For China, Olympics are a time to display – and to conceal

Beijing – On a Beijing street a few weeks ago, a man began to beat his wife. A small crowd gathered, but nobody intervened until an American leaned from his apartment window overlooking the scene and began to shoot photos.

Noticing him, a spectator stepped up to the assailant and told him to stop. “There’s a foreigner taking pictures,” he pointed out.

As the Olympic torch gets under way this week in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games – the proudest moment in modern Chinese history and a symbol of the country’s return as a major player to the international stage – that incident sheds light on one of the Beijing authorities’ key concerns as they prepare to welcome the world.

Outsiders must not be allowed to see anything that reflects badly on the government or the country – such as dissidents’ complaints or the unrest in Tibet – which would lose both of them face.

The Beijing Games, expected to draw half a million foreign visitors and over 20,000 journalists next August, offer China an unmatched opportunity to display its extraordinary achievements over the past 30 years.

The government is keen to show how its economic development policies have pulled 400 million people out of poverty, how it has transformed Beijing into a modern, vibrant, and international city studded now with futuristic Olympic facilities, and how open the country is to intercourse with the rest of the world.

“Chinese leaders want the country to be more international, which means being put in the limelight. But the light is very hot,” says Liu Junning, a liberal intellectual at the China Cultural Research Institute.

“It will be a time not just to show, but also to hide,” he cautions. “That mind-set is deeply rooted in Chinese culture.”

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