Elle Moxley is a journalism student at the University of Missouri who is a media volunteer for the Olympics in Beijing. She will be writing occasional reports about the scene there for MediaShift over the next few weeks.
We wrestle hi-def video cameras into our carry-on luggage, brandish SLRs at tourist attractions and arrange “Skype dates” with significant others half a world away. Blogging is the acceptable (and perhaps preferred) method of communicating with home, and the Internet at our hotel strains under the weight of so many Facebook photo uploads in so few hours. We are journalism students at the University of Missouri and volunteers at the XXIX Olympic Games, self-proclaimed new media experts and hopeless foreigners all at the same time.
Last August, I sat in a packed auditorium back home in Missouri eager to learn more about the chance to work with the Olympic News Service (ONS). ONS needed native-English speakers to staff help desks, haul equipment and hang out in the mixed zone, hoping to wrestle quotes from winning athletes as they passed. I don’t really watch sports, but there’s something about the Olympic Games I find intensely interesting. Maybe it’s the sense of global unity. Maybe it’s the spirit of competition. Maybe it’s the bizarre draw of sports like curling, which my mom and I stayed up watching until 3 a.m. during the Turin games in 2006. I immediately counted myself in.
But when I triumphantly announced my plans to study abroad in Beijing, my parents (who I typically dismiss as somewhat alarmist) immediately began to question how much freedom we’d have as journalists in China. I don’t consider myself naive or uneducated; I probably have a better sense of the political situation here than they do. But I also knew that as a stipulation in their bid for the Olympic Games, China had to guarantee access to foreign journalists.
And in theory they did, issuing a decree promising press freedom from the start of 2007 through the Paralympics. Early reports indicated foreign journalists still met with some degree of difficulty as they entered China, but I remained optimistic. Each time someone asked me his or her own variation of “China…are you sure?” I became increasingly indignant.
“The Olympics are China’s chance to prove itself to the world,” I argued to them. “Journalists will have their freedom during the Games. You’ll see.” Today, as I navigate Beijing’s packed streets with a knowledge of Mandarin that begins and ends with xie xie (“thank you”), I’m not so sure. I might not speak the language, but I can still read the signs.
The Lens Turned on Us
With 59 students, we were the largest group of English volunteers the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad (BOCOG) invited to Beijing. China Central Television and China Daily were waiting when we arrived.
For the first several days we were in Beijing, we couldn’t make a move without crossing the path of a videocamera, and before we could depart on BOCOG-arranged tours to all the local attractions (think Great Wall, Ming Tombs and Summer Palace), we had to wait almost an hour for CCTV to arrive. For a busload of journalism students, it was a difficult delay to understand. If you’re late in Columbia, Missouri, you miss the story, and it doesn’t matter if the event you’re covering is 30 minutes away in Jefferson City. You still have to provide your own transportation.
The inclusion of Chinese journalists in our activities and outings represents the same unique cooperation between the government and the media we saw when we visited the People’s Daily. Though the online version of the state-sponsored paper offers a marriage of text, video and multimedia we can only hope to achieve at the our journalism school’s daily, the Columbia Missourian, the accolades that adorn our walls are clippings of old articles and awards. At the People’s Daily, modern architecture meets framed photos of high-ranking Chinese officials on tours of the facility. As our guides are quick to point out, the frequent visits indicate the importance of the People’s Daily in the eyes of the government. Something tells me that the Columbia City Council would rather we just stay out.
Mao Zedong’s portrait still hangs over Tiananmen Square, which we visited on a rainy Saturday. It’s not usually this wet in Beijing, but Chinese meteorologists have been seeding the clouds in preparation for the Olympic Games. Forcing it to rain now helps clear smog from the skies and also makes it less likely it will rain through Opening Ceremony. Our tour guide didn’t have a lot to say about the rioting that erupted in summer 1989, but one of the students on our trip who studied the Tiananmen Square Massacre provided us with an impromptu history lesson.
Whispers on the Tour
One of the main shopping districts in Beijing might derive its name from an ancient trade route, yet English is the dominant language of the Silk Market, and bartering feels surprisingly like capitalism. But like the People’s Daily, the suburbs of northern Beijing tell a different story.
These are not the manicured lawns and large cookie cutter houses of my hometown of Kansas City. Blue signs advertise Xiangtang Village as a stop on the “Olympic Country Tour,” the one BOCOG arranged for us. We spend our morning at the water purification plant (this in a city where we’ve been told not to drink the water because of the potentially dangerous level of lead in the pipes), and in the afternoon, we depart behind a police escort to a place that has seen “marvelous changes…especially under the leadership of Wenshan Zhang, the General Party Branch Secretary of Xiangtang Village” (this according to the official literature we’ve received).
Our group of journalism students remains skeptical as we are ushered through newly built courtyards and gardens of fake flowers. Over one-third of villagers live in new housing projects.
“What happened to the old houses?” someone asks.
“They were deserted,” our BOCOG tour guide says, her voice awash in mystery.
My friend elbows me. “Funny,” she says, “how ‘deserted’ and ‘forced to leave’ have the same end result.”
We visit an “ancient” temple; we learn through the subtleties of speech that this is actually a replica. By the end of the day, we are calling this “Propaganda Tour 2008.” I’m not sure how our friends from CCTV will edit out such whispers.
Is this the free and open Beijing promised when the city received its bid to host the Games? Large digital clocks throughout the city are counting down to the start of the Games, but I’m not sure how much will change in the 11th hour. As the clocks tick past the crucial one month mark, every major news source seems eager to comment on the Human Rights Watch report that questions the reality of an open and free foreign press in China. As for me, I’m glad they’re so eager to comment and link to it, because it gives me access the Chinese government will not — in Beijing, the report lies just beyond reach, blocked behind a firewall.
Elle Moxley is a student at the University of Missouri pursuing dual degrees in journalism and sociology. Currently, she is living in Beijing, China, spending two months working for the Olympic News Service at the XXIX Olympic Games.