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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

China's Olympic Nightmare

June 23, 2008

What the Games Mean for Beijing's Future
By Elizabeth C. Economy and Adam Segal
Foreign Affairs (USA)
July/August 2008

Summary: Failure to plan for predictable problems has turned China's
coming-out party into an embarrassment.

ELIZABETH C. ECONOMY is C. V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for
Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. ADAM SEGAL is
Maurice R. Greenberg Senior Fellow for China Studies at the Council
on Foreign Relations.

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On the night of July 13, 2001, tens of thousands of people poured
into Tiananmen Square to celebrate the International Olympic
Committee's decision to award the 2008 Olympic Games to Beijing.
Firecrackers exploded, flags flew high, and cars honked wildly. It
was a moment to be savored. Chinese President Jiang Zemin and other
leaders exhorted the crowds to work together to prepare for the
Olympics. "Winning the host rights means winning the respect, trust,
and favor of the international community," Wang Wei, a senior Beijing
Olympic official, proclaimed. The official Xinhua News Agency reveled
in the moment, calling the decision "another milestone in China's
rising international status and a historical event in the great
renaissance of the Chinese nation."

Hosting the Olympics was supposed to be a chance for China's leaders
to showcase the country's rapid economic growth and modernization to
the rest of the world. Domestically, it provided an opportunity for
the Chinese government to demonstrate the Communist Party's
competence and affirm the country's status as a major power on equal
footing with the West. And wrapping itself in the values of the
Olympic movement gave China the chance to portray itself not only as
a rising power but also as a "peace-loving" country. For much of the
lead-up to the Olympics, Beijing succeeded in promoting just such a message.

The process of preparing for the Games is tailor-made to display
China's greatest political and economic strengths: the top-down
mobilization of resources, the development and execution of
grand-scale campaigns to reform public behavior, and the ability to
attract foreign interest and investment to one of the world's
brightest new centers of culture and business. Mobilizing massive
resources for large infrastructure projects comes easily to China.
Throughout history, China's leaders have drawn on the ingenuity of
China's massive population to realize some of the world's most
spectacular construction projects, the Great Wall, the Grand Canal,
and the Three Gorges Dam among them. The Olympic construction spree
has been no different. Beijing has built 19 new venues for the
events, doubled the capacity of the subway, and added a new terminal
to the airport. Neighborhoods throughout the city have been either
spruced up to prepare for Olympic visitors or simply cleared out to
make room for new Olympic sites. Official government spending for the
construction bonanza is nearing $40 billion. In anticipation of the
Olympics, the government has also embarked on a series of efforts to
transform individual behavior and modernize the capital city. It has
launched etiquette campaigns forbidding spitting, smoking, littering,
and cutting in lines and introduced programs to teach English to cab
drivers, police officers, hotel workers, and waiters. City officials
have used Olympic projects as a means to refurbish decaying buildings
and reduce air pollution, water shortages, and traffic jams.

Yet even as Beijing has worked tirelessly to ensure the most
impressive of Olympic spectacles, it is clear that the Games have
come to highlight not only the awesome achievements of the country
but also the grave shortcomings of the current regime. Few in the
central leadership seem to have anticipated the extent to which the
Olympic Games would stoke the persistent political challenges to the
legitimacy of the Communist Party and the stability of the country.
Demands for political liberalization, greater autonomy for Tibet,
increased pressure on Sudan, better environmental protection, and an
improved product-safety record now threaten to put a damper on the
country's coming-out party. As the Olympic torch circled the globe
with legions of protesters in tow, Beijing's Olympic dream quickly
turned into a public-relations nightmare.

Although the Chinese government excels when it comes to
infrastructure projects, its record is poor when it comes to
transparency, official accountability, and the rule of law. It has
responded clumsily to internal and external political challenges --
by initially ignoring the international community's desire for China
to play a more active role in resolving the human rights crisis in
Darfur, arresting prominent Chinese political activists, and cracking
down violently on demonstrators. Although there is no organized
opposition unified around this set of demands, the cacophony of
voices pressuring China to change its policies has taken much of the
luster off of the Beijing Games. Moreover, although the Communist
Party has gained domestic support from the nationalist backlash that
has arisen in response to the Tibetan protesters and their supporters
in the West, it also worries that this public anger will spin out of
control, further damaging the country's international reputation.
Already, China's coveted image as a responsible rising power has been

For many in the international community, it has now become impossible
to separate the competing narratives of China's awe-inspiring
development and its poor record on human rights and the environment.
It is no longer possible to discuss China's future without taking its
internal fault lines seriously. For the Chinese government, the
stakes are huge. China's credibility as a global leader, its
potential as a model for the developing world, and its position as an
emerging center of global business and culture are all at risk if
these political challenges cannot be peacefully and successfully addressed.


Nothing has threatened to ruin China's Olympic moment as much as
criticism of the country's repressive political system. China lost
its bid for the 2000 Summer Olympics to Sydney, Australia, at least
in part because of the memory of the violent Tiananmen Square
crackdown of June 1989. When China made its bid for the 2008 Games,
Liu Jingmin, vice president of the Beijing Olympic Bid Committee,
argued, "By allowing Beijing to host the Games, you will help the
development of human rights." François Carrard, director general of
the International Olympic Committee, warily supported such a
sentiment: acknowledging the seriousness of China's human rights
violations, he nonetheless explained, "We are taking the bet that
seven years from now ... we shall see many changes."

Few would place such a bet today. For months, human rights activists,
democracy advocates, and ethnic minorities in China have been
pressuring the government to demonstrate its commitment to greater
political freedom. For many of them, the Olympics highlight the
yawning gap between the very attractive face that Beijing presents to
the world and the much uglier political reality at home. Exactly one
year before the Olympics, a group of 40 prominent Chinese democracy
supporters posted an open letter online denouncing the Olympic glitz
and glamour. "We know too well how these glories are built on the
ruins of the lives of ordinary people, on the forced removal of urban
migrants, and on the sufferings of victims of brutal land grabbing,
forced eviction, exploitation of labor, and arbitrary detention,"
they wrote. "All this violates the Olympic spirit." Even Ai Weiwei,
an artistic consultant for Beijing's signature "Bird's Nest" stadium,
has been critical of the Chinese government. He declared in an
interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, "The government wants
to use these games to celebrate itself and its policy of opening up
China .... By now, it has become clear to me that this hope of
liberalization cannot be fulfilled .... The system won't allow it."

Protests have arisen around virtually every Olympic Games in recent
history, but Beijing, with its authoritarian political system, is
uniquely threatened by dissenting voices, and it has responded with a
traditional mix of intimidation, imprisonment, and violent
repression. Teng Biao, a lawyer and human rights activist, was seized
in March 2008, held by plainclothes police for two days, and warned
to stop writing critically about the Olympics. Yang Chunlin, a
land-rights activist, was arrested for inciting subversion because he
had gathered more than 10,000 signatures from farmers whose property
had been expropriated by officials for development projects. After a
20-minute trial, he was sentenced to five years in prison. In April,
the HIV/AIDS activist Hu Jia, who was also one of the authors of the
open letter, was sentenced to three and a half years in jail for
subversion, after being held under house arrest for several months
along with his wife and baby daughter. Although the vast majority of
Chinese are probably unaware of these protests and arrests, Beijing's
overreaction demonstrates how fearful the Chinese government is that
any dissent or protests could garner broader political support and
threaten the party's authority.


The international community has also raised its own human rights
concerns. For more than a year, China has endured heightened scrutiny
of its close economic and political ties to Sudan. A coalition of
U.S. celebrities and international human rights activists has
ratcheted up the pressure on Beijing to do more to help bring an end
to the atrocities in Darfur, labeling the 2008 Olympics "the genocide
Olympics." The very public attention they have brought to China's
relations with the Sudanese government prompted the movie director
Steven Spielberg to withdraw as the artistic adviser for the opening
and closing ceremonies for the Games. It also seems to have had some
effect on Beijing, which now strives to appear as if it is placing
more pressure on Khartoum.

The Chinese government's questionable human rights record has
received even more scrutiny since its violent suppression of Tibetan
demonstrators in the spring. In March, Tibetan Buddhist monks marched
to commemorate the 49th anniversary of Tibet's failed independence
uprising and to call for greater autonomy for Tibet and the return of
their exiled religious leader, the Dalai Lama. The demonstrations
soon escalated into violent protests. Chinese police forcefully
cracked down on the protesters in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa and
throughout other Tibetan areas of western China, leaving more than a
hundred dead and injuring hundreds more.

Ignoring international calls for restraint, Beijing closed off much
of the affected region, detained or expelled foreign journalists from
the area, and created a "most wanted" list of Tibetan protesters. All
independent sources of news, including broadcasts by foreign
television stations and YouTube videos, were blacked out in China,
and text messages in and out of Tibet were filtered. Vitriolic
government propaganda condemned the Dalai Lama as a "wolf in monk's
robes" and a "devil with a human face but the heart of a beast."
Chinese officials accused the "evil Dalai clique" of attempting to
restore "feudalist serfdom" in the region and called for a "people's
war" against it. The international community immediately condemned
the crackdown and called for Beijing to resume negotiations with
representatives of the Dalai Lama. Meanwhile, British Prime Minister
Gordon Brown, Czech President Václav Klaus, and Polish Prime Minister
Donald Tusk have since announced that they will not be attending the
Olympics' opening ceremonies.

As the Olympic torch made its way across the globe, the number of
protesters along its path ballooned, from a few in Athens to
thousands in London, Paris, San Francisco, and Seoul. These
large-scale disruptions of Olympic pageantry humiliated the Chinese
government and angered Chinese citizens, producing a wave of
nationalist counterdemonstrations by Chinese living abroad and
millions of virulent anti-Western posts on Chinese Web sites. A bit
more than a month after Beijing's initial crackdown, senior Chinese
leaders indicated a willingness to meet with the Dalai Lama's envoys.
But this does not represent a fundamental shift in policy; it is
merely a stopgap measure designed to quell the international outrage.


Although some foreign athletes have joined the chorus of China's
critics, the more immediate concern for many Olympians will be
whether Beijing can ensure clean air and safe food for the duration
of the Games. The city has reportedly spent as much as $16 billion to
deliver a "green Olympics"; many of the Olympic sites showcase a
number of clean-energy and water-conservation technologies, and for
the past seven years the city has been shutting down many of the
biggest polluters and steadily weaning the city's energy
infrastructure off coal, replacing it with natural gas. On February
26, senior Chinese officials formally announced a more sweeping
effort, including restrictions on heavy industry in five neighboring
provinces surrounding Beijing, a ban on construction in the months
immediately preceding the Olympics, and plans to compensate car
owners for staying off the road during the Games.

But pollution levels in Beijing are still far above average. On a
typical day, the city's air pollution is three times as bad as the
standard deemed safe by the World Health Organization. Last August,
an air-quality test revealed that pollution levels in the city had
barely improved despite one-third of the cars having been removed
from the city's roads. Even some senior Chinese officials have
reservations about the prospects for a green Olympics. The mayor of
Beijing, Guo Jinlong, admitted in early 2008 that bringing traffic
and environmental pollution under control by the time the Games begin
would be an "arduous" task. After all, there are few economic
incentives for businesses to reduce pollution; the central government
routinely calls on local officials and businesses to clean up their
act to no effect. Many factory managers have agreed to slow
production during the Olympics but not to shut down. In the brutally
competitive Chinese economy, closing factories for several weeks
could well spell the end of those enterprises unless the government
provides significant financial compensation. Meanwhile, corruption
flourishes, and local officials openly flout environmental laws and
regulations. In January 2008, it was revealed by a Western
environmental consultant, Steven Andrews, that officials in Beijing's
Environmental Protection Bureau had for several years been skewing
the city's air-quality data by eliminating readings from some
monitoring stations in heavily congested areas.

Faced with the prospect of dangerously high levels of air pollution
during the Games, International Olympic Committee officials have
warned that competition in endurance sports, such as the marathon and
long-distance cycling, might be postponed or even canceled. The
world's fastest marathon runner, Haile Gebrselassie, has already
withdrawn from the Olympic race for fear that air pollution might
permanently damage his health. Many athletes are planning to take
precautions, such as arriving in Beijing as late as possible, coming
well equipped with medication for possible asthma attacks, and
wearing masks once there.

Beijing's capacity to provide safe food and clean water for the
athletes is also in question. In the past year, China has endured a
rash of scandals involving food tainted with steroids and
insecticides, and as much as half of the bottled water in Beijing
does not meet potable-water standards. Some teams, such as the United
States' and Australia's, have announced that they will be bringing
some or all of their own food and that their bottled water will be
supplied by Coca-Cola. Olympic officials have put in place a massive
food-security apparatus that will track the athletes' food from the
producers and distributors to the Olympic Village. Having promised a
safe and green Olympics, Beijing must now deliver. Otherwise, it
risks irrevocably damaging the historic legacy of the 2008 Games.


Beijing's failure to respond creatively to its critics and
effectively manage its environmental and product-safety issues
reveals a certain political myopia. China's leaders have long been
aware that opponents of the regime would try to disrupt the Olympics.
They prepared extensively for disturbances by developing a citywide
network of surveillance cameras and training, outfitting, and
deploying riot squads and other special police. They also made some
attempts to defuse international hostility, such as offering to renew
the human rights dialogue with Washington that was suspended in 2004
and publicly pressuring Khartoum to accept a joint African
Union-United Nations peacekeeping force. But Beijing has been unable
to counter the images emanating from Darfur and Tibet. Chinese
leaders simply saw no relationship between the pageantry of the
Olympics and Tibet, Sudan, or broader human rights concerns, and they
never figured out how to engage and disarm those who did. They
continue to fail in this regard.

As a result, tensions will run high until the end of the Games. There
are also real worries that with the spotlight focused on Beijing
during the Games, some of the opposition to the regime could take an
extreme form. For example, Chinese security forces have expressed
concern that activists from the religious movement Falun Gong might
attempt to immolate themselves in Tiananmen Square. Because of such
concerns, the 30,000 journalists covering the Games may find
themselves straitjacketed when reporting on controversial stories.
And despite recent assurances that a live feed from Beijing will be
allowed and that the Internet will be uncensored in China, the
government has yet to fulfill its promise to allow foreign
journalists unfettered access throughout the country.

The Chinese public is already angry about what it sees as a pervasive
bias toward Tibet and disrespect of China in the Western media.
Chinese citizens are likely to view any disturbances of the Games as
an effort to embarrass the country and undermine China's rise.
Foreign media, corporations, and governments might all bear the brunt
of the sort of nationalist backlash that the French retailer
Carrefour endured -- in the form of a consumer boycott -- in the wake
of the disrupted torch ceremony in Paris.

The combination of demonstrators desperate for the world's attention
and the heightened nationalism of Chinese citizens makes for an
extremely combustible situation. The official Beijing Olympic motto
of "One World, One Dream" suggests an easy cosmopolitanism, but
Chinese nationalist sentiment will be running high during the Games,
stoked by the heat of competition. In the past, sporting events in
China, in particular soccer matches against Japanese teams, have led
to ugly riots, and the same could happen during the Olympics. If the
Games do not go well, there will be infighting and blame shifting
within the party's central leadership, and it will likely adopt a
bunker mentality. Vice President Xi Jinping, the government's point
man on the Olympics and President Hu Jintao's heir apparent, would
likely face challenges to his presumed leadership.

A poor outcome for the Games could engender another round of
nationalist outbursts and Chinese citizens decrying what they see as
racism, anti-Chinese bias, and a misguided sense of Western
superiority. This inflamed form of Chinese nationalism could be the
most enduring and dangerous outcome of the protests surrounding the
Olympics. If the international community does not welcome China's
rise, the Chinese people may ask themselves why China should be bound
by its rules. As a result, Beijing may find the room it has for
foreign policy maneuvering more restricted by public opinion. This
form of heightened nationalism has occasionally hurt the Chinese
government, as happened after a U.S. spy plane was shot down over
China in 2001. When the crew was eventually released, an outraged
Chinese public accused the government of weakness and kowtowing to
the West. More recently, despite a decade of increasingly close
economic, political, and cultural ties between Beijing and Seoul,
South Koreans were outraged by the Chinese counterprotests during the
Olympic torch ceremony; in response, the South Korean government
imposed tight restrictions on the number of Chinese students
permitted to study in the country. Sensing the potentially damaging
consequences of a prolonged nationalist backlash, the official
Chinese media began signaling in May that it was time for people to
move on, focus on economic development, and steer clear of staging
counterprotests and boycotting Western companies.

The barrage of criticism China has endured prior to the Olympics may
have brought a short-term gain in forcing the Chinese leadership to
agree to meet with the Dalai Lama's envoys, but real reform of
China's Tibet policy or a broader willingness to embrace domestic
reforms is unlikely to follow in the near term. Nevertheless, the
current controversy could yield positive results in the long run.
Beijing's Olympic trials and tribulations could provoke soul
searching among China's leaders and demonstrate to them that their
hold on domestic stability and the country's continued rise depend on
greater transparency and accountability and a broader commitment to
human rights. Already, some Chinese bloggers, intellectuals, and
journalists, such as Wang Lixiong and Chang Ping, have seized the
moment to call for less nationalist rhetoric and more thoughtful
engagement of outside criticism. The nationalist outburst has
provided them with an opening to ask publicly how Chinese citizens
can legitimately attack Western media organizations if their own
government does not allow them to watch media outlets such as CNN and
the BBC. Similarly, they have used the Olympics as a springboard to
discuss the significance of Taiwan's thriving democracy for the
mainland's own political future, the need for rethinking China's
approach to Tibet, and the desirability of an open press.

Whatever the longer-term implications of the 2008 Olympics, what has
transpired thus far bears little resemblance to Beijing's dreams of
Olympic glory. Rather than basking in the admiration of the world,
China is beset by internal protests and international condemnation.
The world is increasingly doubtful that Beijing will reform
politically and become a responsible global actor. The Olympics were
supposed to put these questions to bed, not raise them all anew.
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