The Olympics: was China ready?

Li Datong
22 August 2008

One of the questions I was asked in an interview with the BBC the day before the Olympics opening ceremony threw me a little: "What do you expect from the games?" After thinking for a moment I replied: "I hope to see the very best of sporting competition."

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 recent articles in openDemocracy:

"Xiamen: the triumph of public will" (16 January 2008)

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

"China and the earthquake" (2 June 2008)

"China: after the quake, the debate" (16 June 2008)

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

"China's digital nationalism: Kung Fu Panda under fire" (16 July 2008)

"The Weng'an model: China's fix-it governance" (30 July 2008) It may not have been the answer the reporter wanted, but it was an honest one. The Beijing Olympics of 8-24 August 2008 are no doubt the most political such event for decades. The Chinese hosts have a political motivation - to showcase China's arrival as a world power by organising the most spectacular and impressive games in history (see Kerry Brown, "China changes itself: an Olympics report", 20 August 2008). International media reports on the Beijing Olympics have also been highly politicised. Both are responsible for bringing politics into the Olympics. This bickering - born of differences in culture, understanding of history, political systems and levels of social development - has taken the shine off humanity's greatest sporting event. This is regrettable and irritating.

The opening ceremony itself also received wildly differing evaluations in the media (including online) - and even among my own friends. For the vast majority of viewers in China and abroad it was a spectacular success - but for intellectuals critical of China it was "all body and no soul", "all about the ancient and avoided the modern" and "only looked at China, not the world." Zhang Yimou, chief director of the ceremony, did not have full artistic freedom; in a documentary on the approval process for the ceremony, a senior government official is shown criticising Zhang's initial proposal as "failing to show off the accomplishments of reform." The appearance of the character he depicted in the representation of movable-type printing was a nod to the Chinese government concept of a "harmonious society" - and thus, in effect, Zhang's compromise between politics and art.

Despite tight security, foreign protestors were still able to hang their "Free Tibet" banner on poles near the Bird's Nest stadium. On the internet I saw photos of peaceful foreign protestors being roughly held to the ground by police. On the first day of the games an innocent tourist from the United States was murdered by a mentally unstable Chinese man (who went on to kill himself). Then there are the terrorist attacks in Xinjiang. All this has cast a shadow over the games, and it is clear that psychologically China is not yet mature enough to hold the Olympics - and that the west is not yet ready to allow China to enter the Olympic club.

The old dream

Since 1896 only sixteen nations have hosted the Olympic games. Almost all bar Mexico are industrialised nations (and in some cases) even superpowers. The scale of the modern games means that only the powerful and rich nations will be able to hold them for some time to come. The west does not understand China, and is uncomfortable with its sudden arrival in this class. The doubts raised about China's suitability are almost entirely political.

In 1908 an article in Tiantsin Young Men asked three questions: when would China participate in the Olympics? When would China win a gold medal? When would China host the Olympics? (see Susan Brownell, "The Olympics' ‘civilising' legacy: St Louis to Beijing", 23 May 2008). These questions demonstrated concern for China's status among intellectuals. Today they prompt the Chinese media's description of the Olympics as a "century-long dream". For China the Olympics are not a symbol of sporting prowess, but of becoming a powerful nation. The country renewed itself through three decades of economic reform and became capable of hosting the Olympics and winning the medals - and China's leaders decided it was time for the dream to come true (see "Beijing's Olympics, China's politics", 22 August 2008). 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, "Tiananamen's shifting legacy" (26 June 2008)

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

But this decision, based only on the "hard-power" ability to organise the event, quickly faced challenges. First, Tibetan protestors used the global focus on the Olympics to win an unprecedented public-relations victory and force the government to reopen talks with representatives of the Dalai Lama. Several incidents of disruption to the torch-relay as the Olympic flame was carried around the world turned its journey into a humiliation. The western media continued to apply pressure on China on the issues of human rights and freedom of the press. Domestically, protests triggered by a range of social injustices became a nightmare for the authorities, and essential anti-terrorism measures were unnecessarily expanded to control political dissidents and members of the public giving voice to the unfair treatment they had suffered.

The new normal

History is, for China's leaders, a source of both pride and shame, and so they are overly concerned about their and the country's "international image". Hence there were at the opening ceremony miming 9-year-olds and computer-generated fireworks being broadcast to the screens of the world, while the "protest parks" were empty. The leaders fail to understand that the fakery casts genuine achievements into doubt, and their clumsy cover-ups bring only greater dishonour.

In fact, China's leaders did at one time better understand the reality of the political scene. The late politicians Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang once openly said "we must get used to governing while the public oppose and demonstrate", and "we must learn to govern despite small or medium-scale disorder." Unfortunately this vision and psychological readiness was brought to an end by the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989 and has not yet returned. China's leaders need to reform their own view of what is the "normal" state of a nation.

But when frictions have arisen with the west, the Chinese government has always compromised - even in a way that is forced, unwilling and inauthentic. This reflects the government's desire for acceptance and respect as an important member of international society, a sentiment that itself is essential in helping to make further reform possible.

When China's leaders can calmly face up to domestic and international protesters, and when China's president can get as excited about a sporting event as his United States counterpart, rather than sitting ramrod straight . . . then we can say "China is ready"!

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