China changes itself: an Olympics report

Kerry Brown
20 August 2008

The three-quarter point of the Olympic games in Beijing passes with a host of sights and impressions already imprinted on China's and the world's consciousness - from the beautified capital city and its friendly stage-army of bright and enthusiastic volunteers to the extraordinary performances of some of the world's great athletes and swimmers (as well as specialists in many more recondite sports). Even the crashing wave of Chinese emotion that accompanied the sudden pre-race departure of the local hero and 110-metres hurdles' hope Liu Xiang - albeit followed, as night follows day, by some bitter denunciation of the athlete in China's febrile cyberspace - offers a vivid example of the kind of collective national sentiment that, increasingly, highlights global bonds as much as divisions (see "China on Olympic eve: a globalisation of sentiment", 10 July 2008). Kerry Brown is an associate fellow on the Asia programme, Chatham House, and director of Strategic China Ltd. His most recent books 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)

"China's Olympics: after the storm" (6 May 2008)

"China on Olympic eve: a globalisation of sentiment" (10 July 2008)

"The Olympics countdown: Beijing to Shanghai" (6 August 2008)

The confounding - so far - of the more gloomy forecasts (smog, chaotic protests, intenet censorship, terrorism - though watch Xinjiang) is a matter of profound relief to the authorities. It has even all been - so far - remarkably scandal-free. Here, however, there is one big exception (a few drug-test cases aside) - the revelations over the artful manipulations of image and sound at Zhang Yimou's spectacular opening ceremony on 8 August 2008.

In some circumstances, the media's triple discovery - that the sweet 9-year-old girl Lin Miako chosen to perform the song that opened the games had been miming to the nightingale voice of the (supposedly) less charming 7-year-old Yang Peiyi, that the twenty-nine giant firework "footprints" against the Beijing night sky had in fact been simulated for the TV audience, and that the costumed children representing China's notional fifty-six "ethnic minorities" were all Han Chinese - might have derailed the coverage of the entire event. Instead, and in the context of the subsequent (at the time of writing) twelve days of competition, the kerfuffle over the Bird's Nest stadium serves to highlight the fascinating non-sporting theme that is emerging from the Beijing games: the sense that China's much-vaunted, championed, feared and discussed "transformation" is indeed becoming irreversible - and that its primary and perhaps most profound impact will be on China itself.

Beneath the surface

The miming mini-scandal in particular was the perfect moment of clashing values that, it could seem, many foreign journalists and media organisations had been waiting for. The inaugural ceremony had been almost too perfect; surely there must be some spots on the sun? When the proof of phoniness was found in the story of a small girl's uneven teeth, many members of the visiting media army were gleeful: now they had struck gold.

A deeper look at the Zhang Yimou spectacular - aided by an awareness of the film-director's transition from perceptive artist to stately heritage-peddler - goes some way to confirm the argument that China's control-freakery still crushes true individuality and spontaneity. True, there was a strong element of kitsch nationalism in this staged and triumphal pageant of historical and cultural achievement. China, apart from North Korea, is probably the only remaining country that can harness this degree of coordinating energy, focused resources and (since this is China) sheer multitudes for an event of this kind. The Pyongyang reference is telling: for all the technical wizardry, in part it evoked a more sinister world of mass rallies and conformist ultra-collectivism.

And yet, this was not all it was; and the fact that news of the ceremony's legerdemain moments have - so far - failed to define the "narrative" of the Beijing Olympics is also evidence of this. Indeed, a key to understanding what is happening in China as the games approach their climax is the odd way that the opening spectacle conveyed power and vulnerability in the same moment.

In this combination - and the space between them - lurks something quite unexpected which I find myself surprised to admit: not just that the Beijing Olympics will change China, but that to some extent they already have. This is clearer if all the events and festivities are seen in the context of what went before: the consequences of winning the right to host (including extensive soul-searching about China's image in the world), the unsettling events of 2008 (the Tibet uprising, the Sichuan earthquake, the torch-relay protests) which have led to vehement criticism around the world of the country's political system and leadership.

China's leaders have been shocked and many of its people injured by this. They realise that it is not enough any more to be known simply for economic success and dynamism; they feel they (and their country) deserve better. They are looking for a way forward - and the concern with image revealed in the 8 August ceremony, as well as the top-down yet nervous treatment of foreign media at the Olympics - expose the fragility beneath the surface of China's new-found confidence.

Among openDemocracy's articles on China in 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)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "China's political colours: from monochrome to palette" (14 May 2008)

Li Datong, "China's soft-power failure" (16 May 2008)

Susan Brownell, "The Olympics' ‘civilising' legacy: St Louis to Beijing" (23 May 2008)

Li Datong, "China and the earthquake" (2 June 2008)

Emily Lau, "Tiananmen, 1989-2008" (4 June 2008)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "Tiananamen's shifting legacy" (26 June 2008)

Li Datong, "China's leaders, the media, and the internet" (4 July 2008)

Li Datong, "The Weng'an model: China's fix-it governance" (30 July 2008)

The upward path

China's leaders are thus in a difficult position as they look ahead from the games to their next high-level meeting in October 2008. How will they react? They can in principle take a hard line - China is right to do what it does, and react how it does; the rest of the world can think what it likes; the problem lies outside, not within.

This, however, would be a return to the past that would put in jeopardy what China now needs - as well as a guarantee of a longer war of attrition that, at its current stage of development, would be far from China's interests. China has never needed outside help more than now. It stands at the foot of a steep path that will be hard to climb. The Olympics reveal (and have helped guarantee) that it has many resources: the infrastructure, the capital, the will to carry itself forwards to becoming a modern, middle-income economy. It could even aspire to be much more than this. But it will need great assistance from the outside world: in technology (to fix its severe environmental problems), and in internationalising its companies and brands.

If its leadership does realise the blindness of the first option and the necessity of the second, the immediate steps on China's upward path can begin. But this would mean also a continuation of perhaps the deepest change of all in the 2000s, one that the Olympics have both made clear and helped to further - that the Chinese people, complex and segmented and dispersed as they are, have and want a voice. Their demands for a bigger say in how their country is run are growing to the point where they will want far more than simply to trust all to the Communist Party and its inner divisions. The upward path that China's leadership has to take will face it with the need to start thinking about the greatest step of all - becoming a transparent, modern democracy.

After the games

The Olympics have already shown just how much China wants and needs to be part of the world. True, all the expense, the effort and the exposure has in part been the leadership's attempt to satisfy (and propitiate) Chinese citizens - including (and here the domestic and the global purposes fuse) by showing the people at home that their country matters in the world.

The delicate predicament as much as the strength of the Chinese leadership has been a feature of several openDemocracy articles during 2008 (see, for example Li Datong, "The Weng'an model: China's fix-it governance", 30 July 2008). This theme came back to me while watching the pastiche version of the Chinese past at the Bird's Nest. The foundations of what China has become are far older than Mao Zedong or Sun Yat-sen. This extraordinary country that embraces a fifth of humanity - and thus which by virtue of its very size is global in almost all it does - is the work of the expansionist years in the middle of the Qing dynasty. Kangxi and Qianlong, the longest-lived and most influential of the 17th-18th-century emperors, are - by expanding imperial China's sphere of influence deep into inner Asia and beyond - the real architects of modern China. It is their ambitions which underlie the huge 21st-century challenge of trying to hold together this vast and contradictory entity together, and to make it a force for progress on its territory and in the world.

The combination of China's power and China's vulnerability that the Olympics have revealed make these games a far more interesting moment than I had expected. The Olympics have been less a declaration of confidence than a loud demand to be noticed by a country that still has self-doubts.

The leadership's assessment of the Beijing extravaganza will begin at the October 2008 meeting. It will be another pivotal political event. It is very probable that it will reflect how much those in charge will have learned from the last year, and that the outcome will be change: in how China defines what it wants and aspires to be, and the way it communicates with the world.

The Olympics have already confirmed and reinforced to China's political elite the larger truth that the world now expects the country to be a truly important power. By October, if not before, it will come to realise that the games were the easy part. A far bigger challenge will then begin - the creation of a modern political system to match and build on China's remarkable economic achievement of the last three decades.


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