Stanley's blog

There have been, and will continue to be media articles, commentaries and analyses on the Beijing Olympics and their effect on China itself, and on its relationship with and future policies towards Europe, the United States and other major countries. It is still too soon to attempt any considered conclusions, but some general observations and perspective are offered.

China and the Olympics

Deng’s 24 character strategy was: “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.” He was always concerned to avoid other countries feeling threatened and ganging up to block China’s rise.

China’s decision in late nineties to bid for the Beijing Olympics and its overall approach to organising them appear to be in direct contradiction to the Deng policy. Is this really so? If so, why?

What was China’s grand strategy? Who were the primary targets to impress? The events beginning with the Tibet riots of March 2008 brought the spotlight on external happenings but foreign policy does not appear to have been the primary concern: rather the sustainment of and increase in legitimacy of the CCP.

The 2008 Pew Research poll found 80% Chinese satisfied with the way things were going and with the state of the economy, more than in any other country polled.

One can only talk in superlatives about the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, which met the highest expectations. The planning, preparation, construction, organisation and management do not appear to have met with any material criticism.

Politics and the Olympics

Politics first seriously affected the Berlin Games in 1936, but political incidents have since marred the 1968 Mexico Games (‘black power salutes’), the 1972 Munich Games (terrorist murder of Israeli athletes), the 1976 Montreal Games (African Boycott over apartheid), the 1980 Moscow Games (boycott because of invasion of Afghanistan and the 1984 Los Angeles Games (retaliatory boycott led by Russia).

The idea of totally separating the Olympic Games from politics has long been a myth. Countries seek to host the Games for a variety of reasons, but political prestige is always present, to a greater or lesser degree. There were reservations over awarding the event to Beijing, both in the field of human rights and press freedom and also pollution levels, and conditions were agreed between the IOC and Beijing. There has been criticism of IOC attitudes as to Chinese compliance with the conditions and the lack of transparency over what was happening.

Attendance at the Beijing Opening Ceremony became to Beijing a test of Chinese standing and huge efforts were made to ensure that the attendance was of the highest order. In the event, no less than 90 heads of government and state attended.

Freedom of expression

How serious were the reporting restrictions placed on foreign and domestic journalists, including internet? The first priority of the Chinese authorities was to enforce order and control protests. Visa restrictions and arbitrary directives were inevitable. Although this led to less foreign visitors, the policy was on the whole successful. But old habits die hard and this meant that some of the implementers of this policy used old-fashioned methods to handle minor incidents.

“Protest zones” were set up at a distance from the Games but no permissions were apparently given and activists were harassed. The arrest of two late seventy-year old women, for wishing to protest against receiving insufficient compensation for being forcibly moved, received extensive foreign news coverage. What was the point then in the protest zone charade? Was it necessary for the authorities to arrest the two women?

Beijing has consistently argued that there was full freedom to report the Games but domestic law had to be obeyed in relation to other reporting.

Chinese reactions

There was great satisfaction throughout China with the brilliant organisation and winning of the most gold medals. The environmental conditions attracted far less criticism during the events than before them. Given the extraordinary individual performances of athletes, this is unsurprising.

The patriotic fervour was unmistakeable and is linked to the determination to win. This is healthy provided that it remains patriotism and not nationalism. The dividing line between the two is blurred. Patriotism is a constructive force which looks to the future and will help Chinese integration internationally. Nationalism is destructive, rooted in past humiliations and potentially dangerous as it breeds xenophobia.

Patriotism helps build self-confidence, which also makes it easier to cope with constructive criticism and thereby better able to respond. This in turn helps reduce embarrassment, the concern for loss of face and hypersensitivity. Nationalism is a sentiment which is not in the long term interests of the Government or the Party to foster as it is a two-edged sword and potentially destabilising.

An ongoing worry is the relevance the events between March and August, beginning with the Tibet riots, will have on the China-EU relationship. There was clearly a deep resentment of the way Europeans reacted to the events in Tibet and a feeling, particularly among the younger generation, of being let down.

Arguably, the CCP has gained most from the successful Olympic Games. It has reinforced its legitimacy in the eyes of the Chinese people. But it cannot rest on its laurels.

European reactions

The discipline of the Chinese and the determination to succeed were omnipresent. Chinese patriotism shone throughout, but not at the expense of spectator support for foreign successes.

The successes of the Games muted criticisms, and the risk taken by the Chinese authorities imposing strict controls was borne out.

Conclusion

A successful Olympic Games was in European interests too. A more confident China should be a better partner for Europe. But misperceptions still abound and the European Union and the People’s Republic of China must put more financial and human resource into building mutual understanding.

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Comments

  1. Stanley, I appreciate most of your points except that you stopped short of elaborating why no efforts are spared to strengthen law and order in such an autocracy during the critical period of social and economic transformation of China.

    First of all, Asians’ mindset remains governed with a strong sense of humility. This sanse and behvavior bow to the authority of the central government, look self-depricating in coping with Western powers and their values and compliant with discipline, governmental or corporate alike.

    Secondly, modernization looks set to instable with conflicted party interests between different social and economic forces.

    The one-party rule fears criticisms and opposition by nature. But a more open and liberal China welcomes quiet diplomacy and constructive supervision and mild criticism should the accusations focus on malign events such as SARS and poisonous milk powder. The frailty and fray under a suspicious stare of the West put the state police instinct on alert constantly.

    The rise of the middle class favor or tolerate the current social and political order as they are the beneficiary of the reform. And this sense of broad tolerance has its historical and nationalistic root as China was forced open in a humiliating way in the mid-19th century. Years of official indoctrination since the founding of the PRC has fueled the sentiments which is called nationalism. But I told Peter Sutherland that the Chinese nationalism should be viewed as defensive and not half as aggressive as the US unilateralism which is characterized by pre-emptive strikes and the defiance over the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto Protocal. You know better which democracy I am alluding to.

    The central authorities favor social rennovation or reform over subversive revolution as they choose to employ the notion of harmonious society or scientific outlook about social development. A party that seized power through uprisings or violence tends to prevent social changes through similar tough methods.

    Another aspect of the Chinese national ethos that upsets me has been the traditional virtue of the citizens to priotize the economic livelihoods over anything else, and their short-sightedness in the social awareness tend to put efficiency ahead of social justice.

    The culture of compassion or charity is missing in a ancient culture that finds its legitimacy in hundreds of years of brutal totalitarian dictatorship. Pockets of such noble and human charitable spirit could only be detected in the wild and romantic behavior of poets such as Li Bai in the Tang Dynasty and then these rebellious personalities ended up being hermits when their political ambitions were left disillusioned and dashed.

    That’s said, the present-day China is not a monolithic whole. The voices are more diverse and as polarized as the economic incomes.

    Yang Rui

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