Behind welcoming smiles anger is mounting in China

A few key countries and Western media bear brunt of criticism over `biased' coverage

01. Actualité - articles et dossiers


With a smiling police officer looking on, upper left, Chinese demonstrators stage a protest outside the Beijing Zoo criticizing the disruption of the Olympic torch relay in Paris.


I've been in Beijing for a month to lecture at a local university, and everywhere I go I see smiling faces and people extending friendly hands.
Of course, it helps that I'm getting around with my two young sons, but I cannot help but notice how eager local residents are to welcome the world, in the spirit of the upcoming Olympics. Not once have we encountered any sign of hostility.
Beneath the smiles, however, the Chinese are annoyed at Westerners who want to spoil their party in the name of support for Tibet.
Every day the local media report on this issue. Mostly, they show images of Chinese expatriates clamouring their support for a united China and for the Olympics, and they pound on the "biased" Western media who refuse to take a balanced view of the Tibet issue.
In the last month, Chinese opinion has turned increasingly critical of Western countries.
France is a prominent target of protests, including a widely publicized – if not much followed – call to boycott the French discount chain Carrefour, China's largest foreign-owned retailer.
In a recent front-page headline, China Daily cited a poll observing that Chinese opinion about the French has soured sharply since protests marred the Olympic torch relay in Paris. As many as 60 per cent of those polled said their opinion of France had deteriorated, while about 50 per cent noted a growing dislike of Britain and Germany.
The paper said nothing, however, about the country that registered the worst drop in public appreciation (65 per cent) even if the flame didn't stop there: Canada!
More than individual countries, it is the Western media that take the lion's share of criticism.
This point was made most forcefully to me when, as I came out of the Beijing Zoo with my sons, we met demonstrators denouncing "human rights abuse in France" and anti-China media bias after the Olympic flame's turbulent passage in Paris – all this under the approving eyes of police officers, steps away from a Carrefour store. Whoever said the Chinese government doesn't allow demonstrations?
The Western media, as one young protester told me, are biased in favour of advocates of the Tibet cause and fail to report the Chinese position.
I got essentially the same message from students when I asked them how they felt about disruptions in the Olympic torch relay, and prospects of impending disruptions during the Games: It's all the media's fault.
I tried my best to explain to them that, with a few well-known exceptions, most Western media tend to be fairly balanced in their reporting on China. Westerners, I argued, can hear the official Chinese position on Tibet. They just don't believe it.
The problem is not that the Chinese don't have a case. Indeed, the Dalai Lama is a charming man but his past is shady, as are some of the characters around him, for whom an independent Tibet might look like a chance to restore some sort of theocratic feudalism.
The problem, as I told my students, is that when faced with a choice between the position of a powerful one-party state with a questionable human rights record and a habit of censoring the press, on one side, and a poor, powerless nation headed by a smooth-talking Nobel laureate, on the other side, people tend to side with the latter.
One shouldn't be surprised if the media give David's perspective in his fight against Goliath a positive spin.
In spite of my best efforts to explain to them what a free press is and how it works, I soon realized I was facing much more than a language barrier.
They just didn't get it.
They certainly are not alone, and that might spell trouble in the months to come.
Less than 100 days from the Games, preparations for the Olympics in Beijing have reached a level of intensity that is hard to describe in words.
All my students, for example, are training to work as volunteers through the summer, and the Games' logo is everywhere, as are the five tacky mascots.
The Games are supposed to be China's shining moment, a major stepping stone in normalizing the country's relationship with the rest of the world.
For the Chinese, the very thought that anyone might use the event as a platform for political protest is enough to provoke irritation that might well turn to anger, with unpredictable results.
With billions of eyes riveted on Beijing in August, and tens of thousands of journalists, photographers and TV cameras blanketing the city, however, the belief that no one might use this stage to send a message to the world – using the Chinese police's reaction as a loudspeaker – appears so naive as to defy comprehension.
Yet, this is precisely the thoroughly unrealistic expectation that the Chinese media seem to be nurturing in the general population.
How will they react when the hordes of uncensored media, and the demonstrators that usually follow them, crash their party?
Certainly, the Chinese government must have a thick playbook of contingency plans on how to intervene in response to a full range of protests by athletes, personalities, ordinary visitors or the inevitable oddball crackpot.
If Chinese officials have any sense, they will learn from past errors and take a liberal approach in response to demonstrators, while ensuring that competitions proceed smoothly and safely.
To say that we should look closely at how the Chinese government will react to peaceful and less peaceful disruptions during the Games is hardly a new insight.
If I learned anything from my brief stay, however, it is that we should look just as carefully at how the Chinese people themselves will react to disruptions.
They will no doubt be irritated, but what if they turn angry?
Pierre Martin is a professor of political science at the Université de Montréal. He is completing a month-long stay as a visiting professor in Beijing.

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Pierre Martin est professeur titulaire au Département de science politique de l’Université de Montréal et directeur de la Chaire d’études politiques et économiques américaines (CÉPÉA). Il est également membre du Groupe d’étude et de recherche sur la sécurité internationale (GERSI)

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