch relay” organized by an exiled Tiananmen Square democracy movement figure and whether Chinese at home might get involved. “The government is worried that this ‘human rights torch’ will detract attention from China” and the Olympics, Hou said. “They didn’t beat me, but there are different kinds of intimidation.”

The citizens of Beijing may be having difficulty distinguishing the security forces from the terrorists.

Throwing a good party, of course, isn't really the point:

"It's not about having people enjoy the Olympics. If nobody came that would be a successful Olympics,'' said Anne Stevenson-Yang, an American private equity consultant in Beijing. "It's theater. The foreigners are there as props but the fewer the better.''

The residents of Beijing themselves, apparently, barely qualify even as props in this Potemkin metropolis. The unlikelihood of being able to hold a "normal" Olympics in this sort of atmosphere, and the possibility that further tightening the screws on an already brutally-repressed society could actually provoke some messy eruption of public anger, are apparently risks that the regime is prepared to take. What's more baffling is that they seem to think such "theater" will impress anyone, in the modern wired world where looking behind the façades and fake scenery is standard practice, and everyone can quickly see whatever is found there.

Update: Check this out.

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