With construction for the 2008 Summer Olympics in high gear, Beijing is undergoing its biggest physical transformation since master builders constructed the Imperial City in the 14th century.
But the city is gearing up for an even bigger force: the invasion of millions of tourists, including 20,000 members of the international media.
The arrival of the foreign media is going to present a challenge for China, which has no free press of its own and has traditionally placed tough restrictions on foreigners.The media company with the most riding on Beijing’s reforms is NBC, which holds the lucrative U.S. broadcast rights to the Games. Beijing will mark NBC’s fifth Olympics in eight years, and the net has set the bar extremely high as far as bringing back to Americans pictures of competition as well as a portrait of Chinese society.
“The expectation of fans and viewers are that these are going to be extraordinary Games and very compelling on a variety of fronts,” says sports business analyst David Carter. “It is critical for them to have the kind of access to live up to viewers’ expectations.”
China has promised foreign journalists covering the Beijing Olympics in 2008 full freedom of movement, uncensored access to the Internet and permits to conduct aerial photography — a staple of Western sports coverage, but illegal in China.
But less than two years away from the arrival of the Olympic flame, Amnesty Intl. says official controls over the media and the Internet are growing tighter and that China is failing to meet the promises on press freedom it made when it was granted the Games.
“Far from there being a loosening of control on the press over the last year, there has been a substantial tightening, especially on Internet-based reporting and comment; it does suggest a deep wariness about relaxing state controls over the press right now,” says Orville Schell, China scholar and dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China says widespread detentions of foreign journalists shows the country is still unprepared for the mass arrival of international journalists. And issues like self-determination for Tibet and the banned Falun Gong cult are still tightly controlled in the media.
When NBC signed its Olympics deal in 1998, the 2008 Summer Games had not been awarded, but the net will count on what is for China an unprecedented openness.
During the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, the network broadcast 1,210 hours of programming in a 24-hour cycle on NBC, MSNBC, CNBC, USA, Bravo, Telemundo, and its high-def affiliates, and that number is expected to go up.
NBC got a boost in October when the Intl. Olympic Committee agreed to allow the swimming and gymnastics finals — the two most popular events in the U.S. — to be scheduled in the morning in China so they could air live in primetime in the U.S.
In 2008, NBC expects 2,000 of its employees to make the trek to Beijing, along with 120 shipping containers of sets and equipment.
The Chinese Olympic Committee has vowed that censors will not interfere with the network’s coverage of the event, but access is already becoming an issue.
Mexican broadcaster Televisa has apparently been refused visas to put an advance team on the ground in Beijing to prep coverage.The BBC holds exclusive broadcast rights for Blighty, which presents some awkwardness, because the BBC’s Web site has long been blocked in China.
The Olympics come at a crucial moment for China. The country has always been scrupulous about protecting its image. But the Chinese economy is becoming ever more important to the world, and the country has become much more international in its thinking.
And after opening up its borders and loosening restrictions in the past few years, the government knows that the world’s attention will be focused on the city and the entire country.
Every host city undergoes its own transformation when the Olympics come to town, but Beijing may outdo all of them by changing the lives of locals.
Legislators are considering giving Beijing workers a 16-day break during the 2008 Games. They say it’s to allow people watch the Games at their leisure, but some cynics say it’s to ease traffic jams.There are also rumors that factories around the city will be closed for the Games to reduce smog in the city, which has made Beijing one of the most polluted cities in the world.
Taxi drivers are busy learning rudimentary English using cassette tapes and practicing their new language skills when possible.
Beijing Olympics organizing committee BOCOG president Liu Qi says detailed new regulations on the operation of foreign media will be in place early next year, and promises to meet the pledges on press freedom that China made when it was awarded the right to stage the Olympics. “There is the question of what the party will do about journalists who may choose to meet with dissidents, labor activists and organizers who are on the outs with the party; it will be a challenge,” Schell says.
Less than two years from the start of the Games, many of the 12 new venues are still under construction, including Rem Koolhaas’ startling, twisted doughnut-shaped tower for state broadcaster CCTV, and Herzog & De Meuron’s Olympic Stadium.
The Games will use 31 stadiums in Beijing and also facilities in Shanghai and Guangzhou.
Ongoing construction has also hampered preparations, but after Athens’ construction delays, the media have grown accustomed to those hurdles.
But for China and the Games, it’s crucial that the country shake off its poor image on human rights. For one thing, advertisers won’t want to be associated with an international civil-rights pariah.
Many restrictions remain. CNN and the BBC are available only in hotels and compounds where mostly foreigners live, and CNN’s China news coverage is routinely blacked out by vigilant censors.
Censorship of the Internet is widespread and any Web sites deemed controversial are shut down and bloggers muzzled.
Some Internet journalists have been jailed, and for regular surfers, certain keywords, such as anything invoking the exiled Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama or Taiwanese independence, are blocked when using Google or Yahoo search engines.
However, the country has undergone major shifts in the past few years. Increased openness has translated into a more open attitude toward media coverage of some events. The recent military coup in Thailand, anti-government protests in Hungary and civil disturbances in Taiwan were all covered prominently by China’s overwhelmingly state-run media. In the bad old days, such images would have been blocked for fear they would cause political instability.
Olympics media services head Li Jingbo says the Internet service provided to news services at the Games will be uncensored.
(Michael O’Boyle in Mexico City and Steve Clarke in London contributed to this report.)