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No Amount Of Smog Can Cloud Eyes Of The World

Tom Plate – SCMP – Updated on Jul 30, 2008

In reality, the Beijing Olympics, which opens next Friday, creates three different categories of events. It’s important to understand this.

The first event is the one that observers on the ground in China will see, the second is the event the rest of the world will see, and the third is the event or events no one may ever see.

On the mainland, there are the competitive sporting events taking place in real time. Many people – and multinational corporations – have already bought tickets to see these events with their own eyes, assuming the region’s onerous smog and summer temperature inversions don’t effectively blur their vision.

The second categorically different event is absolutely guaranteed to blur the clarity of your vision: this is the media event. The telecasting of the Olympics is not a pure sporting event but a carefully engineered commercial reality.

Commercial reality and artistic or athletic integrity rarely overlap much. “Inasmuch as the production of the televised image of this spectacle is a prop for advertising,” wrote French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, “the televised event is a commercial, marketable product that must be designed to reach the largest audience and hold onto it the longest.”

Bourdieu concludes in his classic work On Television that “it follows that the relative importance of the different sports [as ranked by the international sports organisations in advance of the Games and then by TV, during the Games, especially as regards `prime-time’ scheduling] increasingly depends on their television popularity and the correlated financial return they promise.”

But beyond this two-step social construction is a third major event. This is the political reality within China itself during the Games.

To be sure, if China’s political authorities have it their way, these Olympics will remain but a two-step event. They have no desire to let us see or know about any political demonstrations, violence, unrest or even pollution. This is understandable.

But there will be an unprecedented amount of electronic media and foreign journalists on the mainland.

The intent of the organisers and the government is to have everyone’s eyes focused on the sporting events. But the media, as Bourdieu has famously observed, have the ability to rearrange reality like a magnet to a pile of iron filings when they enter any arena, creating an overall pattern for simpler observation.

This is why next month is both a fabulous and scary time for Beijing. It gets the Olympics, for which it has worked so hard. But it also gets the gigantic international media magnet, which will change events and their appearances. Will the renewed Muslim resistance suddenly appear around the capital? Will the media magnet lure Xinjiang separatists – some of whom clearly are terrorists, perhaps suicide ones – into the spotlight, simply because the spotlight is now there?

And how about the widespread unemployment created by economic injustice, not to mention the demographic dislocation triggered by the intensive Olympic-related construction? If it is not suppressed by police and security, will the media’s eye catch a glimpse of it for the world? Or, instead, will Beijing authorities prefer to clamp down on the international media, not to mention dissenters looking for attention?

No matter how dense the air pollution, it can’t possibly be thick enough to block out all political reality from the camera’s eye.

No country of 1.3 billion is easily governed. China’s economic condition has greatly improved from the reforms started three decades ago. But, as everywhere in the world, the reality of China is still less than ideal, maybe even more so than in other places. No one in their right mind should wish China anything other than the most grandiose and happy of Olympic Games. But in taking on this great honour, China may have bitten off more than it can chew.

Tom Plate is a veteran journalist and author, most recently, of Confessions of an American Media Man

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