One year to the day before the Olympic Games are to open in Beijing, the international media are realizing that the Chinese authorities' promise to respect press freedom was more like one of the knockoff products that China is infamous for than an honest commitment to respecting the rights of journalists.
On Monday, foreign reporters were roughed up during a protest rally and detained in a parking lot across from the Beijing Olympic organizing committee's office. The manner in which the Beijing authorities responded to the demonstrators' claims -- that media freedoms are a sham -- could not have better underscored the point the demonstrators were trying to make.
As journalists in China face growing repression from the authorities, the circumstances can only help expose a regime that, despite its claims, never intended to loosen its grip on information.
By suppressing the media, Beijing may be sowing the seeds of its own demise, because at no other point in its peacetime history has China been the focus of so much outside scrutiny. Short of a draconian crackdown on domestic and foreign media -- meaning static on our TV screens throughout the Olympics -- the authoritarian regime that hides behind the veneer of all the gaudy toys, multicolored banners and titillating slogans will surface.
Or, as Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch has said: "The government seems afraid that its own citizens will embarrass it by speaking out about political and social problems, but China's leaders apparently don't realize authoritarian crackdowns are even more embarrassing."
Some in Beijing, having long enjoyed control over the country's information, don't realize the potential embarrassment they face. But while the government can whitewash domestic media content with relative ease, it is now realizing that the rules governing foreign reporters are a little different.
Enter Taiwan. Despite great efforts by President Chen Shui-bian's (
As long as China doesn't directly threaten their interests, people will have little time for what goes on within its borders, let alone what its neighbors have to say. Sadly, when it comes to awakening from its moral torpor, the global community is still very much local.
But the Games could change all that. For a brief moment, what transpires in Beijing, such as the blunders authorities will make, will appear on hundreds of millions of TV screens around the world. For a few weeks, what Chinese citizens endure every day will be made global.
True, viewers will focus on the athletes and the sanitized travel shows about the Central Kingdom's Great Wall, exotic food and ancient customs. But remember the Atlanta Games in 1996: One act by a deranged individual was all it took to shift the attention of millions of viewers.
Human rights advocates and many others with legitimate grievances will be among the principal characters on the world stage and their voices will be heard. The more faux pas Beijing commits as it clamps down on truth seekers -- and make no mistake, it will clamp down -- and the more embarrassment it suffers as it is caught in its own web of lies, the better the international community will know Beijing's true, repressive self. Only this time around, the world will be there to witness it.