China Takes the HeatTo the People’s Republic, the Beijing Olympics looked like the ticket to international prestige. To opponents of Chinese policy, they looked like a bargaining chip. What if both sides were wrong?
The Olympic sport in which competition is fiercest, but for which no medals are ever awarded, takes place in the arena of politics. Even before the first athlete arrives in the stadium, the field is littered with unburied hatchets, as boycotts and bans on participation are wielded by states to convey their resolution, indignation, and moral rectitude. When the games begin, patriotism and the quest for international prestige suffuse the proceedings. Athletes parade into the Olympic venue by nationality, march behind their nation’s flag, and receive medals while their national anthem is played. Despite noble entreaties to avoid politicizing the Olympics, the urge to use the games to project symbols of national power and political protest is apparently irresistible.
The Beijing Olympics of 2008 may set a record for political contentiousness. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been unabashed in its view that the Olympics offer a way to enhance its international standing. In May 2007, Wang Guoqing, the vice minister of the PRC’s State Council Information Office, said, “Hosting the Olympics is a historic opportunity to showcase ourselves to the world.” What the world sees, however, is not always the fastidiously composed public countenance of China that Beijing seeks to promote. Moreover, the very effort to “showcase” China has led the country to take repressive or discriminatory measures directed at known and suspected dissidents, foreign residents, Taiwan, and, of course, Tibetans—prompting the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to admonish Beijing this past June and remind it of “the need to separate sport and politics.”
Meanwhile, a roster of nonstate actors and legions of individual protesters with grievances against the PRC have tried to redirect the klieg lights away from the staged, saccharine, and celebratory images purveyed by Beijing. In the months preceding the opening ceremony—which began at 8 p.m. on August 8, 2008 (8/8/08 at 8), in an overwrought effort to capitalize on propitious numerological associations with the number eight—the country was buffeted by a blizzard of criticism over its policies toward Sudan, Tibet, Burma, and Zimbabwe. Foreign leaders, Hollywood luminaries, human rights advocates, and intemperate crowds of detractors have endeavored to wrest control of Olympic symbolism from the games’ planners, who had envisaged the lead-up to August as one highly orchestrated international encomium to China. Instead, Beijing battled calls for boycotts and found itself repeatedly on its hind foot, defending its policies while trying to insulate the Olympics from other people’s politics.
Ambitions of Olympic Scale
And so it did. The PRC also seemed to persuade itself that if it bid, it would win. Visitors to Beijing in the early 1990s were greeted by large billboards and wall posters proclaiming “Beijing 2000.” Indeed, Beijing very nearly won the role of host, prevailing in the first three of four rounds of balloting when the IOC met in September 1993. In the final round, Beijing lost by two votes, and Sydney, Australia, walked away with the gold. Throughout China, people were astonished.
The mayor of Beijing, Chen Xitong, lashed out at those who, he claimed, were guilty of “flagrant interference and dissemination of rumors and verbal attacks against the Beijing bid.” Indeed, even before the vote, Beijing’s candidacy had drawn brickbats from abroad, mainly because memories of the government’s violent suppression of demonstrators in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere in June 1989—then only four years in the past—were still fresh. The most piercing denunciation came during the summer of 1993, when the U.S. Congress passed two resolutions urging IOC members to vote against granting the 2000 Olympics to any city in the PRC.
In response to those congressional measures, an enraged Zhang Baifa, chair of the committee that prepared Beijing’s bid, said, “The American people are very good to us. … It’s their Congress which is stupid. If Congress can pass a resolution objecting to our bid for the 2000 Olympics, we could, frankly, boycott their Atlanta Games in 1996.” In the end, the PRC did not boycott the games in Atlanta, but its wrath festered, and its determination to secure the right to host the games redoubled.
A good deal changed between 1993 and 2001, when Beijing bid again. China was widely seen to be “on the rise.” It had grown wealthier, more influential, and more highly developed. The IOC had also changed. It had rededicated itself to propriety after a colossal scandal in 1999 over vote buying. Whether on the merits of Beijing’s second bid alone, or out of sympathy for its near miss in 1993, or out of conviction that granting the games to Beijing would elicit from it salutary reforms at home and responsible behavior abroad, in July 2001 the IOC granted Beijing the XXIX Olympiad in 2008. The Chinese were jubilant.
Americans who have lived cavalierly through the games in Lake Placid (1980), Los Angeles (1984), Atlanta (1996), and Salt Lake City (2002) are unlikely to fathom the intense emotional investment that so many Chinese have made in hosting the Olympics. Why, one might ask, are the Olympics of such great importance to the PRC? In a word: legitimacy.
Beijing still craves international respect. Chinese believe that their national star is rising, but they are also keenly alert to their nation’s deficiencies. They are justly proud of progress their country has made since 1978 from communism to consumerism and from marginality to influence, but they live with residual decrepitude—reminders of both prerevolutionary China and the first disastrous decades of communist rule. Holland Cotter, an art critic for the New York Times, described the PRC recently as “a country that feels both older and newer than any place on the planet . . . a country that, culturally speaking, always has one foot on the gas and the other on the brake.” This contributes to both overweening national confidence and deep-seated insecurity.
While foreign observers marvel at the “rise of China,” Chinese analysts are still preoccupied by potential threats to social stability and impediments to the PRC’s continued expansion of its wealth, power, and status. The trappings of national self-assurance and modernity are apparent, but they coexist with less conspicuous signs of inadequacy commingled with resentment about how China was victimized and stigmatized by greater powers in the past. For the PRC, hosting the Olympics is an emblem of international prestige—an affirmation of its emerging power. Self-confidence leads Chinese to sense that, not only do they deserve to hold the games on their territory, they can host with the extravagant theatrical equivalent of “shock and awe.” But it is insecurity that feeds their need to do it.
In part, the Chinese fascination with hosting the Olympics flows from a propensity to seek, in the manipulation of images and ideas, compensation for deficiencies in material sources of power. Diplomatically, Chinese elites have been much taken by the potential of “soft power”—a notion introduced into the public lexicon by Joseph Nye, of Harvard University—to promote the PRC’s ambitions for status and influence. Leaving aside what Nye may actually have meant by the term, Chinese have fastened on soft power as a way to exploit the deep reserve of esteem that they presume the rest of the world associates with China’s antique culture and sophisticated civilization.
Chinese officials, though, fail to distinguish between the propaganda used to control ideas at home and the approaches to public relations that are effective abroad. In a society over which they exercise complete control to impel and punish—and snuff out competing voices—the leadership can use propaganda to enormous effect. But in pluralistic states where there is greater freedom of information, it is not the authoritative source of an idea that determines influence so much as its inherent persuasive power. PRC officials are frustrated by their failure to be believed beyond their nation’s borders when they employ the same propaganda tools they have mastered at home. The disjunction between what has worked at home and what is needed abroad has made the lead-up to the Olympics a colossal trial for the PRC’s leaders.
One World, One Bad Dream?
Readers unaccustomed to the patter of political propaganda in the PRC may be mystified by the breathless, Kumbaya-like tone of this official treatise. It, too, reveals a disjunction between the reality dominating Chinese officialdom and perceptions beyond their domain. Within their realm, Chinese officials expect the images and ideas they promote to be adopted uncritically. This spring, a barrage of foreign criticism exposed the limits of those expectations.
While Beijing burnished its image in the pre-Olympic spotlight, every week over the past half year or so seemed to bring new assaults by foreign faultfinders. Some raised alarm about toxic environmental conditions. In 2001, when the IOC gave the nod to Beijing, it accepted the city’s assurances that both air and water quality would be greatly improved by August 2008. Indeed, Beijing emphasized its commitment to environmentalism, pledging that the 2008 games would be the “green Olympics.”
Nevertheless, this past spring, several prominent athletes bowed out of the games for fear that participation would overtax their lungs. Twenty-four national Olympic teams trained in the weeks prior to the competition in Japan instead of China, and others announced they would bring food and beverages with them rather than consume locally produced goods of dubious quality.
The PRC, to its credit, has aggressively sought to curb pollution in and around Beijing. Driving has been appreciably restricted in the weeks prior to the games. Some smokestack industries have been compelled to shutter themselves. To underscore its commitment to clean air, Beijing has publicly enumerated the number of “blue sky days” it ekes out, announcing whether each day qualifies toward the stated annual goal.
When great gobs of green algae coated the waters off the coast of Qingdao, site of this summer’s sailing competition, the PRC dispatched an army of muckrakers. Images of the despoiled shores, though clearly “off message” for Beijing, were not nearly as damaging to the PRC’s efforts as were policies that foreign critics targeted as craven and callous.
The PRC takes pride in its “value-neutral” approach to international commerce, viewing business as business and protecting profit from politics. It also regards sovereignty as inviolable. So, although the PRC is not opposed to U.N. intervention in Sudan, it believes such measures should be taken only with the consent of the Sudanese government.
To the nongovernmental organization Dream for Darfur, which advocates for Darfuri victims, Beijing’s stance makes it complicit. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed published on March 28, 2007, Mia Farrow—chair of Dream for Darfur’s advisory board—and her son Ronan Farrow wrote that “there is now one thing that China may hold more dear than their unfettered access to Sudanese oil: their successful staging of the 2008 Summer Olympics. That desire may provide a lone point of leverage with a country that has otherwise been impervious to all criticism.” Urging corporate investors in the Olympics to pressure Beijing to use its influence in Khartoum, the Farrows wrote that “rather than ‘One World, One Dream,’ people are beginning to speak of the coming ‘Genocide Olympics.’”
The Farrows also fingered the film director Stephen Spielberg, who was to serve as artistic adviser for the Olympics’ opening and closing ceremonies. In February 2008, apparently shamed by the Farrows’ campaign, Spielberg publicly severed ties to the Beijing Olympic effort.
The “Genocide Olympics” barb struck home. As protest intensified against the PRC, threatening to mire the games in political contention, Beijing hit back. Officials and pundits, beleaguered but defiant, questioned the motives of those who defamed the PRC. One People’s Daily editor wrote in February 2008, under the headline “Politicizing Beijing Olympics Unacceptable”:
Darfur was displaced from public attention the following month when, on March 10—the anniversary of a Tibetan uprising that Beijing crushed in 1959—hundreds of Buddhist monks staged a protest in Lhasa to oppose PRC rule. In the days following, the PRC sought first to contain the protests with tear gas, armed force, and widespread arrests. By employing methods redolent of the violence used to suppress demonstrations in June 1989, the authorities spurred wider protests, rioting, and anti-Chinese violence in Tibet and adjacent regions where large numbers of Tibetans reside. Images of bloodied monks, dead bodies, and phalanxes of uniformed officers confronting and arresting protesters competed with video that Beijing replayed of horrid assaults by Tibetan protesters on Han Chinese in Lhasa. Beijing excoriated the Dalai Lama and his “clique” as splittists who cast off their pledge of nonviolence to incite the protests. The international community, though, would have none of it.
The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, said his willingness to attend the opening ceremony in Beijing depended on how responsive the Chinese government would be to the Dalai Lama—a thinly veiled threat to boycott the event and a goad to other national leaders to impose similar conditions.
A more infelicitous moment for the turmoil in Tibet could not have been engineered. On March 24, an international torch relay—a “Journey of Harmony”—began with a lighting ceremony in Olympia, Greece. Thereafter, angry crowds in London, Paris, Istanbul, San Francisco, Kathmandu, and elsewhere turned out to jeer, not cheer, the passage of the Olympic torch. Tibetan flags and “Free Tibet” banners intruded on images of the relay. The Olympic torch—which has its own aircraft, convoy of buses and support vehicles, uniformed escorts, and website—was held aloft by bewildered runners, surrounded in each city by a cordon of local cops and a squad of Chinese security agents in sky-blue-colored track suits, who engaged protesters in a running contest of dodgem. A journey of harmony it was not.
Astounded by the ferocity of the criticism, PRC officials characterized foreign charges as moralistic “interference in China’s internal affairs”—a routine scold intended to tell foreigners, especially those from formerly imperialistic states that had trampled China’s sovereignty in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, to mind their own business. Beijing decried what it perceived as double standards by foreign journalists and dismissed criticism as bilious rants manifesting entrenched anti-Chinese sentiments.
At a March 2008 press conference, the country’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, was questioned by an Associated Press reporter, who began: “China itself has politicized the games in a way by using them to promote patriotism and to raise China’s international stature.” Then the correspondent asked, “Do you honestly believe you can keep politics out of the Olympic Games? Do you intend to continue to reject all of the criticism and pressure, or will you see this as an opportunity to perhaps engage some of your critics as well as your supporters at the Olympics?”
Yang replied, “Patriotism and the politicization of the Olympic Games are completely different matters. Do you think the Chinese government is forcing the Chinese people to support the Olympic Games?” Turning to the flood of criticism from abroad, Yang claimed that the “small number” of protesters were “very biased towards China.” He continued: “We welcome suggestions and criticism offered out of goodwill. However, if some people want to tarnish the image of China, they . . . will never get their way, because what they are doing is opposed by people in China and people around the world.” Such people, Yang said, “will only end up tarnishing their own image.”
The foreign minister was not wrong to observe that hostility along the path of the Olympic torch relay, as well as the outpouring of negative press and criticism of China in advance of the Olympics, had incited crowds of Chinese—many living overseas—to mount a powerful, patriotic pushback. In some places along the relay route, nasty standoffs erupted between proud Chinese and indignant anti-PRC protesters. Chinese rose in defense of their government, echoing PRC propaganda about the history of China’s sovereignty over and modernization of Tibet.
By April, the mood was raw, as the IOC deliberated on whether to end the torch relay. The PRC’s image was defiled again on April 18, when dockworkers in Durban, South Africa, refused to unload from a PRC vessel 77 tons of Chinese-made armaments intended for transshipment to Zimbabwe, where the government of Robert Mugabe terrorized his opponents with armed militias. Again, Beijing’s carefully scripted message of harmony was despoiled by critics who charged the PRC with disregard for decency.
In the end, the buildup to the Beijing Olympics did not yield to the principal contenders the political prizes they sought. The leadership in Beijing may have imagined it could bask in uniformly favorable publicity generated by its overworked propagandists. For whatever reason, it was ill prepared for the onslaught of criticism. While the XXIX Olympiad will leave its own legacy of athletic triumph and defeat, it is likely to offer negligible enhancement to international perceptions of the PRC.
Likewise, little of lasting importance is apt to emerge from the well-intended efforts of political protesters. Public and prominent expressions of discontent with the PRC were intended as moral extortion—to hold the Olympics hostage as a means to impel Beijing to be, for example, more assertive in dealing with Khartoum, more yielding in interactions with the Dalai Lama, and more chastened about its obdurate inattention to human decency.
In June, the PRC’s president, Hu Jintao, reportedly did speak more sternly to the visiting Sudanese vice president about resolving the Darfur crisis, but the problem remains unresolved, and Beijing continues to shield the Sudanese government. Beijing also resumed long-suspended talks with the Dalai Lama’s representatives, but they emerged, disappointed, in early July, saying that without a “serious and sincere commitment” to negotiation by Beijing, “the present dialogue process would serve no purpose.” (Another round of talks is scheduled for October.) Even so, Sarkozy, who once appeared a courageous voice of principle, announced one month before the games that he would attend the opening ceremony after all.
Beijing is likely to conclude that many of its critics are fickle and easily bought off or distracted by instrumental gestures of acquiescence. Other detractors will be dismissed as having only a shallow commitment to the issues they champion but a reflexive disregard for the PRC. Hence—Beijing will observe—causes that yesterday provoked passions, such as human rights abuses at Tiananmen Square, are forgotten as soon as new reasons to denigrate China, such as Darfur and Tibet, appear in the headlines.
Exaggerated expectations on all sides led to a ferocious contest for influence over the political symbolism associated with the Beijing Olympics. In the end, though, political symbols may be potent stimulants to emotion, but they are weak tools with which to do the sweaty work of building bridges across political chasms.
ALAN WACHMAN, F84, is an associate professor of international politics at the Fletcher School, where he specializes in Chinese foreign relations, Sino-U.S. relations, Taiwan, and cross–Taiwan Strait relations. His most recent book is Why Taiwan? Geostrategic Rationales for China’s Territorial Integrity (Stanford University Press). His consideration of the politics associated with the Beijing Olympics was inspired by the work of Omar Dia, Sina Khabirpour, Qi Dahai, Ivan Rasmussen, and Courtney Richardson—students in his spring 2008 course The Foreign Relations of the People’s Republic of China.