Here Comes The 2008 Beijing Olympic Disaster

A half-million visitors will upload everything they see to YouTube, LiveLeak and Flickr. What happens when the "Great Firewall of China" is breached?

December 28, 2007
By

Mike Elgan

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Prediction: The story of the year in 2008 will be the colossal failure of censorship during the Beijing Olympic games.

The games themselves will be exciting, lavish and hotly contested. But the main event will be the clash between the Chinese Communist Party, which will use biometrics, surveillance, censorship and an army of goons to suppress information about China's many problems, versus journalists and tourists, who will use digital cameras, wireless gadgets, and the Internet to show China's dirty laundry to the world.

The Chinese government sees the Beijing 2008 Olympics as China's "coming out party" -- the unveiling of a shiny, new, powerful, prosperous and stable China fully recovered from a century of weakness, division, poverty, famine, upheaval and despair.

But recent and impressive economic growth obscures the fact that China is still ruled by a repressive, authoritarian police state. The millions of disaffected, abused, forgotten minorities, farmers, dissidents, students and others long silenced by government repression also see the Olympics as *their* "coming out party. " It's the one chance for these groups to get their message to the world.

The 2008 Olympics are the first Games to take place in an authoritarian country since the Internet went mainstream. This "window" will open briefly, then close, which makes it all the more urgent for people inside China to take full advantage during the Games.

Do you see the incredible train wreck that's coming our way?

China represses information with its "Great Firewall of China," by controlling the media and jailing and/or executing dissidents. But since China won its bid in 2001 to host the games, the "citizen journalism" movement happened. The half-million people invited to come inside the firewall this summer will all have camera phones, digital cameras and digital video cameras. These people are largely beyond the coercive power of the Chinese government. They will capture everything they see, and upload it all to YouTube, LiveLeak and Flickr.

China wants to present a peaceful and harmonious face to the world. But failed boycotters, dissidents, the unfairly evicted, the forgotten poor, victims of pollution, Tibetans, the Falon Gong, human rights organizations – you name it – intend to present a contrary image. Everyone, it seems, is out to wreck the games.

These groups will do everything in their power to air grievances in front of the foreign press or stage protests before groups of camera-wielding tourists.

Never mind that man behind the curtain! China will dangle an official view of China in front of the media, but many journalists will seek out fresh and authentic stories. They'll film shops selling counterfeit electronics, life-threatening pollution, and child labor. They'll document infanticide, agrarian riots, illiteracy, toxic food and many other unapproved stories.

China can either allow access to all these visuals, or block access, and have the censorship become the story. Or, most likely, it will do both – the worst of all outcomes for the Beijing government.

Certainly, the journalists are preparing to spoil China's party. Reporters Without Borders has made nine demands of Beijing before the opening of the games. China won't meet these demands, and the organization will make a lot of noise about all this as the games approach.

Amnesty International has even distributed a Press Kit for all the thousands of journalists covering the games, which catalogs China's many human rights violations.

Thousands of people thrown out of their homes as part of China's $40 billion redesign of Beijing in preparation for the games will air their grievances for all to see. In fact, they already are. The Olympics will merely put these stories on the front page and on primetime news worldwide.

Beijing can and will put lipstick on a pig, but all will be revealed when the world is invited into the sty itself – cameras, Internet and all.

In addition to writing for Datamation, where this column first appeared, Mike Elgan is a technology writer and former editor of Windows Magazine. He can be reached at mike.elgan+datamation@gmail.com or his blog: http://therawfeed.com.



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