Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Is China Ready?

Yesterday the New York Times had an article about China and the Olympics. It was about the difficulties the Chinese have in translating words, and how embarrassing the government thinks it would be for English speaking participants to read the language mistakes that are made. So there is a person who goes around reading signs and making corrections. Cute right? Based on my experience with the Government of China and big events, I believe translating the signs will be the least of the problems at the Olympics.

In 1995 I was the Director of Communications for the American delegation to the 4th International Women’s conference in Beijing. In this role my first task—long before the conference—was to go to China and decide if I thought they were prepared to host a meeting of about 35,000 women. It was a pretty heady job, but the Under Secretary of State felt I knew enough about events and politics to make the decision. In addition, there were a group of advisers to the Secretary General of the UN who would also be traveling a bit later in the month to decide if they thought China was prepared for a UN gathering of that magnitude. I was happy to hear that the UN was even concerned about a Women’s event, since they are probably one of the most sexist organizations in the world.

The first meeting we had, (Joyce Kravitz, the political appointee who supervised broadcasting at Voice of America travelled with me), was with the Director of Volunteers for the Government of China. She assured us that we would have enough people and resources to make the convention successful. They had available to them 4 million volunteers. I have never been a big fan of bodies over talent. ‘Less is more’ when you’re dealing with large events, but I figured that would mean each delegate would have 6 or seven people at their beck and call.

From that meeting we went to a meeting with the people who were building the site in Huairo, about 30 kilometers outside Beijing. We had a meeting and there were drawings but there was no actual ‘site’. The conference was only a few months away and there were no buildings in which to house the delegate meetings. In addition, there were not enough hotels to accommodate that number of people. The plan was to move Chinese people out of their homes and replace them with delegates. I was sure that was going to help improve east-west relations.

We did the usual tourist things, and were surprised that we were accompanied only by the US Embassy Staff. We expected that there would be Chinese watching our every move. And although it seemed we were unsupervised, when we went to a meeting with the Chinese Cultural Minister a few days later, they had an almost minute by minute accounting of where we had been, who and what we had seen. There were other things I found disturbing but not surprising: for example, we were not permitted to have Chinese guests in our hotel suites and, in fact, we were not permitted to have conversations with any Chinese person who spoke English. I guess they didn’t want us to happen on any dissidents. It was uncomfortable to feel like we were suspect, but not unlike the George Bush approach to invading our privacy—only in 1995 when you spoke to Bill Clinton, he only inquired what you were reading, rather than ask the library to give them personal information.

There were other small but not insignificant logistical problems, so when we returned home we reported that we didn’t think China was ready for the conference. Interestingly enough, the UN advisors felt the same way. We suggested they delay the conference until they could adequately prepare. The UN advisors said to change the venue because they would never be prepared. Despite protests from the US Government, the Secretary General decided to go ahead with the conference. And despite assurances from the UN pooh-bahs that the Secretary would attend, he did not.

We made our way back for the conference in September and it rained the entire time we were in Beijing. Our delegation of 40 stayed in an OK luxury hotel in the city where we had offices that were ill equipped and communication there was non-existent. It is true that we didn’t have cell phones then, but it is also true that now they have to provide a satellite that works -- and will that happen? No phones, no faxes, no way to be in touch with the media, no cooperation from the UN and the only Chinese we saw were security guards making sure we saw nothing. Oh, and the buildings they erected were Potemkin Villages and collapsed in the downpour. We were spied on, ignored, and when the Chair of our Delegation, Hillary Clinton, spoke, we were beaten by the volunteers who tried to prevent the delegation from getting into the auditorium. There is a picture of Donna Shalala, Secretary of Health and Human Services beating her way through the thugs. But the pictures everyone saw in the US and the rest of the world, were not the same pictures they saw in China. In China there was no mention of the conference or the first Lady’s attendance. It was like we didn’t exist—except if we happened to be ironing in the hotel (there was a no ironing sign at one hotel), then security appeared not only to confiscate the iron but all the clothing in the closets of the unsuspecting violator—who in one case was an elected official and Chair of the Australian delegation.

Now I know, you’re going to say it was over ten years ago and things have changed. And I think that’s true about business and tech people. But will the Government release prisoners, I don’t think it has not become flexible or tolerant. Under the best of circumstances, at an event of the magnitude of the Olympics, security is impossible to deal with. I do not believe the media will operate without difficulty and the people who come from other countries will feel unchallenged. It’s like the Hard Rock CafĂ© in Bejing. The kids who work as servers try to be like American kids, but their impersonations are based on something they’ve been told, rather than what they have experienced through meetings or visits with real American kids. It’s bizarre because you are seeing an impersonation of a type of server rather than a real server. They know the menu and the product but beyond that communication is impossible, and I think that’s perfectly alright with the government. So is China ready for the Olympics, my bet is probably not, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see and play politics and give corporations a chance to advertise and make money. Some things are universal. We’re just sayin...Iris


Walt said...

A friend just came back from photographing the new Olympic village outside Beijing.

He says it's all being built in classic Chinese speed.

Then he added "Which means it all will be falling apart in 3 to 5 years."

I'm not worried though, 'cause they iron out the details. Grin.

Walter Briggs said...

Their only concern is domination; I view the Chinese as the new Soviet Union.