The Olympics may be athletic competition, but this year it is also a contest of alternative realities. If you think things are strange or disturbing now, just wait.
Today Hu Jia was sentenced to three and a half years in jail plus an extra year without "political rights," found guilty of "subverting state power." His alleged "crimes" according to his lawyer involved comments made in interviews with foreign media and articles posted on Boxun.com, a Chinese-language U.S.-based website that is banned in China. Here is the official Xinhua report on his sentencing.
Hu has been under arrest since December, and under house arrest for much longer. His wife Zeng Jinyan and newborn baby have also been under effective house arrest since his formal arrest - despite the fact that neither has been charged with any crime. (The TIME blog has a video of their recent attempt to visit Zeng... crime scene tape was deployed outside the entrance to her building.) The small but vocal politically-edgy part of the Chinese blogosphere has for months been rallying in support of Hu and Zeng. There have been online and offline petitions calling for Hu's release. After several bloggers were blocked by police from delivering milk powder to Zeng and the baby, one guy who clearly plays a lot of video games or something finally succeeded after a thoroughly planned overnight commando-style "mission" (Read John Kennedy's translation of the blogger's account of how he got around the cops.. titled "Hack Into Freedom City"... it's quite something).
If you search for Hu Jia's Chinese name on Baidu, China's largest search engine, all you'll get is information about an Olympic diver who happens to have the same name. But as John Kennedy writes on Global Voices, "in the China of today, though, someone like Hu Jia just doesn't quietly disappear." Websites hosted overseas that talk about Hu Jia the activist may be blocked by the Great Firewall; blog and chatroom postings about him posted on websites inside China are taken down by administrators on orders from above; but that hasn't stopped many people from sending around links to the BBC Chinese-language report on his sentencing through their Twitter and instant messaging networks, and e-mail threads between trusted friends. The way that Zeng continues to speak out from her house arrest, and the way that people continue to support her online, is what some are now calling "Tiananmen 2.0" - a phrase which Ariana Huffington coined in her 2007 piece about Zeng for TIME magazine, and which is now the title of a cyber-activist blog.
Among the things Hu Jia wrote that authorities didn't like was criticism of the International Olympic Committee for not pushing Beijing to live up to its human rights commitments. (Mind you, he never called for a boycott or said he opposed the Olympics, contrary to what some people on the internet have been claiming.) Human rights groups like Amnesty International, which just came out with a well-timed report about all the ways in which Beijing has falied to live up to its Olympic committments, have been quick to point out that Hu's conviction is an example of Beijing's failings in the human rights department. The head of the Prague-based Olympic Watch said: “The Chinese government is ignoring its commitments of human rights improvements and testing how far it can go just as IOC executives head to Beijing.”
The IOC for its part made a big show of securing guarantees from Chinese authorities that the Internet will be "open" for journalists in the special Olympic coverage press centers. English-language Wikipedia and BBC English have been unblocked with much fanfare - meanwhile censorship of the Chinese language Internet (including the Chinese versions of those sites) continues the same as ever, and rest assured the net will be filtered as usual - at least the Chinese language content - for Chinese people accessing the Internet outside of the special press centers and major hotels. But the IOC doesn't notice the former and doesn't appear to care about the latter.
Are we actually surprised by any of this? Everyone is playing out their designated roles. And anybody who truly thought that the Olympics would change the Chinese government's human rights practices was smoking something really great.
Responding to the reality wars that continue to rage online and in the media over what the recent Tibetan unrest was really about, Dave over at Mutantpalm produced early on the best characterization I've seen of this year's "SchizOlympics." I've quoted him before but it's so good I'll quote him again:
Watching the build up to the Olympics has been, for me, like watching the world’s biggest, slowest traffic accident. For a while now its been pretty obvious that alot of contentious issues about China were going to come to the front as we approach August 8th, but the problem is that there are two completely separate parallel worlds on these issues: the Chinese one, and the rest of us. Westerners have been exposed to rhetoric and information about Tibetan discontent, Darfur’s international and Chinese dimensions, and of course old chestnuts like Tiananmen provide a larger context of long term, ongoing problems. Meanwhile, Chinese mainlanders by and large have no knowledge of these events or issues. While for the rest of the world the Olympics will be largely a referendum on China’s ability to deal with what everyone else has talked about for years, for Chinese citizens it will be about China winning a beauty pageant of sorts.
Two Worlds, Two Dreams: prepare for the SchizOlympics.
There are a few Chinese and a few Westerners who are trying to quietly create spaces for rational conversation and information exchange. But it's hard for most people on all sides to get past the emotions, the nationalism, long-cherished ideological frameworks, stereotypes, over-generalizations, demonizations, cultural superiority complexes and longstanding national chips-on-the-shoulder. Lots of Chinese people now view the Western media, human rights groups, and Western leaders' criticisms of their country as part of the Racist Western Conspiracy to Stop China From Being Successful. Many Westerners continue to harbor a wishful missionary fantasy that the Chinese people must naturally welcome outsiders to help "save" them, and that all expressions of the opposite can only be the product of brainwashing and fear. In my experience, the most unsuccessful way to win a person over to one's point of view is to start out by telling him he's brainwashed - second only in effectiveness to telling someone that she is part of a grand conspiracy. But this is how the conversation is currently going. Is this inevitable? Reading through the comment at the bottom of this recent post I wrote about the Tibet mess, I'm not optimistic.