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Blogging Beijing

The 2008 Summer Olympics will punctuate three decades of development and test China's global legitimacy. They've already transformed the way millions of people think and live. Seattleite and Fulbright researcher Daniel Beekman brings you Beijing.

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February 7, 2008 2:14 PM

Beijing 2008 Q&A: F. Alex Carre / David Liu

Posted by Daniel Beekman

Dr. F. Alex Carre, a University of British Columbia professor and member of Canada's Olympic Committee, believes 'Western' news reporters are picking on China ahead of the 2008 Olympic Games.

David Liu, a former Associated Press executive and esteemed China Hand, says only a minority of foreign journalists are looking to bash Beijing.

Liu joined the AP as a New York City copyboy and retired, 38 years later, as the news service's foreign-language publications head. Now a professor of journalism at Long Island University, he re-opened the AP's Beijing bureau - absent 30 years - following Chairman Mao Zedong's death in 1979. Liu recently returned to the U.S. after a Fulbright lectureship in China.

Carre has visited Beijing frequently over the last five years in order to research, observe and lend Chinese Olympic educators advice. A FIBA (International Basketball Federation) administrator and former president of Canada Basketball, he currently directs the School of Human Kinetics at UBC and is a visiting professor at Renmin University of China.

I recently chatted with Liu and Carre (separately) about Beijing and China's first Olympics. Check out excerpts from those interviews below.


Dr. Alex Carre - Professor Emeritus, University of British Columbia

How did you become interested in the 2008 Beijing Olympics?

I've been a member of the Canadian Olympic Committee for more than 18 years now and was drawn to Olympic Education thanks to my background in sports pedagogy. I've now attended five different Games and gained a real orientation to the Olympics and Olympic Education.

Vancouver (B.C.) will host the 2010 Winter Olympics. But I believe that Beijing's Games are the most anticipated ever. China is so big, was closed to the 'West' for so long and possesses such a rich culture - we'll never see an Olympics like this again.

Six months before China's Games, what don't Seattleites and Vancouverites know?

Many North Americans are convinced that the Chinese are suffering from a lack of openness - there has been a huge media cry about how hard it is to access certain parts of China. But I've never been stopped from going to see Olympic facilities. It seems plenty open here to me - as open as in other countries.

An improved infrastructure is also in evidence here. China now has some of the fastest trains in the world, and Beijing will soon boast a subway system as good as I've seen anywhere. Crowds are what 'Western' visitors will find most annoying during the 2008 Olympics - along with certain Chinese sounds and behaviors. Fortunately, I think the tourists will be impressed with the friendliness of Beijing's people and with the city's culture.

What has it been like to work on the Olympics in Beijing?

I gave a small talk at Renmin University of China on the history of terrorism and safety in the Games. It was on campus. About 100 people showed up. I didn't think much of it. Then, two weeks later, I got a phone call. A Chinese 'professor' wanted to talk. He took me to dinner in a black limousine. As it turned out, he was with the Party, and his area was terrorism. He wanted to know everything I could tell him.

These organizers and officials - they're after information, all the details. The average guy here is so proud. He doesn't want anything bad to happen during the Olympics. I've been impressed with peoples' overwhelming support for the Games. You don't see that in North America. It's all about face, I believe. There's no way Beijing is going to lose face.

Has Olympic Beijing been fairly portrayed by the 'Western' press?

Many reporters from the United States are attempting to present these 2008 Olympics as another 'Holocaust Games.'

(Note: Above, Dr. Carre refers to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, also known as the 'Nazi Olympics.' According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum:

"Adolf Hitler's Nazi dictatorship camouflaged its racist, militaristic character while hosting the Summer Olympics. Soft-pedaling its anti-Semitic agenda and plans for territorial expansion, the regime exploited the Games to bedazzle many foreign spectators and journalists with an image of a peaceful, tolerant Germany...With the conclusion of the Games, Germany's expansionist policies and the persecution of the Jews and other 'enemies of the state' accelerated, culminating in World War II and the Holocaust."

A number of non-Chinese organizations, including the Paris-based international NGO Reporters without Borders, have attacked Beijing's human rights record and called for a boycott of the 2008 Olympic Games. The group primarily campaigns for greater press freedom around the world.)

In fact, a lady from CNN working on a big series here asked a Chinese colleague of mine to defend Beijing. She used the term 'Holocaust Games.' I told her that was uncalled for - sensationalist journalism - particularly when the story was a basic-interest one.

These issues being tossed around by American journalists - like China's role in Darfur - capture readers' attention. These are easy stories to write. But the Olympics are supposed to be apolitical.

(Note: In recent years, activists and politicians, including American movie actress Mia Farrow, a good-will ambassador for the United Nations Children's Fund, have demonstrated against the 2008 Beijing Games. They have done so on behalf of Darfur in southern Sudan, where hundreds of thousands of people have been killed by government forces and a militia known as the Janjaweed. Farrow and others want the Chinese government to push international peacekeeping efforts along. China retains large petroleum investments in Sudan.)

What is Olympic Education about? Why is it important?

Olympic Education is about transmitting the Olympic values, and about presenting an unbiased picture of the Games - the strengths and weaknesses of Olympism. The Olympic values - which include peace, respect, fair play, equal opportunity and the pursuit of excellence - are worth teaching, critiquing and defending.

Sometimes these values come into conflict with each other - equal opportunity and the pursuit of excellence, for example. Olympic Education can help to resolve those kinds of conflicts.

Olympic education is about publicizing the benefits of health and fitness, and involving all people in sports. Most Olympic funding around the world involves elite athletes, but the Games are supposed to be for everyone.

What has been your impression of Olympic Education in China?

The Chinese have made Olympic Education a focal point of their preparation. Not only did they say 'we're going to reach every child in China,' they have encouraged individual school districts and schools to develop their own Olympic Education programs.

I've been happy to see how much Beijing has done - more than any other country, I think. Consequently, most every student here has some idea of what's going on. China has succeeded, in part, because the Chinese government is present in all aspects of people's lives. It can really push forward these types of initiatives.

After 2008, China's people will better understand the Olympics. The Games are opening their eyes to the world. Because, when you talk Olympics you talk almost every country in the world. There is no other event like it.

Having attended previous Games, how do you think Beijing 2008 will be unique?

I think the cultural element of these Games will really be what stands out. There is an effort going on here to raise outsiders' awareness of Chinese history, culture and art. Beijing's Olympic organizers also talk about technology and the environment, but their slogan 'One World, One Dream' is about making China a cultural hub as well as an economic one. Other Olympic host cities and countries have tried to infuse the Games with local culture, but not like the Chinese.

The 2008 Games will also exhibit the accomplishments of China's athletes. If the Chinese do not perform best, it will be very close. They will sweep the medals in more than one event - like diving.

And then there are the new facilities - the Water Cube (Beijing's National Aquatics Center), for example. I'm excited to see it, although it looks like it's going to be hard to clean. The Water Cube is something special.

How will Vancouver's Games be different from Beijing's? What does hosting the Olympics mean for a city?

Vancouver's Games will be much smaller - in scale they won't compare. They will be cleaner than the Olympics in Beijing. And, because Vancouver will host the Winter Games and Beijing the Summer Games, our Olympics will attract a different type of spectator. They will be less global than Beijing’s - only 13 countries do well in the Winter Games.

The 2010 Olympics will also enjoy less local popular support. The people of Vancouver were not entirely for the Games when they voted on it. In fact, the Olympics barely passed.

(Note: In 2003, 64 percent of Vancouver voters said they would support their city's bid to host the 2010 Olympics.)

That initial lukewarm response is building now, but there won't be any events outside of Vancouver and Whistler (B.C.). Outside the area, Canadians haven't shown much interest in it - whereas popular support for the Beijing Games across China is overwhelming. I don't know whether that support is real or not - the CCP's influence here is so strong. Either way, I've really noticed it.

Additionally, it has been mind-boggling to catalogue all the new changes that have occurred every time I visit Beijing. Essentially, preparing for an Olympics is like launching a whole bunch of (Franklin Delano) Roosevelt-era public works.

Building stadiums generates interest and gets people working. But most businesses lose money during the Olympics. It's hard to believe, but studies have been done - the Games deal a negative economic impact. Without public money, they wouldn't occur.

A few big construction companies usually benefit, and politically connected firms. The Olympics are valuable in terms of infrastructure and public relations. Yet, even those projects may not be well placed. What does a city need more - a bunch of new hospitals or a nine-lane airport expressway for Olympic tourists?

You end up with these specialized facilities. A velodrome - that's a white elephant and always will be. Australia (2000 Games host) is currently losing money right, left and center on its facilities. Greece (2004 host) has already closed down many of its facilities. I'd like to see a public/private approach - on the Los Angeles model.

Of course, every host prepares differently. In Canada it's 'what site is available to build our stadium?' In China it's 'let's build where we want, after clearing away what's already there.'

Visit Vancouver 2010's official website here.


Mr. David Liu - Former Associated Press Foriegn-Languages Newspapers Chief

Walk me through your career - what steps led you toward the AP and Beijing?

I'm a veteran journalist - worked at the AP for 38 years before I retired. I started as a copy boy at the AP's headquarters in New York City, and climbed the corporate ladder from there. Most recently I was in charge of the AP's foreign language newspapers. But I spent time as a copy editor and a biographical editor. At one point I edited a lot of obituaries - that's where I got my start.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Sino-American relations resumed, I was a member of the first entourage to establish the AP in Beijing. Since then I've traveled back and forth between the U.S. and China many, many times. Actually - 167 times roundtrip. My jobs involved building bilateral journalistic ties. I supervised a lot of multinational events, advised corporate executives in the media industry.

I've seen and done a lot. For instance, I helped save the AP's status when Tian'anmen took place. I began teaching at Long Island University in 1980, and retired fully from the AP in 2005. I taught briefly at Shanghai's Fudan University and then applied for a Fulbright.

(Note: In 1989, thousands of Chinese protestors, largely students, set up camp in central Beijing's Tian'anmen square. They were dispersed by military force and many were killed. The incident is still taboo - kept from the public's attention in mainland China.)

What was it like to set up shop so soon after Mao's death in China?

I'll tell you. We were housed in the top floor of the Beijing Hotel, which was open only to foreigners. You'd look out your window after dark and all the lights in the city would be off, except for the streetlamps along Chang'an (Everlasting Peace) Road. It was so dark. If you ventured out during the day, you'd see no colors at all. The only colors you'd detect would be on undershirts worn by children. Adults wore almost no colors. It was so different than today. If you wore a shirt with any color they could immediately identify you as an outsider. When you ventured out, you'd have an escort to keep an eye on you. If you wanted to go outside of the city, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had to give you permission to leave Beijing. Our cars were driven by chauffeurs dispatched by the government.

At that time, UPI (United Press International - a now-defunct* U.S. wire service and news agency) was still around. In Beijing, we were housed in the same building. We shared a single cable. We'd use the cable in the morning - they'd take it for the afternoon. Or vice versa. In 1963, a UPI reporter and the AP's Bob Johnson were riding behind President John F. Kennedy's car. When he was shot, they went for the same phone. Bob grabbed the phone but was pushed back. They started slugging each other. By the same token, we were fighting over a single cable in Beijing.

How has foreign reporting in Beijing changed? What's different about China today?

Now you can go anywhere you want as an American journalist - since 2007. You can roam the countryside without having to stop for permission. So that's quite a difference. Beijing is much louder these days, and brighter after dark. The whole city is illuminated. In fact, there is no real night.

Also, there is this new generation of Chinese - my students when I was just in Beijing. They are quite different. They were born after 1980, when the market economy began to take off. They are well educated - these single children in China. They are enjoying many more luxuries than their parents.

Some journalists say it is still quite difficult to work in China under the current regime. What do you think?

It depends on how and where you look for stories, and on what questions you raise. A year ago, China's central government announced it would let foreign correspondents move freely around the country. They could interview anyone - provided that the interviewee didn't object. This has given a tremendous boost to journalists from the 'West.'

Of course, the irony of the situation is that domestic correspondents - Chinese journalists - must still ask the government for permission to go out into the country. If they go without a permit, they may not emerge again. So Chinese newspeople feel frustrated.

Therefore, some reporters are enjoying tremendous freedom. Some aren't.

What is the relationship between press freedoms in China and the 2008 Olympic Games ?

Right now, things are moving along smoothly. There have been no huge, sensationalist stories so far. After the Games, I think the Chinese government will re-evaluate the situation. If they believe lifting restrictions on foreign reporters has caused trouble, they might act. But I wouldn't bet on that. There is a lot of pride wrapped up in the Olympics. The Chinese do not want to damage their reputation. I believe the opening up to 'Western' journalists will continue.

Foreign journalists in China still face challenges, however - right?

Yes, they do. There was a New York Times story a while ago - a writer went to check out a Guangdong province factory, where workers crank out products for overseas consumption. The reporter wanted to find out what was going on inside the factory compound. For some reason, there was a misunderstanding and he ended up being held. He called for help and local security responded. But they couldn't get in. 'It's the factory boss' jurisdiction,' they said. 'We can only assist you outside the compound gates.'

China today is a 'centripetal state' - do you know what that means? There is a central government in Beijing, but each provincial government retains authority. It's like our federal government and our states. Local governments here have certain rights and things they can do.

Some people would like to protest Beijing's Games. Do you foresee a Tian'anmen-like incident occurring in conjuction with the Olympics?

I don't expect that. I don't see anything looming on the horizon. There could be a natural disaster or something, but in terms of a large protest I don't see it happening. Journalists without Borders - these guys want us to boycott the Olympics. A bunch of splinter groups - environmentalists, some from Taiwan - they are trying to gang up together against Beijing. In the mainstream media we don't do that.

What phenomena have caught your attention as Beijing prepares to host the 2008 Olympics?

I enjoyed my time as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar in China very much. I stayed on campus (at Renmin University of China) and immersed myself in campus life. I got a very good look at this young generation - how they live. I chatted with them, and ate in their mess hall. I joined in their activities. I really heard and saw a lot of things. You can't learn only through reading. You need to listen and observe.

So many college students in Beijing rushed to volunteer for the Olympics a year ago. But now some are backing out. The organizers are still recruiting because volunteers have quit. These students are tired and frustrated. Why is that?

Not too long ago, the municipal government decided to spray chemicals on Beijing's flowers - those that bloom every spring. They're retarding that process until August, in honor of the Games. What about environmental and health concerns? What about the guys spraying those chemicals on? The government has forced nature to change its course. Is that right? What will happen after the Olympics?

Basically, there is this big rush. The government accomplishes what it wants by decree - it doesn't have to account for public opinion. How people respond is beside the point. The government can stop a whole highway without warning people. There is no way for the public to protest.

For example, because of the Olympics, all of Beijing's universities were asked to adjust their schedules. They will open two weeks earlier than usual this winter. Instead of opening on March 1, they will open on February 18. And in turn, they will close two weeks earlier - so the city's student volunteers can prepare for the Games and lend their full support.

There won't be any missed classes, but the change has certainly caused disruption. When the students begin this winter, the Chinese New Year will not yet be over. Beijing's students will have to return from their homes early. This has made many of them very uncomfortable.

Read longtime TIME Magazine journalist Melinda Liu's China retrospective "Mao to Now" - the piece includes memories similar to David Liu's from 1980.

*See Comment #1

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