The Olympic Failure
by psychodrew, Thu Aug 21, 2008 at 05:58:45 PM EDT
Cross-posted at Taylor Marsh.
In the summer of 2001, as the International Olympic Committee neared its decision for the 2008 Summer Games, all of the chatter was about the presumed front-runner, Beijing, and China's dismal human rights record.
Although the American government was officially neutral, US lawmakers weighed in against Beijing's bid. The late Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA) wrote an op-ed for the New York Times urging the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to reject Beijing's bid. Others surmised that the Olympics might force the government to be less repressive. A member of a pro-reform group in mainland China even penned an op-ed in the New York Timesarguing that the Games could bring change.
In the end, Beijing's bid was successful. Despite the calls for reform and the hope that the Olympics might change China, little seems to have changed. Some would argue that the human rights situation in China declined in the run-up to the Games.
What went wrong? The Chinese had different goals from those who awarded Beijing the Games on the premise that reform might follow.
Even back in 2001, it was clear that the Chinese government did not see the link between human rights and the Games. Before the IOC visited Beijing in February 2001, Beijing made sure that dissidents had been placed in detention or put under house arrest to avoid embarrassing the government. A month later, when the US House of Representatives International Relations Committee passed a resolution calling for the IOC to reject China's bid, the Chinese Olympic Committee objected:
The Chinese Olympic Committee on Friday voiced "strong indignation" at a motion passed by a U.S. congressional committee opposing the Games because of its record on human rights.
"This kind of base act not only violates the Olympic spirit, but crudely tramples on the purpose and principles of the Olympic movement," the official Xinhua news agency reported the committee as saying.
The committee's response comes in the wake of a Foreign Ministry spokesman saying on Thursday that Beijing would not bow to international pressure in releasing political prisoners to boost its Olympic bid.
If, for the western world, giving the Olympics to China meant an opportunity to press for change, for the Chinese, it was an opportunity to introduce the new, modern China to the international community.
When Americans think of China, they think of sweatshops in the Pearl River Delta, tanks running over college students in Tiananmen Square, and, of course, the Great Wall. The Chinese government knows that westerners tend to associate China with poverty, violence, and oppression. The government's goal is to project a new image of a prospering and harmonious society, even if the prosperity and harmony is limited to certain areas of the country.
To the Chinese, the best way to do that is to stamp out criticism. Deny visas to known Tibet and Darfur activists. Round-up known anti-government activists in China to ensure that they do not cause trouble. And prevent Chinese angry about local corruption from seeking redress in Beijing during the games. Visitors will see peace and harmony even if it that is not the reality.
Does this sound familiar? It should. The Democratic Party is deploying the same strategy at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Project the image of a happy, unified party.
On another convention note, a federal judge has upheld the Denver convention protest zones, which Jeralyn has written up. This should give you a fuller perspective of just how serious the Democrats are in making sure the convention is choreographed to send the right message.Nothing spontaneous is going to disrupt the proceedings or cause any embarrassment to Barack Obama which could damage our chances in November.
Same ends, different means. The message the Chinese want to send to the world is that China is a stable and prospering country and that the Chinese people are happy and patriotic. Spontaneous demonstrations against the government will disrupt this image just as much as traffic jams and pollution. To the Chinese, restrictions on demonstrations are no different from strict new regulations to fight pollution and ease traffic.
Beyond projecting a positive image, there are historical issues as well. In the early 19th century, at the beginning of what is know in China as the Century of Humiliation, when western nations began to force China's emperors to allow them access to her ports and markets, they demanded a privilege known as extraterritoriality. Beginning with the Treaty of Nanjing, which ended the (first) Opium War between China and the United Kingdom, and through a series of what are known in China (and Japan) as "unequal treaties", foreign workers and missionaries were given the right to live and work in China under the laws of their own countries.
One example of the power possessed by the foreign residents of China during the late 19th/early 20th century could be seen in what is now called Huangpu Park in Shanghai. From 1890 to 1928, the park was controlled by the foreign residents and the Chinese were not allowed to enter the park. This is the sign that hung at the gate:
Note: Amah is a servant who is both a nanny and a maid. In modern China, the term ayi (which also means aunt) is more commonly used.
Imagine for a second the reaction of the American people were the International Olympic Committee to tell the organizers of Chicago's bid for the 2016 Olympics that foreign visitors could pick and choose which laws they obeyed. If a Saudi man gets angry at his wife and wants to beat her for disobeying him, the police can't arrest him for assult. And we're told that we cannot deny visas to people who have a history of anti-American rhetoric. The imam in Pakistan who calls America the "Great Satan" wants to hold a protest march in Hyde Park. We'll just have to get over it.
Still China is changing, as Nicholas Kristoff (who certainly has not been an apologist for the Chinese) noted in his column in the New York Times.
Yet even though the process is a charade, it still represents progress in China, in that the law implicitly acknowledges the legitimacy of protest. Moreover, a trickle of Chinese have applied to hold protests, even though they know that they are more likely to end up in jail than in a "protest zone."Fear of the government is ebbing.Even if the Games have not delivered the change that so many were hoping for back in 2001, China is changing. The economic changes over the last thirty years have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and created a new middle class. The political changes will follow, but the world will have to understand is that China will change in its own way, on its own terms.
My hunch is that in the coming months, perhaps after the Olympics, we will see some approvals granted. China is changing: it is no democracy, but it's also no longer a totalitarian state.
China today reminds me of Taiwan in the mid-1980s as a rising middle class demanded more freedom. Almost every country around China, from Mongolia to Indonesia, Thailand to South Korea, has become more open and less repressive -- not because of the government's kindness but because of the people's insistence.