China works to unruffle feathers

Beijing Olympics at a crossroads

BEIJING — The astounding Bird’s Nest structure that will serve as the Olympic Stadium is nearly ready. The imposing twisted-donut CCTV Tower is quickly becoming a local landmark. And the Norman Foster-designed airport is already seeing enormous traffic.

After eight years of preparation and billions of dollars, all the physical development is on schedule for the games. But China’s government is now dealing with a major factor it hadn’t braced for: an outpouring of protests, violence and even deaths in the past few months.

Acknowledging that something needs to be done, The government is reportedly calling for pitches from public-relations firms in the U.S. and the U.K. to help counteract the widescale damage to its image and to try and turn the spin back in China’s favor.

The PR consultants have their work cut out for them: Four months before their start, the Beijing Olympics have become the most politically divisive games in nearly 30 years.

But local reaction to the controversy is bafflement and anger. People here are wildly enthusiastic about the Aug. 8-24 event. They see the rites as recognition of China’s growth into the world’s fourth largest economy and its increasingly important role on the world’s stage. All this growth in one generation fills them with pride.

Because the Games are so important, they are happy to put up with traffic restrictions, constant construction-related disturbances and other Olympic inconveniences — a major concession on their part, because congestion and delays were already at high levels before the Olympics entered the scene.

Most Beijing residents are truly puzzled by the developments of recent weeks and feel betrayed by the international community — not surprising, given the strict controls on which Internet sites they can visit and which TV stations they can watch.

On April 9, the protests in San Francisco, the only U.S. stop for the Olympic torch relay, offered the latest example of Free Tibet campaigners switching the focus from something that was intended to raise enthusiasm.

The reactions in California mirrored those in Paris and London, and China is furious.

“We express our strong condemnation of the deliberate disruption of the Olympic torch relay by ‘Tibetan independence’ separatist forces,” said foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu after the Euro protests. “Their despicable activities tarnish the lofty Olympic spirit,” she raged.

For the past few years, protesters had vowed that the Olympics would provide an opportunity to air grievances against China for some violations of human rights, animal rights, freedom of the press and other issues. But looming largest were the questions of Darfur and Tibet.

Problems began to emerge after Steven Spielberg quit as artistic adviser of the games over China’s support for the Sudanese government in the Darfur crisis. And China’s global image has been badly damaged by the heavy-handed crackdown on anti-Chinese protesters in Tibet last month.

That earned the ire of the international community and threatened to sour the goodwill generated by China as its society has begun to open up and its economy has become more important. The Tibetan issue has gone global in a way that could undercut the opening ceremony for the biggest sporting event in the world, with many suggesting that world leaders boycott attendance.

The Chinese government believes Western media have misreported the Tibetan riots, which they say mostly killed ethnic Han Chinese and were the work of gangsters sponsored by the Dalai Lama and his “clique.”

Journalists from CNN and The Times of London have received death threats from Chinese angry over their reporting of the demonstrations. Local blogs are full of outpourings of disgust at how China is more sinned against than sinner in Tibet.

For the generations raised since the 1949 revolution that brought the Communist Party to power, there is no question who is right on this issue. Ask anyone on the streets of Beijing about Tibetan calls for more autonomy and the answer is, invariably, “Tibet was, is and always will be China.”

Beijing has made major progress in allowing greater press freedom for foreign media over the past two years, although strict controls on domestic journalists remain in place. But there are signs that things are being pulled back — foreign journalists have been banned from entering Tibet, with the exception of one government-arranged press trip that turned into a fiasco after monks stormed a news conference and publicly aired their grievances to the Western scribes gathered in Lhasa.

Now, as China’s capital enters the final stages of what was intended as a big party celebrating the country’s emergence onto the world stage, the Beijing Olympics are at a crossroads.

How the government reacts from this point forward will determine whether the rest of the world joins, or shuns, the party.

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