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China's soap bubble reality

Where public relations is a national goal
By Thane Burnett, Winnipeg Sun
August 14, 2008

BEIJING - This is a view from within the soap bubble.

There are more journalists here in Beijing covering the Olympics than athletes competing.

We are, daily, met - at each new door opened for us and even as we are each helped by at least two volunteers to dump our lunch tray debris - with a Disney-like happiness from our Chinese hosts.

It never seems anything less than completely cheerful and genuine - they are over-joyed that we have come. Even the person who wands you for hidden weapons is sorry to have delayed you.

Within the strict confines of the Olympic venues and even within the buses that shuttle reporters from one highly protected and controlled area to the next, the only sour faces you will ever see belong to exhausted writers and photographers working across multiple time-zones and meeting 24-hour deadlines.

One young Chinese volunteer recently started to sing "It's a Small World" to a group of hardened reporters as they rolled toward a venue.

The entire bus broke out in applause. It is contagious and sometimes makes you ashamed for being so jaded.

But this is the Truman Show, broadcast in high def. It is where a young dancer can fall from the sky and apparently be paralyzed during a dress rehearsal for the breath-taking Olympic opening, only to have officials say if there was an accident, the girl simply broke a leg.

It is where protest zones are established, but left empty because either government approval to applying citizens wasn't granted or they are now being held by police until the fun and Games are over.

The media's comfortable stay inside the soap bubble gives an unclear view of what China is and what it now stands for.

This happy place is only part of a more important narrative that will likely never be told during hundreds of thousands of stories shipped out during these weeks in August.

Except to venture outside the Olympic barriers to drink from large green bottles of Yanjing Beer - served warm to locals - or to take in one of the silk markets - where pretty girl vendors use chemistry to take male tourists by the hand and lead them to stalls filled with cheap wares - most journalists will never crack the carefully exposed layer of China.

So it is impossible - especially as an outsider - to discover the wonders of how far average people have come or the distance their government still must travel.

Sometimes you get fleeting glimpses of real life just beyond the gates to a $40-billion wonderland, but then you're pulled back by 1.3 billion guiding hands.

I've traveled almost daily outside the confines of the Olympic zones, to walk down the alley-like hutongs and stand outside factories closed to try to clean up the air for Olympic visitors, but even I have a hard time seeing what daily life in China really is all about.

Instead, I have been told at least one petitioner I met with a few days ago, is now under arrest for contacting a western reporter to complain.

There have been rapid strides made in this country - especially, despite western cynicism, in starting to clean up one of the most polluted environments in the world.

But no one here wants to take the chance of being the one in a billion to burst an illusion that there are no worries - be happy.

More than police, an army of paranoid citizen block-wardens - volunteers who are the gate-keepers to many neighborhoods - stop me every half block when I leave the Olympic zone.

They try to redirect me away from average citizens, and talk about things like "official community spokesmen" and "have to make appointment."

This public relations spin is a national concern.

Putting on the best possible face for the Olympics is an obsession best symbolized by the switching of one little singer in the Olympic opening because she wasn't pretty enough to be seen in public.

But if you were to search for that story in most of the Chinese press, you would be disappointed.

All bad news - including bloody unrest in the Muslim territory of Xinjiang, which has killed at least 31 people in the past ten days in China - is largely ignored by the local press.

The South China Morning Post has published a 21-point directive from China's propaganda bureau, allegedly handed to the country's reporters and editors.

In includes outlawed media topics, such as Tibet, Falun Gong, the three still empty protest parks and even cancer-causing elements in bottled mineral water.

Beijing Olympic Committee vice-president, Wang Wei, says no such list exists.

He said during a news conference here on Thursday that the country is living up to its promises to the International Olympic Committee, and that the Chinese people believe they are more free now than before.

Anything else gives a wrong impression of China, he told reporters.

But it's clear, whenever something threatens the harmony inside the Olympic cradle, it's quickly dealt with, as a British journalist found out earlier this week, when he was reportedly pushed to the ground and dragged away by police after trying to report on a Tibet protest near the Bird's Nest stadium.

Getting information into the soap bubble is a good gauge of the progress China has made in opening up, while still being a closed society.

Try tapping a dozen previously banned internet sites into a Google search engine here.

Tens of thousands of Chinese internet police - in what the West calls the 'Great Fire Wall' but locals know as the 'Golden Shield Project' - patrol the web, looking to restrict information they decide is subversive.

At least for these Games, despite complaints by journalists who were promised no restriction to freedom of information on the web, the internet has apparently never been more open than it's been here since 2000.

On Thursday, I was able to call up sites for Human Rights Watch, previously blocked papers in Hong Kong and Germany as well as call up a description of the Tiananmen Square massacre - where untold numbers of pro-democracy protesters were killed in 1989.

But other sites suddenly returned the infamous '404' code - site not found. They included links inside Amnesty International and almost anything to do with the Falun Gong movement, which has been banned here since 1999.

As we in the visiting media struggle to learn what life is like for those who live outside the Olympic soap bubble - the good as well as the bad - the Chinese themselves are doing a better job at reporting their current reality.

Finding ways around government censors, they have become experts at telling stories and sharing views among themselves.

On caustic websites and though clever text-messages sent to one another, they are doing everything from worrying about the economy - by reworking an Olympic song to reflect concern over the price of oil and rice - to taking e-mail swipes at the burden security measures have made in their lives.

But it's their use of images and references of a man "doing push-ups" which reflects a story which will not be denied by tight controls and spin.

Last month, a mob attacked a police station following the death of 15-year-old Chinese schoolgirl, Li Shufe. While officials say she committed suicide off a bridge, people in her community believe she was raped and murdered by those with close ties to senior Communist Party members.

Officials announced that one of those suspects was doing push-ups on the bridge when the girl jumped to her death.

Suspicious and unhappy, the story can't officially be told, they now use the euphemism "doing push ups" - even the image of it - as a way to now communicate a message to one another.

I can't tell you how, but the good people of China have learned well how to live outside the soap bubble.

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