Western Press Stories Critical of Beijing Olympics Likely to be Resented by the Chinese People, Expert Says

Release Date: August 1, 2008


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Residents of China resent critical media reports, says Kristin Stapleton, who heads UB's Asian Studies Program.

BUFFALO, N.Y. – The newspapers and online press are full of stories about the exceptional air pollution in Beijing, China's Internet censorship, poor construction of Olympic venues, half-empty hotels, algae-thickened beaches, visa problems and world-wide protests of China's Tibet policy.

These tales may have Westerners clucking, but the Chinese people resent them as examples of Western imperial attitudes, according to Kristin Stapleton, Ph.D., professor of history at the University at Buffalo and director of UB's Asian Studies Program, who just returned from China.

"Many Chinese think that the outside world, particularly the Europeans and Americans, is trying to embarrass China by focusing attention on aspects of Chinese life that are not as impressive as its economic achievements.  They link this to the history of Western imperialism."

Stapleton offers the following observations:

Q. Do the Chinese government and the Chinese people have the same goals when it comes to the Beijing Olympic games or is there conflict?

Stapleton: The Chinese government is very determined to make these Olympics a great success on its terms. That means they will feature spectacular pageantry in wonderful facilities that show how capable China is of promoting economic growth and building modern cities.  Most of the Chinese people I know share the government's hopes that the Olympics will demonstrate China's enormous economic achievements.

There are many Chinese as well who are critical of the way the Olympics are being organized and of the government in general, however, and they are not free to express those views.  Many government critics have been arrested or put under surveillance in recent months.  It is not likely that many of the Chinese people know about this; the government controls the media very tightly. 

Even blogs are closely monitored and material deemed critical of the government is removed.  Only a relatively small number of Chinese are critical enough of the government to try to get around Internet firewalls and search for a fuller understanding of the outside world's views on China.  In the case of some issues, such as Tibet's status as part of China, the vast majority of Chinese are unlikely to be sympathetic to arguments that Tibet needs more autonomy, even if they were able to access all the arguments about it.  

Q. Americans hoping to attend the Beijing Olympics are running into difficulty arranging travel visas. What is that about?

Stapleton: One way the Chinese government hopes to insure that the games will proceed with no interruptions is to limit the number of foreigners it admits. They are also pouring a huge amount of resources into controlling the environment around the Olympic sites.

Q. How do the Chinese people and government react to bad publicity surrounding aspects of the games?

Stapleton: Those Chinese who are aware of any bad publicity from outside of China are likely at first to react with anger toward the Western media, as we saw with the case of the coverage of the Tibet incidents in March.

I suspect, though, that in the absence of any major international incident, most Chinese will not dwell on the issue for long.  For the Chinese government, one key goal in hosting the Olympics is convincing foreign governments and international businesses that its rule is stable and it has the ability to organize an event of this magnitude.  If the Olympics come off without a major hitch, the government won't care too much about a little bad publicity if business and government leaders are impressed.  

Do the Chinese people as a whole express enthusiasm for the Olympic games and do they expect them to go well?

It's always difficult to gauge public opinion in a country like China, but, judging from conversations during my recent trip to China, I would say that many Chinese are very excited about the games and do expect them to be a great success.  Some people in Beijing are tired of the restrictions being placed on them because of the Olympics (not being able to drive their cars on certain days to help curtail air pollution, extra tight security in the subways, etc.), and many migrants have been forced to leave Beijing.  All in all, though, the people I met seemed quite upbeat about the Olympics and I think there is a strong chance they will succeed.

Sports records may not be broken, but records for enthusiastic cheering by huge crowds certainly will be.

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