China Opens Up -- Sort Of

After months of uncertainty, the Chinese government finally relented and announced that it would allow camera crews and foreign reporters during the Olympics to roam around Beijing and do street shots. They were also given permission to do live feeds from the highly symbolic, picturesque, and because of the events of 1989, rather laden Tiananmen Square. The lifting of these restrictions came as a deep relief to NBC and its parent GE, which has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to secure the television rights to the games.

After the protests in Tibet earlier this year, and the international outcry that saw a mockery made of the Olympic torch rally, the Chinese government became paranoid about further unrest, or even the appearance of unrest. That in turn led to the bizarre decision to clamp down on granting visas to the Olympics. If you purchased your tickets months ago and had already obtained a visa, there was little problem, but anyone who waited until May or later was faced with arduous demands, including proof of round-trip tickets, bank account statements, letters vouching for conduct and character, and entry tickets to the games. The Chinese intend to track every single visitor to the games, and it is said that they will have IDs of every single person in every single seat of the 91,000 seats in the Olympic Stadium. Even with the extra hoops, visas were denied, raising the possibility that China was about to throw the most anticipated party in a generation and then not permit anyone outside the country to come.

The clamp-down on news organizations followed a similar pattern. Already, some websites such as the Huffington Post were placed on the "do not browse" list, but keeping television crews from reporting in Beijing would have been a serious sign of problems. The government is worried that roving crews will be an invitation to televised shots of demonstrations or unrest or anything else unplanned, and having planned every element of these games, spontaneity is hardly welcome to the Chinese leadership. But having worked for years to bring the games to China, the government was faced with the stark choice of trying to control everything and thereby losing the remainder of the goodwill that the games tend to produce or taking a chance and letting Bob Costas wax on about thousands of years of imperial history in the Forbidden City and the symbolism of dragons and how the Great Wall came to be so great.

China has been embracing the winds of global capitalism with an avid passion in the past twenty years, but there is still fear and anxiety in the government leadership about the pace and scope of change. This latest tiff over television coverage is a pretty minor episode, but as a symbol it runs deep. How much does China want to be seen as it is versus the image it wishes to project? How much can any one society, government, or people actually control their image in a world of so many sources of information and inputs? And can this unique experiment in unfettered free market sponsored by an authoritarian government continue? The Olympics will neither ask nor answer the last question, but it is the $64,000 question for our time -- or, given the exchange rate and the coming China century, perhaps we should say the 500,000 RMB question for our generation and theirs.