Déjà Vu All Over Again

Olympics coverage in 1980 and now

The year was 1980, and the United States was boycotting the Moscow Olympics because of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Correspondents from the USSR filed stories about the difficulty getting press accreditation, government restrictions on the media, the plight of the local populace and the removal of political dissidents from the cities.

Fast forward 28 years, and dispatches from Beijing ring all too familiar. Here are a few excerpts from articles published in 1980s and their modern counterparts. Meanwhile, fighting in Afghanistan continues.

Communism Can Control the Weather?

Then: Right now the entire village is swept by steady, daily rain. But officials insist even the weather will clear for the games.—Christian Science Monitor, July 15, 1980

Now: But Chinese officials downplayed the forecast and said the games must go on. “Before and immediately after August 8, we will not see persistent heavy rainfall,” said Wang Jianjie, deputy director of the meteorological bureau.—New York Post, August 4, 2008

Locals won’t attend the games

Then: Most will be unable to buy tickets to the Games or to the large program of cultural events planned for Olympic visitors. Although the U.S.-led boycott has cut heavily into the number of Western visitors, thousands of foreigners will still be pouring into the city.—Associated Press, July 14, 1980

Now: I recently asked a good friend, a 60-year-old Beijing chef, if she was looking forward to the Olympics. As we walked down a back alley after a trip to the market, she told me that she did not have tickets to any of the events, and that she did not know anyone who does.

“The Olympics and the lao bai xin” — the common folk — “are two separate things,” she replied. “I’m not concerned with the Olympics. I’m more worried about where I’m going to get my oil, rice, meat and vegetables.”—The New York Times, August 4, 2008

Protestors and other undesirables are removed

Then:About 50 dissident activists, including Dr. Andrei Sakharov, have been arrested, exiled, tried, imprisoned, or otherwise removed from the streets of the five games cities since last November. KGB agents make it clear dissidents may not remain in Moscow during the games.— Christian Science Monitor, July 16, 1980

Now:It is common for Chinese authorities to chase out petitioners during key events, such as the Communist Party congresses, but the intensity of the current effort is unprecedented, petitioners say.

“They are cracking down on us more than ever before. They regard us as enemies who will disrupt the stability of the country,” said Li Li, 44, from Shanxi, who has been petitioning for seven years over her husband’s firing from a management job at a steel plant. —Los Angeles Times, August 5, 2008

Increased police and military presence

Then: The huge members of police, Army, and KGB officials in Moscow is one of the phenomena of the games so far. They are ensuring priority for games traffic and isolating local people from tourists.

Some Soviet sources believe the normal number of uniformed police in Moscow is about 80,000 (1 for every 100 people.) The number seems to have tripled, putting the number of uniformed personnel at 240,000, excluding Army and KGB.—Christian Science Monitor, July 14, 1980

Now:China has laid on massive security for the games that kick off Aug. 8, as much to prevent protests by political or religious dissidents as to stop crime and terrorism. A 100,000-strong force of police and special forces are safeguarding venues.

Hundreds of thousands of Beijing residents have also been formed into voluntary security patrols.

In addition, a force of 34,000 soldiers has been positioned in Beijing and other cities such as Shanghai that are hosting Olympic events, Senior Col. Tian Yixiang, of the Olympics security command center, told reporters. —Associated Press, August 1, 2008

Restrictions are imposed on the press

Then: The censorship of Klaus Bednarz, Moscow correspondent for West Germany’s ARD network, caught the International Olympic Committee by surprise. The Soviets refused to transmit a filmed report detailing Soviet political propaganda about its summer Games.—The Washington Post, July 14, 1980

Now: Since the Olympic Village press center opened Friday, reporters have been unable to access scores of Web pages — among them those that discuss Tibetan issues, Taiwanese independence, the violent crackdown on the protests in Tiananmen Square and the Web sites of Amnesty International, the BBC’s Chinese-language news, Radio Free Asia and several Hong Kong newspapers known for their freewheeling political discourse.—The New York Times, July 31, 2008

Journalists encounter problems with accreditation

Then: With two weeks to go before this summer’s Olympics open here, the American press is scrambling to hurdle sudden roadblocks that threaten further cutbacks in coverage already sharply reduced because of the U.S. boycott.

Of 121 non-wire agency reporters (both print and photo) who sought to come, more than 60 have been denied accrediatation. And the three American television network news operations remain uncertain after protracted negotiations with the Russians as to how much and what kind of news coverage they will be able to broadcast about the Games.—The Washington Post, July 4, 1980

Now: But Human Rights Watch’s Mr. Kine, in a survey of China’s media record prior to the Olympics, said the government was using a variety of tactics to suppress sensitive stories.

Among them: delaying or denying accreditation and visa requests for news organizations that publish “unflattering” stories; increased use of plainclothes security agents to trail journalists; and harassing Chinese citizens who cooperate with foreign reporters, often by charging them with breaking national security laws.—Washington Times, July 20, 2008

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.