TV networks not in cheering mood

BEIJING — With the Aug. 8 opening ceremony looming, the city is looking fabulous as it prepares for the summer Olympics. And China has begun extensive training for the country’s 800,000 students expected to attend, teaching them how to cheer for their own country, or even visiting competitors to make them feel welcome. (It’s a four-step process, climaxing with a fist pumping in the air and a cry of “Let’s go!”)

However, there is considerably less cheering from TV networks and foreign visitors. Both groups are saying the country’s too-tough security policies are forcing a rethink of their participation.

Some broadcasters say they are scaling back coverage because their plans are months behind schedule. Many allege their TV broadcasting equipment is being held up in Chinese ports, while others complain the paperwork is extensive and slow. These headaches are in addition to the earlier limits that the government imposed on live coverage from Tiananmen Square.

Intl. Olympic Committee officials met recently with nine broadcasters, including NBC, which have paid for rights to air the Games. Sun Weijia, head of media operations for the Beijing organizing committee (BOCOG), asked them to put their complaints into writing, prompting more protests about too much paperwork, according to the Associated Press, which also has a broadcasting interest in the Olympics with APTN.

A spokesman for the BBC, which is using a production staff of 437 to telecast the Games to the U.K., says, “There are frustrations with the processes, but regardless of these, we’re confident that it won’t lead us to scaling back our coverage.”

China is freer now than it has ever been. It has the largest number of Internet users in the world, and its citizens enjoy more liberty than they ever did under the emperors or under the Communist Party before or during the Cultural Revolution. They have money in their pockets and they can express their views relatively openly on the streets.

That said, the government is deadly serious when it comes to containing public displays of dissent at the Olympics.

The country expects half a million foreign visitors — and there will be about as many security officials.

Beijing frets that activists from abroad who disrupted the journey of the Olympic torch relay, will stage protests inside China over Tibet, Darfur, human rights and other issues before and during the Games.

The government also is worried about terrorist attacks or plots to kidnap athletes or visitors and hold them for ransom, though officials recently bragged it had rounded up one criminal ring with that goal.

While Beijing is on the defensive against attacks, it is also taking extensive steps to make everyone feel welcome — and to show national enthusiasm at the Games.

The four-part Olympic cheer will be taught at schools, promoted on TV, and instructions will be available as part of a poster campaign. It officially will be used to fire up the national team, but can be used to inspire other countries.

Step 1: Clap twice while chanting “Olympics.”

Step 2: Give the thumbs up with your arms extended upward, while chanting “Let’s go!”

Step 3: Clap twice chanting “China.”

Step 4: Punch the air with your fists, your arms extended, shouting “Let’s go!”

The cheer is a joint invention of the Communist Party’s Office of Spiritual Civilization Development & Guidance, the Ministry of Education and the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee. It was launched in the Media Center of national state broadcaster, China Central Television.

“We want to engage in activities to better promote civilized gestures in the stadiums, to cheer on the Olympics and to cheer on China. This gesture demonstrates to the world the charisma of the Chinese people and our enthusiasm,” says Guo Zhenxi, head of CCTV’s Center for Advertising and Economic Information.

The Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee has assigned 30 cheering squads to show spectators how it is done at Games stadiums, the Xinhua news agency reports.

But it isn’t just all about the home team. The government has appointed hundreds of schoolchildren to cheer for various countries during the Games, with individual schools ordered to adopt a specific nation.

Unsurprisingly, the schools that were given Japan, China’s long-standing regional rival, have an opt-out clause in which they get to cheer for China if there is a head-to-head between athletes from both countries.

Li Ning, head of the Beijing Etiquette Institute, told the Beijing News that the cheer is in line with what she described as general international principles for cheering.

“It creates a great atmosphere in the stadium for the athletes and heightens the interaction between the audiences,” says Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee publicity chief Wang Hui.

However, the reaction online has been mixed. “I’ve just learned the cheer,” Da Menya says. “But I feel a little bit foolish.” Shen Jiang Qike says the idea is good but wondered whether it was necessary for spectators to respond in such a uniform way.

“The enthusiasm is from our heart, which I think people from every country could feel, no matter what the expression is. Using diplomatic etiquette to express our enthusiasm will only make people uncomfortable,” Shen writes.

Another netizen, who gave his name as Xiao Shang says, “I am always amazed at the government’s ability to take the fun out of anything.”

Certainly the 30,000 media members expected to descend on Beijing are not expecting any fun. Rights groups have pointed out that a clampdown on media freedoms flies in the face of promises to let reporters do their jobs as they have in previous Olympic Games.

Some sponsors have privately complained that they are being charged exorbitant fees for security services, and are being told they would not be allowed to bring in their own private security firms. Residents need to show their passports to get in to their own homes if they live in compounds where diplomats or other notables live, while Chinese people practically have to have their birth certificates with them to get in to any area where foreigners congregate.

Some Western visitors trying to get visas have had to show letters of invitation plus copies of their hosts’ passports or hotel booking forms simply to get a tourist visa. The crackdown has particularly impacted students, who the Chinese fear are likely to stage illegal impromptu demonstrations on the streets.

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