Legacy of the Olympics: IOC off the mark

When the International Olympic Committee released its review of Beijing’s August Games a few days ago, it didn’t hold back from patting itself or China’s government on the back. The Games were, to quote the IOC’s fact sheet, “by almost every measure, an indisputable success.” One of the intangible results the IOC mentioned was that “unprecedented international attention from journalists, activist organizations and foreign leaders highlighted China’s strengths as well as its shortcomings.” 

And, “the Olympic Games in Beijing saw the largest media contingent for any event ever–more than 28,000 journalists from around the world. Reduced restrictions on foreign media extended indefinitely after the Games,” the IOC said, not to mention that these Games were the first to have global digital coverage and that traffic to www.olympic.org was more than double than during the 2004 Athens Games.


Here’s what the IOC announced after all was said and done:


The Games left a positive legacy for China in several areas–social, urban, environmental, sport, and economic–and produced intangible benefits for China to build on. Only time will tell whether China will take full advantage of the opportunities that the Games provided.

You have to expect the IOC to cheerlead for surviving what might have been the most politically fraught Games in years. But frankly, post-Olympics China is off to a bad start and the media the landscape looks remarkably like what came before, if not worse. There is even more heavy-handed government control of controversial issues like the melamine-food tainting public health disaster, and an accelerating crackdown on reporting about the increasing social unrest as China’s economy follows the rest of the world into recession or worse.


The IOC makes the point that the temporarily eased restrictions on foreign journalists–which allowed them to travel in China and interview any Chinese citizen who would agree to speak with them–has been made permanent. The reality is a bit different: foreign journalists were not allowed to travel to Tibet, for example, during the march demonstrations that ultimately led to ethnic rioting by Tibetans. Nor were foreign journalists made to feel especially welcome in Sichuan province after the story turned from a humanitarian disaster to a political one of angry parents demanding to know why so many children had died in what appears to have been shoddily built schools. As for open access to the Chinese man on the street, foreign journalists have been regularly reporting that they have seen their interviewees questioned by security personnel soon after the reporters have walked away.


The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China has done a good job of cataloguing the abuses their members faced before, during, and after the Games. The group’s records do not paint a picture of a government that has come to warmly embrace the role of journalism as practiced by foreign journalists. And in recent weeks, there have been two disturbing stories: one of an attack on a CBS crew covering an environmental story on how China disposes of toxic computer waste, and another on a Belgian TV crew from the Flemish station VRT reporting on the conditions of people with AIDS.


Those are nasty incidents, but frankly foreign reporters are not in great jeopardy in China–only one has been expelled in recent years, and the incidents involving physical abuse are more remarkable because they are not commonplace. Harassment by police at the village or township level usually means a few hours in detention and sometimes a scuffle or argument about handing over pictures or video. Still, the FCCC has documented 338 incidents since the January 1, 2007 “Olympic free reporting” regulation took effect.


Traditional mainstream Chinese journalists have learned to operate within the government’s restrictions–the vast majority of the 29 or so (the final number is being compiled as I am writing) behind bars in China are more political activists and bloggers who post on overseas sites disliked by the government. Reporters and their editors continue to push the envelope on stories as opportunities arise, but that was the case long before August’s Games. China’s media is not as bleak as many imagine. A story headlined “Chinese Netizens ‘Concerned’ Over Local Officials’ Integrity: Survey” that appeared in the official People’s Daily is not atypical. But China media watchers do see increasingly more reliance on official news outlets like Xinhua as the primary source for politically sensitive information.

We can’t really expect the IOC to be an expert on China’s media universe, but their approach to the question of reporting for foreign and local journalists is another indicator of how tone deaf they have been to the entire question of media in China. Let them praise China for having pulled off the Games in a spectacular fashion–even getting Beijing’s notoriously toxic clouds to vanish for the duration of the Olympics. But please, don’t claim that the Games have wrought any significant change in the climate for reporters. Things have not gotten better, and in fact there are indications that press freedom is harder to come by as the economic climate continues to deteriorate.