September 12, 2008
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.
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.
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.
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.Author : Stanley Crossick