China readies 'harmonious society' for Olympic guests

Yao Ming, left, shows off China's Olympic torch.

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Fourth in a monthly series of 12 articles dealing with the international media's preparations for the Beijing Olympics and the cultural and practical challenges facing thousands of producers headed to China's capital in 2008.

SHANGHAI, China -- It's called hexie shehui, or "harmonious society," and these days the phrase is ringing from the hillsides as China seeks to portray itself in a kinder, gentler light in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The concept, the embodiment of the image the government hopes to present to the world, is infusing every action, right down to the name chosen for the torch relay: the "journey of harmony."

China is a nation where things happen on a grand scale, from the Great Wall to the relay, which will be the longest ever -- spanning five continents and passing through more than 100 Chinese cities. Taking the Olympic torch to the 8,844-meter peak of Mount Qomolangma, or Mount Everest as it is known in the West, is just one of the highlights of the 85,000-mile, 130-day relay.

The torch itself is a point of technical and design pride for China. Designed by personal computer giant Lenovo Group Ltd., the two-foot, four-inch red-and-silver torch is made of recyclable aluminum and burns propane to reflect environmental concerns. Its curved surface, with etching and anodizing, represents a scroll -- a nod to China's 5,000-year history and culture of invention. (Paper was invented in China around 700 A.D.) Its flame burns a foot high, even in strong winds and driving rain, and shines clear even in bright sunshine.

It has been a long road for the developing nation to host the Olympics. China wants to use the Aug. 8-24 Games window to show off its accomplishments and polish an image tarnished by the shadow of the Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen, human-rights issues, labor-practice disputes, corruption scandals and quarrels over Taiwan and Tibet.

In 2005, President Hu Jintao introduced the concept of "building a harmonious society," saying it was important to balance the interests among social groups, avoid conflicts and make sure people live a safe and happy life in a politically stable country.

"A harmonious society will feature democracy, the rule of law, equity, justice, sincerity, amity and vitality," Hu said.

How far along is that agenda now? China is certainly undergoing rapid changes and making many strides in both its economy and the quality of life of its citizens.

There have been many increases in personal freedoms. For instance, in March, China released its most prominent Muslim political prisoner, Rebiya Kadeer. It was an apparent goodwill gesture after the U.S. announced it would not censure Beijing at a session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, noting that China has made "some improvements."

The Communist country is increasingly opening to foreigners, allowing free access to travel within the country. In April, however, five American activists were expelled from China after unfurling a banner at an Everest base camp that read, "One World, One Dream, Free Tibet 2008," lampooning the Beijing Games' official slogan "One World, One Dream."

Another group was detained in August after raising a banner from the Great Wall calling for a free Tibet. Several journalists also were detained for reporting on a free speech protest staged by journalistic freedom organization Reporters Without Borders.

"To honor our commitments to the International Olympic Committee, we've also issued regulations to open the Games and its preparations to foreign journalists," Beijing Organizing Committee executive vp Liu Jingmin said.

The new journalistic freedoms were rolled out at the beginning of this year in advance of the avalanche of foreign media projected to converge on Beijing. The government expects 20,000-30,000 reporters from broadcast and print media to come to China from around the world. To ease management and express China's new image of harmony, accredited members of the foreign press "need only the consent of the person they are interviewing," according to the International Press Center of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Reporters also are now able to travel freely within most of China's provinces. Tibet is still off limits to reporters without Beijing's permission. Visiting reporters will be able to wander beyond the sports events and hoopla of the Beijing extravaganza and report on the culture, economy, progress and modern developments in China, and potentially to investigate and try to uncover problems lurking beneath the harmonious surface.

But China is "going all out" in preparation for the Games and making every effort to assure nothing interferes with the event or embarrasses the government, which in October reported that the projected $1.6 billion budget has been bumped up to $2 billion.

China has raised security and promises to ensure public safety with a national command that will oversee Olympics security. The team will be led by the ministry of public security and involve various authorities, including China's armed forces, ensuring a quick response to dangers, Liu said.

Beijing plans to spend $300 million on security and call up 90,000 policemen along with thousands of security workers and volunteers, according to state media. This is still far less than the record $1.5 billion the 2004 Athens Olympics spent on security.

Their task is to secure 34 Olympic venues and associated properties scattered mainly throughout Beijing, as well as soccer stadiums in Tianjin, Shenyang, Qinhuangdao and Shanghai and sailing facilities in Qingdao. They will have 2 million local and foreign guests to look out for, too.

"Security management is going on smoothly, and we are absolutely sure that the 2008 Beijing Olympics will be safe and secure," Liu said.

But the torch and its procession also are a focal point for security concerns. Many independence activist groups have suggested that China is using the torch trek to Mount Everest as a show of legitimizing its rule over Tibet, a territory it invaded in 1949 and has since flooded with army troops and ethnic Chinese settlers. Amid similar skepticism, the self-governing island of Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province, has withdrawn from the torch route.

There is little China can do to quash the voices of activists outside its borders. The non-governmental organization Dream for Darfur has called for China to use its trading influence with the Muslim east African capital Khartoum to bring to an end what former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in 2004 termed "genocide" in the Sudan region. The NGO has launched its own "Olympic torch relay" that started in August near Chad's border with Darfur and includes Rwanda, Armenia, Bosnia, Germany and Cambodia -- countries that have experienced ethnic cleansing. In connection with the international torch relay, a relay scheduled to end in Washington in December is ongoing in the U.S. to build public pressure on China.

Although activist groups see an opportunity in the Olympics to give voice to their cause, China's public security ministry has warned that unauthorized protests, gatherings or parades will not be tolerated and be dealt with "according to the law."

Authorization is unlikely if the past is any guide. Before the last Party congress in October, control was strict and several dissidents or journalists were detained and put under house arrest, according to Vincent Brossel of the Asia Pacific Desk of Reporters Without Borders.

"The pro-Tibet groups will use the torch relay in Tibet, but also in Europe, to raise the issue. Of course they will demonstrate, and I guess they will be able to challenge the good image that the Chinese government is trying to build with the Games," Brossel said.

With some foreigners and journalists, the government can't control everything, but it shows no sign of relaxing its censorship and control of the Internet. The government blocks or censors thousands of Web sites and blogs, Brossel said.

"At least 30 journalists and 50 Internet users are in prison in China, and some have been there since the 1980s," he said.

International Olympic Committee organizers and their Beijing counterparts have expressed dismay that the Olympics is a target for political activists.

"The way in which the Games are being used as a platform for groups with political and social agendas is often regrettable," committe member Hein Verbruggen told the IOC's annual assembly in a report on Beijing's preparations.

Liu said that political issues should not be associated with the Olympics, and any attempt to boycott the Beijing Games for political excuses is improper and unpopular.

"As the organizer of the 2008 Olympic Games, we advocate the Olympic spirit and carry forward the guidelines of peace, friendship and development," he said. "We want the Games to be the world's gathering of peace and friendship."              
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