China’s Olympics: after the storm

About the author

In hindsight, it can look as though China's apparently tortuous last six months have been part of some masterly public-relations plan to manage the world's expectations of the Beijing Olympics on 8-24 August 2008.

Kerry Brown is an associate fellow on the Asia programme, Chatham House, and director of Strategic China Ltd. His most recent book is Struggling Giant: China in the 21st Century (Anthem Press, 2007)

Also by Kerry Brown on openDemocracy:

"China's top fifty: the China power list" (2 April 2007)

"China goes global" (2 August 2007)

"China's party congress: getting serious" (5 October 2007)

"Shanghai: Formula One's last ride" (15 October 2007)

"Beijing's political tightrope-walk" (12 March 2008)

"Taiwan and China: an electoral prelude" (4 April 2008)

The problem was that these expectations were becoming dangerously high. A PR campaign was, then, required; its purpose was to reduce them to such a low level that even a moderately well-run event with no major calamity could be portrayed as a success. The strategy of the Chinese government - and its key PR advisors, Ogilvy & Hill Knowlton - was to arrange a succession of events that left the rest of the world awed in disbelief. There was no need after all, it seems, for the advice of scholarly experts (see James A Millward, "China's story: putting the PR into the PRC", 18 April 2008).

The sophisticated campaign had four stages.

First, there was the circulation of claims - increasing by late 2007 - that China's nefarious role in the western Sudanese province of Darfur was guaranteed to make Beijing the "genocide Olympics". This argument culminated in February 2008 in the resignation of Stephen Spielberg as creative director of the Olympics's opening and closing ceremonies (though on this last point, the Chinese government could preserve the appearance of wounded pride by pointing out that there was nothing for Spielberg to resign from as he had never signed a contract).

Second, there were the uprisings in Tibetan-inhabited areas in mid-March 2008 - from the Tibetan Autonomous Region itself to Sichuan and Gansu - which led to the death of (according to Tibetan accounts) over 100 people. These had been preceded, and were followed, by incidents of protest (including demonstrations) in the northwest province of Xinjiang.

Third, the Olympic torch's global procession faced vocal demonstrations in a number of western capitals, which degenerated into scenes of chaos as Chinese defenders (mostly students) of their country's right and dignity clashed with Tibetan activists and western human-rights protestors.

Fourth, China has continued its squeeze on its own internal dissidents; the three-and-a-half-year sentence handed in April 2008 to the internet and environmental campaigner Hu Jia for crimes of subversion, is only the most visible among many examples.

In the wake of the storm

This storm of bad news for the Chinese government was as unexpected as it has been unremitting. In such periods, its leaders will often invoke the advice of the classics - in this case Mao Zedong himself: that the best way to deal with defeat was to use it as a basis for the next victory. When its ferocity has subsided, the nine-strong politburo - in place only since the seventeenth congress of the Chinese Communist Party on 15-19 October 2007 - may well observe the becalmed landscape and see a blessing in disguise. As long, that is, as the tumult really has ended.

The People's Republic of China (PRC), and the Chinese people as a whole, have shared with many people outside China a set of inflated, unrealistic notions about what the Olympics could or will deliver. When Beijing won the right to host the 2008 Olympics in 2001, many on all sides may well have sincerely believed that in seven years' time China would have made great progress both in human rights and in political reform. Their hopes proved unfounded, but their optimism should be no more dismissed than others' bleak (or in this case realistic) pessimism deserves to be applauded. After all, both attitudes are almost equally well-grounded in relation to the history of the PRC. Any informed observer can easily show that the country's record over the fifty-nine years of the state's existence is a mixture that can incorporate both. That always will likely remain a predominant reality in a country as layered as China - and it will no doubt be a recognised part of the assessment of the Olympics when the curtain falls.

Also in openDemocracy on China's Olympics - and Tibetan tensions:

Li Datong, "Beijing's Olympics, China's politics" (22 August 2007)

Gabriel Lafitte, "Tibet: revolt with memories" (18 March 2008)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "The perils of forced modernity: China-Tibet, America-Iraq" (27 March 2008)

Donald S Lopez, "How to think about Tibet" (28 March 2008)

George Fitzherbert, "Tibet's history, China's power" (28 March 2008)

Dibyesh Anand, "Tibet, China, and the west: empires of the mind" (1 April 2008)

Robert Barnett, "Tibet: questions of revolt" (4 April 2008)

Wenran Jiang, "Tibetan unrest, Chinese lens" (7 April 2008)

Ivy Wang, "China's netizens and Tibet: a Guangzhou report" (8 April 2008)

Wang Lixiong, "China and Tibet: the true path" (15 April 2008)

Here, then, is the beauty and sophistication of the Chinese government's six-month public-relations plan. Now that so many voices have interpreted the string of crises and challenges facing Beijing as auguring disaster in August, this outcome has - almost by default - become much less likely. The combination of protests and tensions have reminded people of a reality that is often half-forgotten: that China has a dark underside, and that its gleaming modern cities in the coastal areas are only part of a much more complex social story.

The 30,000 journalists heading to Beijing will be more-than-half aware that many of the "undesirables" (beggars, prostitutes, migrant workers, and dissidents) of the "modern" PRC will have been removed from the city. They will know that they are looking at a highly stage-managed event. This will represent both a significant departure from the triumphalist and celebratory fixations of the pre-disorder period, and a prophylactic against the potentially much worse story of armies of foreign journalists being shocked by what they discover. The news management - and the "disillusion" - has already happened.

After the party

The Chinese government, then, has managed to observe a classic rule of any good PR campaign: get the bad news out first, and give yourself time to deal with it. It may have looked surprised when the outbursts happened in Tibet, and the turmoil there does raise serious questions about their handling of this and other "minority" regions. But Beijing can face these at another time and place: it would have been far worse for them if Tibet had exploded just before, or (even worse) during the games.

The government can also rightly point to the fact that the whole torch-ceremony fiasco was not its idea, but a daft leftover that in its present form dates only from the previous Olympics, in 2004. And it can use its experience of the Olympics to demonstrate to Chinese people a conclusion many of them have already reached: namely, that when China eagerly embraces a western idea or product - and then actually lands it - there always seems to be a sting in the tail (see Struggling Giant: China in the 21st Century [Anthem Press, 2007]).

Marxism-Leninism led to revolution, devastation and near implosion. Western-style industrialisation has led to the near-annihilation of the Chinese environment. China's twenty-year hunt for a Nobel prize was rewarded first in 1989 by the peace award to the Dalai Lama; then in 2000 by the literature award to the obscure émigré Chinese novelist Gao Xinjiang. China's "Nobel fever" was cured after that, and there is general indifference each year to the decisions of the various committees now regarded as bribed and biased insider-groups.

As a result of these experiences, China may well be further emboldened to go its own way. The Olympics has been a final opportunity to see that these symbols of western development are not so great. But China now has stakes in some of the great symbols of the western corporate world - such as Merrill Lynch and BP. China is starting to push back. Many young Chinese know that the likeliest outcome for the short-to-mid-term future is for Chinese companies and organisations to initiate a fresh and startling process of globalisation. More and more of the international agenda is now in China's hands to shape (see “China goes global”, 2 August 2008).

So as western journalists write the Olympic stories they had already planned months before, delivering them to an audience who are already suspecting them - and thus deprived of their element of surprise and shock - the Chinese people, like sensible people anywhere, will be relaxing, sitting back, looking at this event and seeing it for what it is - a mere three weeks of corporate frenzy, redeemed by a few sublime moments of sporting excitement, which will dissolve almost as soon as it is over. When it is, the Chinese people will be able to continue the remarkable journey they began many decades ago - and which, unlike the Olympics, really can and will change the world.