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Behind the Scenes: Unrest tests China PR machine

  • Story Highlights
  • China, host of the upcoming Olympics, under pressure for human-rights record
  • Many activists are calling for boycott of the Games
  • China is fighting back, painting criticism as unfair to Chinese people
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By Jaime FlorCruz
CNN Beijing Bureau Chief

Editor's Note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and analyze the stories behind the events. CNN Beijing Bureau Chief Jaime FlorCruz offers a look at how China is dealing with human-rights protests leading up to its hosting of the Olympics.

China's policy on Tibet has led to protests in many parts of the world, this one in South Korea.

BEIJING, China (CNN) -- Angry Tibetans railing against "cultural genocide." Menacing Chinese security forces taking up positions in Tibet's chaotic streets.

Something is wrong with these pictures, if you ask China's PR strategists.

These are not the images China wants to project, just over four months ahead of its hosting of the Olympics. But now the turmoil in Tibet is threatening to eclipse the Games, and Chinese spin-meisters are valiantly trying to put the limelight back to the Olympic hoopla.

Olympic organizers have carefully lined up a calendar of events that climaxes on August 8, when the Games begin inside the brand new National Stadium. They had hoped that China in the coming months could bask in the glow of international praise. Chinese officials promise a "distinctive and a top-rate Olympic Games." Many Chinese eagerly anticipate the Games as a source of national pride.

The spotlight, however, has moved from cute Olympic mascots to a range of contentious issues, like Beijing's policies in Sudan and now, the unrest in Tibet. Human rights activists in and outside China are pressuring governments, the International Olympic Committee, corporate sponsors and the athletes, some calling for an outright boycott.

Chinese officials reject those calls, saying the Games are a celebration of athletic excellence and of harmony of athletes and peoples from all over the world.

"We need to respect the principle in the Olympic charter and the Games should not be politicized," Premier Wen Jiabao, referring to complaints about China's human rights record, said in a news conference last week.

"Although China is not a developed country and may encounter problems of this or that sorts in the preparation for the Games, I can assure you that Chinese people are most sincere in their wish to host a successful Olympics."

In a fierce public relations war, China is fighting back.

"It's cranked up its own media machine to tell their side of the story, depicting the Tibetans as perpetrators of senseless violence, blaming the Dalai Lama for instigating the unrest and saying the Chinese security forces responded with restraint," said a China analyst in Beijing who requested anonymity.

"That still gets a lot of traction among the Chinese."

For weeks, foreign reporters remained banned from entering Tibetan-populated regions, and broadcast signals of CNN and other television networks are frequently blacked out. China's Internet users -- "netizens" -- and the official media accuse the overseas media of "distorting the news" with "biased reporting" as part of a West-inspired conspiracy to bash China.

One netizen wrote: "To tarnish China's image, the West is doing whatever they can, no matter how mean and vicious."

Chinese media handlers are now organizing a special three-day trip to Tibet. CNN, we are told, is not invited.

The ceremonial lighting of the Olympic flame in Greece on Monday had been choreographed as a landmark event to kick off the Olympic torch relay. Even so, a lone protester tried to disrupt the event. Watch activists pledge protests »

The relay will feature thousands of torch bearers, who will carry the Olympic flame through 23 cities across five continents before it returns to China in April, where it will be carried across many more towns and cities. It will even be carried to the top of Mount Everest, the world's highest peak, if plans push through. Watch protesters line torch route »

That's now a big if, in the light of the violent unrest that has rocked Tibet and other regions. Tibet supporters have threatened to boycott or disrupt the relay.

Chinese officials dismiss such threats.

"These activities will not win hearts and minds and are are doomed to fail," said Olympic organizer Jiang Xiaoyu. The relay, he said, will proceed as planned.

If so, Chinese officials will be taking a calculated risk. Human rights activists are protesting not just China's policy on Tibet. They also are agitating against the country's policies on Darfur, the Falungong, political dissent, religious freedom and other issues.

And the activists remain poised to disrupt the torch relay and other Olympics-related events.

"They come from diverse political persuasions with diverse political agendas," said another China analyst in Beijing. "They are well-organized and tenacious. And you only need a few do-or-die activists to pull off an incident and make headlines." Watch activists pledge to be heard

As for a possible Games boycott, China is using its geopolitical and economic weight to push back against any such moves. Behind the scenes, it is leaning on governments, sports federations and corporate sponsors to desist from joining the boycott chorus. So far, they are succeeding. No government has endorsed the idea.

U.S. President George W. Bush last week said he plans to be in Beijing for the Games, and International Olympic Committee chief Jacque Rogge also said he opposes a boycott.

"Corporate sponsors are feeling the heat, but none of them are about to pull out," said a public relations executive in Beijing who advises a few of them. "They've already invested a lot of money and resources and they wish the Games will just proceed smoothly."

Beijing's Olympic organizers share the same wish, but they are caught in a bind. China needs to take a tough stance and keep a menacing presence in Tibet and other sensitive areas in order to deter future unrest. "That's the only way the Chinese know to put the genie back in the bottle," said a China-watcher in Beijing who also requested anonymity. At the same time, they need to depict a stable and hospitable place -- a smiling host-in-waiting Beijing.

With the Games just over four months away, that is now an Olympian task. E-mail to a friend

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