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Let The World Experience The Real China

When I was at school, sports lessons included an exercise in which we threw hand grenades (made from wood topped with metal to resemble the real thing) against a wall carrying a red slogan offering the reason for such a militaristic pastime: Exercise our bodies and protect our motherland.

We feared that China might be invaded one day by the American "imperialists" or Soviet "revisionists". Indeed, the whole West held an evil intent towards us. Living in a closed country, we had little idea about the outside world.

I went to school in Nanjing in the early '70s, when the revolutionary fever of the Cultural Revolution was calming down. A few years earlier, my father had been banished to the countryside for criticizing the government. These were the darkest of times for my family, as well as for our nation. China has come a long way since then, yet the image of those dark days remains deeply imprinted on Western minds.

I wonder whether the West is a little too keen to report the negative stories. Or perhaps the West feels more comfortable hearing such stories?

That's my impression, as a Chinese who has lived abroad, but who has returned to Beijing. Even during those days throwing grenades, I dreamt of becoming a journalist and writer. That dream was shattered when I was 16 and my mother dragged me to work at a state-owned missile factory.

My journalistic career started with the Olympics. In 1993, on the night when the result of the first bid was announced, I was at Tiananmen Square. I recall the fountain going off as we thought China had won the bid. It was heartbreaking to interview the bitterly disappointed crowds. But, in truth, China wasn't really ready. The memory of the bloody crackdown in 1989 was still fresh.

I was also in Beijing eight years later when China did win the bid. In our neighborhood, grannies spent the whole afternoon practicing their dance steps and their husbands beat drums and gongs.

I was just as happy as everyone else. Since the economic reforms, China has lifted millions of people out of poverty. An incredible feat. As a child, I used to roast cicadas to satisfy my craving for meat; now my 19-year-old nephew, a student in Nanjing, drives his own car.

People are enjoying a great deal more personal freedom. As a girl in the rocket factory, I had to endure so many rules. I worked there for 10 years. I was never promoted, partly because of my naturally curly hair — my boss thought I wore a perm.

Back then, only those with a bourgeois outlook would curl their hair. These days, young women curl their hair, shave off their hair or change the color of their hair whenever they want. It's not a small thing.

Over the past few years, I have seen how the capital has been transformed. State-of-the-art buildings — not just Olympic buildings such as the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube — have popped up like mushrooms.

Huge efforts and sacrifices have been made. To ensure the best possible air quality, polluting factories around Beijing have been shut down, construction work has been halted and cars have been taken off the roads (the results, admittedly, have been mixed).

Other measures are excessive: beggars, the homeless and migrants without documents have been driven out. Petitioners who bring their grievances to the Supreme People's Court have been stopped from entering the capital. Potential troublemakers are being monitored or are under house arrest. Such has been the stance the authorities adopt while dealing with uncertainty.

Yet Beijing's Olympics will be a success because the majority of the population want them to be, not just because the government wants to use Olympic success to gain legitimacy.

No doubt there will be many more negative stories abroad, criticizing China's human rights abuses, the lack of media freedom and the over-tight security. Of course, some Chinese have no access to the reports, but those who do tend to dismiss them as grumbles from anti-China forces.

In a survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre, China's people ranked first among 24 nations in their optimism about their country's future, buoyed by the fast economic growth and the promise of the Olympics.

There is, I believe, another factor — the timing. The survey was conducted recently just after the unrest in Tibet and during the troubled Olympic torch relay, when China experienced a surge of nationalism in response to what many Chinese regarded as an "anti-China feeling" in the West and "biased" Tibet reports.

I have no problem with the negative stories, but I think it's wrong for the West to stand in moral judgment, especially when some of the accusations are not true. For example, what happened in Lhasa, in my view, was far more complicated than "the Chinese Government's ruthless crackdown on Tibetan protest".

There was a peaceful protest, but there was also a violent racial riot, one I doubt would be tolerated in any country.

But the Chinese Government seems to have little idea about how to present itself. Blessed with domestic support and armed with skills in mass organization, the authorities could have taken a more relaxed approach to this festival of sport. Why didn't it make the Olympic Games China's big coming-out party? It didn't need to cause so much interruption to people's lives. It would have been far better to let the world to see China as it actually is.

This guest posting is by freelance journalist and writer Lijia Zhang who lives in Beijing. This article was published in the Observer newspaper and is reprinted here with Lijia's permission. Lijia is the author of author of "Socialism is Great!" - a worker's memoir of the new China which is available from Amazon.

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