Saturday, August 11, 2007

Beijing 2008: More Than Just Olympics

-With Olympics in one year, is China ready to face the challenges from both inside and outside the Games?

by Thomas Huang

August 8th, Beijing. Nightly fireworks, excited crowds, tireless performers, and of course, loud and uplifting speeches by the country's leaders ... a grand celebration on the Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the political heart of China, marked the one-year count down to the 2008 Olympic Games. With new stadiums mushrooming around the city, Beijing is making a sound proclamation of its readiness for the Olympics, a sports carnival that many Chinese have only waited for too long.

For the past six years since the city won the right to stage the 2008 Olympics, preparations for Olympics have catalyzed the making of a brand new Beijing on top of the old dragon-seat of China. Besides unveiling new sports facilities, Beijing is also in a rush to upgrade its grossly outdated infrastructures and teach its residents English and etiquettes. All of these, of course, are backed by the lavish spending of the Chinese central government, wh0se leaders are determined to make the Games "the most successful ones" at all cost.

The open secret is that the Chinese enthusiasm for Olympics has a deeper motive driving in behind: a lust for the aura of international acceptance that the right to host the Games entails. Clearly, a rising China is yearning for the kind of international prestige that matches its economic power. As the most celebrated international sports event that chimes with the lullaby of a harmonic human race, Olympics are just perfect for that purpose, especially since Chinese leaders have repeatedly asserted that the country shall have a "peaceful rise."

China is not alone in capitalizing on the political assets of Olympic Games. Despite popular calls for a separation of sports and politics, Olympics have only grown increasingly politicized over the years. Top leaders of the countries bidding to host the Games become foot soldiers in the campaign work, and decisions that the International Olympic Committee makes on the winners of the bids never fail to attract speculations over their political implications. The recent victory of Sochi's bid for 2014 Winter Olympics, for example, is often viewed as the triumph of an economically and politically rejuvenated Russia seeking to reinstate its position as a world's superpower.


Yet, to China, more politics in Olympics can be both a blessing and a blow. The country benefited from its political potency in winning the bid, and will continue to rally support both domestically and from abroad thanks to the Games. However, there is always a flip side of the coin. When China is placed in the spotlight of international attention, the country's inherent problems, most notably its records on human rights and civil freedom, become the source of squabbles. The country has long been criticized for its brutal suppression of press and religious freedom, ubiquitous internet censorship, and the lack of protection of workers' rights. To many human rights activists, the stark contrast between the spirit of Olympics and the human rights situation in China is simply an irony to the Games. Radical free-Tibet groups called for a boycott of Beijing Olympics; so did US presidential candidate, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. French presidential candidate, Ms. Royal also came down tough on the issue (or, she tried to make it an issue), but she lost anyway. Although, in the name of Olympics, the Chinese government announced at the end of 2006 a policy that eased restrictions on foreign journalists' activities in China, it also set a twenty-one-month lifespan to the new policy, making outside critics doubtful of the government's sincerity in the matter.

China's trouble with critics over the Games is only part of its "growing pains." With industries booming, environmental pollution has always been a headache; and now it gets even trickier as Global Warming kicks in. China's proud economic powerhouse, the export-oriented industries, suffered a hard blow when recent news reports highlighted safety problems of the country's exported products. Besides that, the PRC's strengthening People's Liberation Army is also stirring up concerns, particularly in Pentagon, where many are afraid that the tipping military balance across the Taiwan Strait may lure Beijing into attempts of an armed unification with Taiwan.

Nonetheless, to the Western world, China is not always a counterproductive adversary. The country is still a trading partner, or maybe also a "strategic competitor," as American Democrats agreed on August 7th's debate, and the wind is unlikely to change in the near future. Chinese leaders have been fairly helpful and cooperative on a number of international issues like dealing with North Korea's nuclear attempts, and the country's increased involvement in UN peace-keeping operations is also much applauded. Many who work in trade and business with China believe that intensified commercial activities will eventually lead to an open society, since modern international economy is based on the flow of capital, goods, service, and most importantly, information. Supporters of China's bid for Olympic share similar beliefs. Former Chair of the House International Relations committee's Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Mr. Jim Leach (R-IA), is one of them. He said to the writer of this article in an interview last year that he endorsed Beijing for Olympics because he viewed it as a positive signal that China is welcoming the people of the world to visit and to compete "in fair and open competitions" and "in a totally rule based way."

Behind the disputes over what to do with Beijing Olympics, i.e. to boycott or to participate, given the country's human rights records, the bigger question is essentially an ideological one over the choice in foreign policy-making: which strategy shall we prefer, "containment" or "engagement?"

In public rallies, tough tones whip up the crowds' sentiments. Containment, the tougher approach, is thus always a good choice for policy advertisement. Yet history tells how the strategy worked otherwise. Vietnam War did not crush Viet Cong; isolation failed to shake Cuba; for China, while hostility in the mid-20th century had not move the country any closer to freedom, Nixon's ice-breaking diplomacy opened a new era of China, freer and more open than it had ever been - although still yet to be free enough.

Olympics provide a chance for the outsiders who want to get their voice heard by China, and that is precisely why politicians and human rights activists are trying to take advantage of the event. Yet because of that, Olympics can also an opportunity for China to make some real progress, not only in infrastructure but also in its citizens' rights and freedom, and show it to the world. China's temporary ease on press freedom for foreign journalists for the sake of Olympics may seem half-hearted, yet it is moving in the right direction. The Chinese government may be reluctant to come down harsh on Sudan over Darfur because of oil interests (similarly, Ms. Nancy Pelosi [D-CA], current House speaker, speaks rather gently on human rights issues when it comes to Saudi Arabia), but after international pressure stepped up, China altered its non-interventionist policy and agreed to persuade the Sudanese government into accepting the UN resolution and allowing peacekeeping forces, as long as no sanction against Sudan is proposed.

Making China care more about its image in the world is perhaps the most important way in which Olympics has shaped the regime. To get the Olympic thing running, China needs inputs from the world, and this also makes it easier for the world to communicate with this country that once shielded behind its nationalistic pride. In contrast, confrontational approaches, such as a boycott, serve none of th0se purposes, as they only appear as a cold denial to every tiny bit of things China has done in making itself a more welcomed member of the international community. Just like scolding and beating are not the best ways to discipline a child, iconoclastic attacks, despite the possibly kind-hearted intention in behind, typically hurt more than help the progress.

Some popular notions nowadays compare the 2008 Beijing Olympics to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, accusing both for embellishing suppressive regimes; yet the reality of the present-day China makes such claims hardly tenable. For one thing, China's leaders do not want to demonstrate with Olympics any kind of racial superiority as Adolf Hitler did, nor do they have the ambition to conquer the world, particularly since the nation itself was victimized by an Asian version of holocaust during the WWII. Plus, what the world see in China today is not a bunch of militarily mobilized, war-oriented industries, but a robust market economy intertwined with the rest of the world. All these make the 2008 Olympics by no means comparable to its Berlin counterpart, but instead, more akin to the one in 1988 in Seoul, South Korea, which kick-started genuine democratization in the country after 40 years of military dictatorship.

Now is the time for Chinese leader to move forward. Olympics are perhaps not the panacea for all of China's problems; but, if properly handled, they can be where the solutions start.


Note: In this article, "China" and "Chinese government" refer to the People's Republic of China (PRC) and its government, not their Republic of China (ROC) equivalents.

7 comments:

Josie Liu said...

Hey there,
very nice articles. very impressive. keep going...

Anonymous said...

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