Olympic Shame, by Accident?

writes on his Atlantic blog about recent decisions on Beijing’s part — some inadvertent, some deliberate — that may end up turning the Olympics “into a source of friction rather than pride for China.”

Inadvertent ones include:

For instance: the embarrassing recent disclosure that the bank and credit card network was not yet ready to handle large flows of people drawing money from international accounts, well explained here. Or the difficulty in ordering tickets on line or trying to pick them up once ordered. As Adam Minter and Sky Canaves explain, the problem is that the ticket-ordering form asks for only First and Last name. When you show a passport as ID to pick them up, as you must, bank clerks have been rejecting any passport that also shows a middle name –because the name is different from on the ticket. (My wife and I got ours without incident; the reason, I think, is that the Bank of China clerk was not exactly sure which line in our passports was meant to be our name.)

Or: the ludicrously selective “intellectual property” crackdown. You can still buy pirated versions of any movie, handbag, wristwatch, or software right on the street. But knockoff versions of Official Beijing Olympics caps or T-shirts? These poor vendors seem to have been chased into hiding.

Or: the actual working reality of the spectacular, beautiful, enormous, new Terminal 3 at Beijing Capital airport. Visually it is as pretty an airport as anyone has seen in a long time. But on each of my dozen trips in or out, there has been a significant flow problem — a Sahara-size concourse with super-jammed choke points in a range of areas. The baggage stand, the passport lines, the trains going from one part of the terminal to another. Airports are terrible everywhere; I hope that when big Olympic crowds come through the chokepoint issues will have been figured out.

Deliberate ones include:

– A radical crackdown on visa-issuance, at just the time the country is supposedly inviting the world to visit Beijing. This is so widespread and serious that it’s the talk of business people and even hoteliers.

– A crackdown on foreign and international journalists, at just the time the authorities know that the world’s attention will turn to Beijing. The tone of world coverage has been understandably and properly sympathetic in the wake of the Sichuan earthquake. But it is easy to imagine how this could change.

You don’t have to know a lot about the foreign press to know how the increasing controls are going to backfire. Particularly nutty touch: leaving international broadcasters in the dark about whether they will be able to broadcast live from Beijing, rather than being subject to censors’ delay. After a “Sichuan spring” of relatively free press and blog discussion after the earthquake, domestic press controls are closing in again too.

– A noticeable increase in security presence around Beijing. To an extent, this is a chronic Beijing issue. It’s the big imperial capital, and you feel the Hand of the State in daily life here vastly more than in other parts of the country. It’s like the contrast between Washington DC and Berkeley. But it feels different even in the last two months. Bag-screening at some subway stations now. I understand that by Olympic time visitors will go through security screening after they get off airplanes too. Perhaps that’s a rumor; perhaps it’s necessary for the Olympics. But it’s not subtle.

For a more in-depth look into the thorny issues that could put a major kink in Beijing’s Olympic coming-out party, see this recent Foreign Affairs article (previously posted to CDT).

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