China's happy face to the world during the summer Olympics in Beijing is no more a reflection of reality than a Greek theater comedy mask. Behind the country's wide smile lies an authoritarian hand that has long repressed its people and censored the news media. These impulses have been on full display during the Summer Games.
In its bid to host the 2008 Olympics, China gave assurances to the International Olympic Committee that it would grant "complete media freedom" to the world's press corps. The hope was also that with so much international attention, China would loosen its grip on dissenting voices. That has not happened.
As evidence that it was going to accept a more open society during the Games, China set up protest zones at three Beijing parks as places where people would be able to engage in demonstrations. Officials invited citizens to apply for a license to protest. But so far there have been no protests at those venues and not one of the 77 protest applications have been approved.
The New York Times reported that half a dozen Chinese nationals who did fill out the paperwork seeking a license have instead been arrested. One woman who wanted to protest what she claims was an illegal demolition of her home was taken into custody for "disturbing social order," according to the newspaper, and given a sentence of one month.
Other renegade protests attempted within the Olympic park area were quickly shut down. The Financial Times reported that a British television journalist was roughed up by police when he tried to report on a pro-Tibet protest by Students for a Free Tibet. The group's activists were all scooped up by police as soon as they unfurled their banners.
In the days leading up to the Olympics and during the Games, local activists were detained and jailed in what has been called a coordinated cleansing campaign, and foreigners with a protest agenda on subjects deemed politically sensitive have been deported. In addition, Chinese officials denied visas for many foreign activists. Using strong-arm methods to enforce a feel-good veneer only serves to draw attention to the Potemkin village nature of life under China's authoritarian rule.
China's leaders are not fooling anyone. No matter how striking the architecture of Olympic venues, no matter how spectacular the opening ceremony, a nation that doesn't allow its citizens to criticize government policies or to have access to an uncensored Internet is an insecure presence on the world stage. Its repressive actions have denied China the "glory" it desperately wanted out of the Olympics.