Beijing trades shame for respect
The Beijing Olympic Games left Chinese and international audiences alike in gaping awe. To the Chinese, the 17-day athletic competition was the fulfillment of a hundred-year dream to overcome the humiliation dealt it by avaricious foreign powers from the time of China's defeat in the Opium War.
China's best-known movie director Zhang Yimou's precision-choreographed opening ceremony, accented by dazzling pyrotechnics and colorful costumes and highlighting China's cultural and historic achievements, was a hands-down artistic masterpiece.
However spectacular the opening ceremony might have been, China's real purpose for hosting the 29th Olympiad was to let the world know that in the short span of 30 years, China broke out of international isolation and has become a burgeoning world power flush with a trillion dollars in foreign reserves plus growing global political clout, military might and seductive soft power.
The Olympics were clearly political. Whichever country hosts the quadrennial event, they have never been purely about athletic competition. The Beijing Olympics were even more political given the great importance China attached to them and the $42 billion it shelled out to host them in high fashion.
For example, the Chinese government did not fulfill its promise to allow foreign journalists to go anywhere and to interview Chinese citizens without prior government approval. China announced its relaxed policy in January 2007. For the same year, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China reported 180 cases of government interference that resulted in members' arrests, confiscated memory cards and equipment, and even beatings. To top things off, President Hu Jintao had the temerity to invite a group of foreign journalists to a televised "talk story" session where he grandfatherly admonished them, "Don't politicize the spirit of the Olympics."
Hypocritically, China did exactly what it wanted the foreign journalists not to do. Staged in a Beijing theater at the end of the Olympics, "Princess Wenchang" is a story about the marriage of a 7th-century Chinese princess to a Tibetan king. The political intent was unmistakably clear: All is well between China and Tibet. The message is impossible to accept given the March riots in Tibet and the ongoing struggle between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government.
The Olympics proved the ability of centralized state power to produce. The central government played the key role in securing the bid, creating the incomparable facilities, and the formation and execution of Operation 119 to recruit and train world-class athletes in a wide variety of sports, many of which most Chinese have no interest in. All of those accomplishments were achieved as China had to deal with the disastrous aftermath of large earthquakes in southwest China plus Tibetan and Uighur unrest.
On the other hand, it is equally clear that China was more interested in ends than in means when it came to creating the right image for the Beijing Olympics. Migrant laborers were summarily sent back to their villages to prevent any possible demonstration about their working conditions, and rural dwellers were prevented from travelling to Beijing to present petitions. To make way for Olympic facilities, neighborhoods were razed resulting in the involuntary displacement of nearly 15,000 residents, many of whom complained about inadequate compensation.
Many Chinese and foreigners wondered if the $42 billion spent on the Olympics might have been better spent on building a new health care system in place of the health care system that fell apart in the countryside when China began to rationalize its economy. The supply of clean water remains a countrywide problem. Economically, inland provinces such as Gansu and Qinghai remain far behind coastal provinces.
The International Olympic Committee felt that awarding the Olympics to Beijing would help to usher in a period of greater concern for human rights and popular democracy. The attendance of Bush 41, "W," Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy underlines China's growing global commercial and political influence. China undoubtedly gained more of the international attention and respect it sought and which the leadership will likely try to parlay into greater domestic support for its policies.
In at least the short term, however, the Olympics are unlikely to result in less control over the Tibetans, Uighurs and religion. Nor is democracy likely to benefit.
Most Chinese realize that today's China is far more open and far less autocratic than in the past. One can freely pick their place of employment, own their own house, start their own business, plus travel and study abroad. It's a commonly held Western fallacy that China's growing middle class will clamor for democracy. In a forthcoming book that he co-edited on Asian views of democracy, noted China specialist Andrew Nathan argues that of the eight countries he researched, China was the most at ease with authoritarian rule. In your columnist's view, China's key concern is to maintain stability. Moreover, they believe parliamentary democracy would result in the loss of their newly acquired material wealth. Thus it is improbable that the Olympics will alter their views any time soon.
The lessons of the Beijing Olympics are clearly manifest for the U.S. and global community: Never underestimate China, as we have in our foreign policy with other Asian nations. Always remember that it has great determination to play a leading global role, and it now has the financial resources, growing military capability, soft power and commercial influence to achieve political goals.
Whatever effect the Olympics might have on China will take time to discern. Nevertheless, as more and more Chinese jettison Marxism, the government seeks to strengthen Chinese nationalistic pride. The Olympics have clearly ramped up that pride; however, if the party and government don't rule in a manner that meets people's needs and expectations, that nationalism could well boomerang and release a wave of uncontrollable fervor that would induce instability and prematurely end top-level leaders' careers.
Bill Sharp teaches classes about the domestic and international politics of East Asia at Hawaii Pacific University. He writes a monthly commentary for the Star-Bulletin. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org