Beijing’s Olympics, China’s politics

Li Datong
22 August 2007

It is less than a year until the Beijing Olympics of 8-24 August 2008. With their approach, criticism of China in the international news media is on the increase. Three events on successive days indicate a rising level of engagement that seeks to link the event with human-rights concerns.

On 6 August 2007, the information office of the Chinese government's state council held a press conference on the preparations for the games. Almost all the questions asked by foreign journalists had political undertones. The first was from an Agencia Efe journalist, who asked about Steven Spielberg's announcement that unless China changed its policies on Darfur, the war-torn region of western Sudan, he would cease cooperating with the Beijing Olympic Committee over preparations for the closing ceremony.

Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and a former editor of Bingdian (Freezing Point), a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper.

Among Li Datong's articles in openDemocracy:

"The story of Freezing Point" (12 September 2006)

"China: a ‘great nation'?" (10 January 2007)

"What China's new property law means" (21 March 2007)

"China's veteran voices of reform" (16 May 2007)

"China's unlearning: a potent anniversary" (13 June 2007)

"The root of slave labour in China" (26 June 2007)

"Hong Kong's one-legged return" (11 July 2007)

"Beijing baozi and public trust" (25 July 2007)

"The next land revolution?" (8 August 2007)

On 7 August, the New York-based group Reporters Without Borders released a Chinese-language report in Beijing called "Broken Promises: Restrictions on Chinese Press Freedom in the Run-Up to the 2008 Olympics" (the coverage of this report has itself been blocked by the Chinese authorities). The report says that strict limits remain in place on the local media, though restrictions on foreign journalists have been relaxed; it finds that at least twenty-nine Chinese news-workers are currently imprisoned, and that attacks on and harassment of them continue, with impunity for the perpetrators.

On 8 August, a group of forty well-known Chinese scholars and liberal intellectuals published an open letter to Chinese and world leaders referring to the Beijing Olympic slogan, "One world, one dream". The true basis of the slogan should be "one standard of human rights", the signatories said:

"We see, hear and even personally experience the snuffing out of press freedom and freedom of expression, the persecution of human rights defenders, the wilful trampling of international standards of human rights, and the unscrupulous violation of the rights of the poor and the weak. We even see government officials and departments abusing human rights in the name of the Olympics."

The letter - which echoes earlier such initiatives, and whose full text can be found here - concluded by recommending eight steps for improving human rights in China, including "releasing prisoners of conscience from jail".

A spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry claimed that certain forces in the west were attempting to politicise the Olympics, which, he said, went against the basic principle that the games should be apolitical.

The politics of sport

It seems that the games do in fact have different political implications depending on the host country. When they are held in places like Atlanta or Sydney, the games are seen as a sports extravaganza - one big party for athletes and fans alike. But when they are held in places like Tokyo (1964), Seoul (1988), or today's Beijing, no one can ignore the huge political implications. People remember how the Tokyo Olympics gave a massive boost to Japan's post-war economy, and helped Japan to regain a place among the world's important nations. Similarly, the Seoul event succeeded in encouraging Korea's transition from a military dictatorship to a modern democratic nation. But China is similar to neither Japan nor Korea. It is simply too big.

In fact, the Chinese government's determination to host an Olympic games has always been founded on political factors. Following the armed suppression of the Tiananmen pro-democracy protests in 1989, China was alienated from the international community, and at home the regime's legitimacy was shaken. The Chinese government desperately needed to improve its international image. In 1990, Deng Xiaoping announced that "China will apply to host the Olympics". A successful application would go a long way to boosting national pride, and would heal a lot of the damage done to the regime. (Also, 2000 was the year of the dragon, which in Chinese culture is thought to be a year of success and achievement). However, when the application was made in 1993, the sounds of the gunshots in Beijing were still ringing in people's ears. China was also not as powerful then as it is now. It was entirely predictable that the bid failed.

Eight years later, China was more powerful, and the international community was less able to ignore such an enormous market. Investment flooded in, and historical memories faded. In these circumstances, the success of China's 2001 bid was also predictable.

When the western democratic countries, and democratic forces within China, saw that Beijing would be hosting such a huge international sporting event, they hoped that it would encourage political change in China. After all, China would be in the international spotlight for some years, and this should force China to be more open, and act according to internationally recognised standards. However, these hopes now look overly optimistic.

The long-term contest

China certainly has the ability to host the Olympics. The country is more powerful than for many years, and already has the experience of hosting large sporting events. The Olympics will not be a financial burden on China as they were for a small country like Greece in 2004. Moreover, the public has been marinating in nationalism for over a decade now, and the Olympics can satisfy many of its demands for international recognition. For this reason, there will not be any large-scale political protests, and a few intellectuals asking for improvements in human rights will not have any real impact.

For its part, the International Olympic Committee is concerned only to have a smoothly run Olympics and make a financial profit, so it has no reason to pick a political fight with the host nation. Unless an important country like the United States boycotts the Beijing Olympics (the likelihood of which is tiny), the Chinese government will not feel any need to give way on domestic political issues.

In conclusion, the Beijing Olympics will not produce the important political reforms that many people are hoping for. Real change requires consolidation of the position of domestic reformers, and a wider public recognition of human rights. These will need another twenty or thirty years - in effect, a generation - to realise. But if we take into account 2,000 years of autocratic tradition in China, and think of the changes that have already taken place in the last thirty years, then this is probably not an unreasonable amount of time to wait.

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