WORLD

THE GAMES: FOREIGNERS NOT WELCOME

Anti-Western anger and new restrictions don't bode well for the Olympics

ERIN CONWAY-SMITH May 12 2008
WORLD

THE GAMES: FOREIGNERS NOT WELCOME

Anti-Western anger and new restrictions don't bode well for the Olympics

ERIN CONWAY-SMITH May 12 2008

THE GAMES: FOREIGNERS NOT WELCOME

Anti-Western anger and new restrictions don't bode well for the Olympics

ERIN CONWAY-SMITH

To celebrate the 100-day countdown to the Olympics this week, Beijing hand-picked the 100 hottest Chinese pop stars to sing an ode to the visitors that will soon flood this city, an expression of goodwill from a house-proud capital about to open its arms to the world. The song is a plodding celebrity singalong called Welcome to Beijing, and if you don’t speak Chinese, you won’t understand what they’re telling you. But no matter—it “will be sung

all across China,” according to a state television report. Welcome to Beijing not only reflects the warmth of the Chinese people, but also shows that Beijing is confident and ready to host the Beijing Olympics.” That’s the official refrain for tourists and athletes planning to attend the Games, as well as for the home crowd, and it’s true that preparations for the big event this August are well in hand. The new, dragon-shaped airport has opened, the twiggy “bird’s nest” national stadium is ready, and pre-Olympic competitions to test the facility are under way, with the public invited to come “enjoy the elegance of the bird’s nest” this week at the 100-day celebrations.

But other aspects of Beijing’s Olympic preparations reveal a nervous host that is becoming increasingly inhospitable to for-

eigners. The government is more paranoid than usual about unrest on home turf, after the uprising among Tibetans in March, followed by chaotic pro-Tibet protests in London and Paris during the Olympic torch relay. As a rule, major events in Beijing are always preceded by a security crackdown. The result is that, at a time when the world is invited to Beijing, the government has tightened visa regulations, making it more difficult for foreigners—including tourists—to get into the country. Bars are being raided and music concerts and other cultural events cancelled because of preOlympic “security concerns.” Soon, the capital’s millions of migrant workers and students will be forced out, and the streets swept clean of potential troublemakers—and character. “Olympics are usually huge parties,” notes one American expat in Beijing. “This one is going to be pretty grim.”

At the same time as the security crackdown in Beijing is making many foreigners feel

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unwelcome, there has been an outpouring of xenophobia and nationalism aimed at the West, fuelled by Chinese who feel their country is under attack by Westerners bent on ruining their moment of international glory. Many Chinese are furious about the proTibetan protesters—'“splittists” out to divide the motherland, as far as China is concerned— who embarrassed the country as the Olympic torch set out on its controversial “Journey of Harmony” around the world. There has been a rising tide of anger on the Internet and in state media: petitions against Western media outlets, long dissertations on why “Tibet has always been a part of China,” patriotic T-shirts for sale (“I Heart China” and “I Heart China More Than Ever”),

“heart China” added next to MSN Messenger nicknames, and YouTube music videos that warn, “Don’t be too CNN”—a popular catch-

phrase in China these days, meaning don’t be too biased. CNN commentator Jack Cafferty “seriously violated professional ethics of journalism and human conscience” when he referred to China’s government as “goons and thugs,” and the country’s products as “junk,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters.

The anger has spilled over into the real world. Foreign journalists have received death threats, while French megastore Carrefour has become the subject of a nationalismfuelled boycott and protests in major cities around China because of the torch disruption, which “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people,” according to President Hu Jintao, in particular when a protester in Paris tried to grab the torch from a disabled Chinese athlete. Also fuelling the boycotts were rumours

spread online that Carrefour shareholder LVMH Group had given money to the Dalai Lama, who China says orchestrated the protests in Tibet and along the torch route (LVMH has strongly denied the allegations).

Demonstrators with flags and banners, including one calling Joan of Arc a “prostitute” and Napoleon a “pervert,” have protested outside Carrefour outlets in many Chinese cities. An American volunteer teacher —mistaken as being French—was confronted last week by a crowd of angry demonstrators outside a Carrefour store in the southern city of Zhuzhou. A crowd surrounded his taxi, taunting and protesting, until police

arrived and took him away. A photo making the rounds online shows a taxi in Qingdao, the host city for Olympic sailing events, with a sign in its window saying: “Refuse to carry Frenchmen and dogs” (a reference to the story of an anti-Chinese sign hung outside a park in Shanghai’s foreign concession area in the early 1900s). “While the French may be the target, I fear anyone who might be deemed by an angry Chinese population as French could become a target for frustration ventilation,” writes one Canadian blogger in Beijing. “And if I’m thinking like this, I have to wonder just how many other people around the world are pondering the same thing, particularly when it comes to possibly travelling here for the Olympics.”

Even Chinese heroes aren’t safe from the mob mentality. Jin Jing, the disabled athlete

who shielded the torch from the protesters in Paris, was known as the “angel in the wheelchair” until she spoke out against the Carrefour boycotts and the public turned on her. “Jin Jing is bulls—t! Speaking on behalf of Carrefour. I think she’s a traitor,” said one online commentator. “Torchbearer Jin Jing, I earnestly request you to shut your mouth,” said another. “You’ve done your duty already. Don’t go around making irresponsible remarks. First she’s missing a leg, now she’s missing a brain.”

It’s all something the Chinese government is in part responsible for. For weeks after the riots in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa and other areas, China’s state media

was in overdrive, running reams of articles rabidly attacking Western governments, the media, and the Dalai Lama (described as a “wolf in monk’s robes, a devil with a human face, but the heart of a beast”) and calling on the public to wage a “people’s war” against the Dalai Lama’s sympathizers. Now the government, apparently realizing the danger of the charged-up masses when the world is about to come to town, is trying to dampen the rhetoric. Government censors have been deleting pro-boycott material on Internet forums and quickly dispersing anti-France demonstrators.

This is far from the first time the Chinese have protested foreign influence and boycotted foreign goods. Most notoriously, during the Boxer rebellion in 1900 at the end of the Qing dynasty, a group of peasants opposed

‘Olympics are usually huge parties,' said one American expat of the crackdown. ‘This one is going to be pretty grim.

to foreign influence in China laid siege to Beijing’s foreign legation quarter, killing more than 230 people. In the 1930s, Chinese consumers protested Japan’s invasion of their country by boycotting and even burning Japanese goods. There have been other boycotts and anti-foreigner protests condoned by government, such as in 2005 over a con-

troversial history textbook in Japan that glossed over the millions of deaths during that country’s occupation of China, and after the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999Past boycotts have fizzled out, and the government eventually put the lid on the protests.

But despite a government clampdown on anti-foreigner behaviour this time around, the calls for an anti-French boycott haven’t gone away. Plans are still in the works for protests against Carrefour on May 1, a national holiday in China, and some have called for boycotts to last throughout the month. (There were even calls for extending the actions to American goods such as CocaCola and McDonald’s.) “The government incited these people,” says British author Jasper Becker, a long-time Beijing resident. “They’ve shot themselves in the foot.”

A harbinger of the current problems was a Shanghai concert by the singer Björk in early March—only weeks before protests broke out in Fhasa—where she shouted “Tibet, Tibet!” at the end of a governmentunapproved song, Declare Independence. The Chinese Ministry of Culture declared that this outburst “broke Chinese law and

hurt Chinese people’s feelings,” and said it would more closely scrutinize foreign artists coming to perform in China. Since then, the authorities have told some Western bands to submit their lyrics to officialdom for approval. A Vancouver-based dance-punk group—You Say Party! We Say Die!—was told to submit its lyrics to the government before a planned show in Beijing, although in the end the band dodged the requirement. A Céline Dion concert in Beijing was cancelled shortly after Björk’s show, though other explanations were given. Harry Connick Jr. was allowed to play, but only if he stuck to the songs on a set list submitted to the authorities for approval. Turns out the wrong list

had been submitted, but Connick still had to play those songs, never mind that his band didn’t have the music for them.

Numerous cultural events in Beijing involving foreigners have been cancelled this spring in the interests of “pre-Olympic security,” from a weekend street festival to a European Union event that was to celebrate bilateral ties with China and promote cultural understanding. That latter cancellation, on short notice, came the same week Beijing announced it will hold its own governmentapproved “Olympic cultural festival” as part of celebrations in August, an event that will “last the longest, involve the largest number of performers and enjoy the highest standards of any cultural activity we’ve organized,” boasted Zhao Dongming, cultural activities director for the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee.

Also cancelled last week was the Midi Festival in Beijing, an institution in the city’s independent music scene that had more

than 80 bands lined up to play. The eight-year-old privately organized festival, which may be rescheduled for October, was to include foreign bands, including ones from France. It was called off as a result of government nervousness about outside performers and independentminded young people congregating in the capital, with an eye to what happened during Björk’s show, said a Beijing music promoter who didn’t want his name used for fear that his own events could be targeted. “The impact on the scene is chilling,” he said. “This is not the best way for China to impress the world with its openness.”

Meanwhile, as part of the government’s effort to weed out potential protesters, foreign residents in China have been coming under increased scrutiny. Police are making

‘They call it the “People’s Olympics,” but actually it’s the “State’s Olympics,” a chance for the Communist party to show off’

random checks on homes and businesses, demanding to see the right documents. In early April, Beijing police arrested eight foreigners—many of them expat high-school students—during drug raids in the popular Sanlitun bar area. Police said the raids on “foreignand youth-oriented bars” will continue “to root out such illegal activities ahead of the Olympic Games.” And there are rumours that, during the Olympics, bars and restaurants will be forced to close early every night.

Concerns are growing over Beijing’s tightened regulations for foreigners’ visas to the country—though, to the confusion of foreigners, the authorities have made no formal announce-

ment and even denied there has been a change in policy. But tourists must now show a return plane ticket and proof of hotel accommodation before being granted a visa to China. And don’t even think of going to Tibet—while Chinese tourists are welcome, it’s still off-limits to foreigners (Tibet’s tourism officials say the region will reopen “soon” to foreigners, but haven’t given an exact date). For foreigners doing business in China, only short-term visas are being given, instead of the year-long multiple-entry ones available until recently. Rather than zip down to Hong Kong to get a visa, as in the past, business people in mainland China have been told they must return to their home countries.

Andrew Work, executive director of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, said the changes have hurt the business interests of Canadians who need to travel frequently to mainland China for business, often on short notice. He has heard complaints from Canadians who say they usually

travel for business 10 or even 20 times a month to mainland China, but are now only able to go once or twice, which is hurting the bottom line. One Canadian businessman in Hong Kong told Work he lost out on a $500million contract because he could not deliver training to Chinese workers due to delays in getting visas. Others have complained of having to miss meetings and visits to factories in China. “It is arbitrary and done without warning whatsoever, no matter what the conse-

quence to entities or individuals who create employment or business in China,” a Canadian businessman in Hong Kong said in response to a questionnaire from the chamber.

The UN high commissioner for refugees has said it is concerned about refugees being deported as part of the pre-Olympics cleanup, creating “considerable anxiety among the refugees in Beijing who have told us they are feeling very intimidated,” says spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis. There have also been unconfirmed reports that foreign students will be required to leave the country in July and August. China’s Ministry of Education has

declared such reports “totally fabricated,” but Chinese-language schools in Beijing say they will be unable to provide visas for foreign students during those months. A British student of Chinese at a private school, who has been in Beijing for three years and is trying, so far in vain, to get a new visa, says she is questioning whether she will stay in China through the Olympic Games. “I’m fast believing it’s not worth it,” she says. “They want to control the number of foreigners just in case we unfurl a banner, but the people this is targeting are those least likely to unfurl a banner as they have been living and working here for years, typically.”

When the torch relay began in Tiananmen Square at the end of March, ordinary Chinese and foreigners alike weren’t allowed to attend, and were kept blocks from the event by security. Seats stood empty while journalists and invited guests watched the show. “They call it the ‘People’s Olympics,’ but it’s actually just the opposite—it’s the ‘State’s Olympics,’ ” says Becker. “It’s for the Communist party to show off to the Chinese what the party has achieved in the international community. They don’t want the foreigners. Beijing will be an empty stage, which is exactly what they wanted.” M