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China's Olympic ambitions falter with protests
BEIJING -- The short, catchy film commissioned by the Chinese government was designed to plant a new, positive image of China in foreigners' minds for the Beijing Olympics.
But instead of airing worldwide more than two months ago as planned, the 30-second TV spot is only now about to reach viewers, having been delayed repeatedly by Tibetan riots, a devastating earthquake and foreign criticism buffeting the games.
China's hopes that the Olympics starting Friday will be a pivotal moment in national glory and global acceptance have been battered by unforeseen events. The disappointment has left some in China hurt and feeling unjustly treated.
The Chinese "tried hard to impress the world and to prove the country deserves respect and appreciation," said Xu Guoqi, a China-born historian at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. "But the West used the Olympic torch relay and the coming games to shame the country and frequently remind the Chinese they were not good enough."
The August Olympics still may appear picture-perfect on global TV, despite concerns about air pollution, overbearing security and media restrictions. Enthusiasm among Chinese for a strong showing by Team China remains high. But where officials once spoke of hosting the greatest games ever, they now seem ready to settle simply for an incident-free event.
"A safe Olympics is the biggest indicator of the success of the games," Vice President Xi Jinping, the senior-most Communist Party leader overseeing preparations, told a rally of volunteers last month.
Worries about terrorism and protests have come to the fore. Beijing has taken on a strange air: Its new venues, skyscrapers and roadways hung with banners sparkle in anticipation while police expel political critics, some migrant workers and foreigners deemed suspect.
The Olympic letdown stands in contrast to the ambitious buildup. From the outset, Chinese leaders saw the games as a chance to boost China's image, to redefine it as a worthy, humane global partner -- and not a menacing behemoth. Ordinary Chinese thought it a ripe opportunity to mark the tremendous strides made in casting off poverty and totalitarianism and building the fourth-largest economy in the space of a generation.
In their bid for the Olympics seven years ago, Beijing officials said the games would increase interaction with the international community and spur improvements in human rights and media freedom. The Chinese government called on party image-makers to devise ways to appeal to foreigners and on officials to stoke popular enthusiasm at home. "Integrate with the world" became a catch-phrase.
The longest ever torch relay was planned. In a $40 billion makeover, Beijing invited top foreign architects to design futuristic sports venues, a new airport and other eye-catching modern landmarks. Residents were told not to spit in public and to obey traffic rules.
The country rolled out the most extensive Olympic education program ever, developing a special curriculum taught in more than 550 schools and encouraging tens of thousands nationwide to teach Olympic values and take part in sports meets and signature campaigns.
"The Olympics is about unity," said 10-year-old Miwei Ruoye, a fifth-grader at the Nanjing Road Primary School in Nanchang city, 780 miles south of Beijing's Olympic venues. "It's all about peace and friendship," said her 11-year-old classmate, Wan Zhao.
In the school courtyard sits a 3-foot-tall model in bamboo and spray-painted silver of the new National Stadium, known as the Bird's Nest.
"We're teaching them that the Olympic spirit is international, that it doesn't just belong to one country," said Zhang Renzhi, a teacher and pingpong instructor in charge of the Olympic curriculum. "It's an international, humanitarian spirit."
The promotional film was a key part of this effort and the first ever commissioned by the government for overseas markets. Dubbed "a national image film," the government planned for a May airing on CNN, the BBC and other broadcasters with international reach. The piece would mix images of ancient picturesque towns with shots of ultramodern Beijing and Shanghai.
"At the time we thought we were making history," said one participant who, like several interviewed, requested anonymity because of a confidentiality agreement signed with the government agency overseeing the project. "They said this was the first time that China was communicating to the outside world rather than waiting for the world to come to us."
Then events intervened. Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg withdrew as an adviser to the opening ceremony to draw attention to China's support for the Sudan government, which is waging a civil war in Darfur. The uprising by Tibetans brought a tide of critical reporting by the foreign media and turned the torch relay into a melee of protests.
Suddenly, the talk overseas, especially in the West, was of boycotts and Beijing's suitability to host the games.
"We hoped that the Olympics would help people understand our country's achievements, that this ancient civilization has started a new chapter," said Luo Qing, a media expert in Beijing specializing in China's national image. "But from the torch relay, we suddenly realized that we were preparing to open the nation's front door to welcome people who do not wish us well."
Even ordinary Chinese felt spurned.
"Here, we build sports venues, fix rail lines and construct airports, hurrying like a raging fire to prepare. There, people use Darfur one day and Tibet the next to fan the flames of protest and boycott. What's going on?" Liu Songjie, a 24-year-old Beijing railway department employee, wrote in late March in his online diary, where his usual musings are about movies and pop culture.
"This is a hot face pressed on a cold rump," Liu wrote, using a coarse saying for unrequited love.
China's standing tumbled in at least three polls overseas. A spring survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that favorable views of China slipped in nine countries out of 21 over the past year, the steepest in France and Japan, while "there were signs of apprehension about the country and its growing power."
The uproar made poor timing for global outreach, and the promotional film was temporarily shelved. After more than 69,000 people died in the Sichuan earthquake in May, the broadcast was delayed again.
"It was because of CNN and BBC's attitude so we did not broadcast at that time," Guo Changjian, the State Council Information Office official in charge of the project, said of their critical reporting of the Tibet riots in March. "It was because the earthquake happened, the March 14 beating, smashing and looting incident happened. The timing was up to us."
Guo said contracts with CNN and the BBC have been reached to air the film just before the Olympics opening on Aug. 8; both networks declined to comment.
Still, the mood has shifted sharply from the friendly internationalism Chinese leaders hoped to display. Many Chinese are casting a critical eye on Western governments and media for what they see as tarnishing the Olympic moment.
"These Olympics will perhaps hurt the feelings of other countries. But it will be good for Chinese," said Wu Jiaxiang, a former government researcher and now a blogger and businessman. "We care less about human rights than other countries and more about sovereignty. That's bound to create an awkward feeling among other countries."