The games China won't win

To recover from the humiliation of defeat, a Chinese proverb advises: One should swallow up the pain the way one takes the bitterness of the gall, prepare hard, and bid for the right time for revenge. The time came for China last Friday. Seven years after Beijing suffered a cruel disappointment and lost to Sydney by two votes in the election for the 2000 Olympics, the city won the race to host the Games in 2008. The news set off an official celebration of fireworks, songs, and flag-waving by more than 100,000 people in Tiananmen Square. The state-controlled media called the victory "a century's dream come true."

In nearly every nation, winning an international competition stirs nationalist feelings of pride. However, leadership in China, haunted by a strong sense of insecurity from its humiliating colonial past, manipulates and exploits nationalistic sentiments through sports.

As a child in China, I was taught repeatedly in history class how China had gone through nearly a century of brutal oppression. The Chinese, said my teacher, had been perceived by Westerners as "the sick men of Asia" and inept in sports. At an early age, I always hoped to possess some athletic power to weiguo zhenguang or "bring honor" to my great motherland.

When Communist China won the first gold medal from the World Table Tennis Championship in the 1950s, the Chinese regarded the athlete, Rong Guotuan, with the same reverence that Americans held for Neil Armstrong when he walked on the moon. The footage of the game was played so often on TV that it became etched on the national psyche. And Chairman Mao used the gold medal as China's first step to gain international acceptance at a time when Western countries refused to recognize the new Communist regime.

Since then, the government has been investing heavily in training the best athletes to win international competitions, even while the Cultural Revolution brought China to the verge of economic bankruptcy in the 1960s.

Athletic victories come in handy when the government needs to rally support for the increasingly unpopular Communist Party. In 1981, the whole country went wild after the Chinese women's volleyball team defeated Japan and the US, and snatched the gold medal during the world championship. The post-Mao government immediately launched a campaign to urge all Chinese to "turn their patriotism to the support of the Party leadership and the economic reforms."

Winning the largest number of gold medals has become an international status symbol for China. In 1990, during his tour of a sports facility in Beijing, former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping made the remark that China, as an emerging economic power, should compete for the opportunity to host the Olympics. His successor, Jiang Zemin, has since turned Deng's words into a gargantuan political task for the whole nation. For Jiang, hosting the Olympics would officially mark the end of the international isolation that the government suffered after its crackdown on student demonstrators in 1989.

Jiang got what he wanted. The decision by the International Olympic Committee last Friday will temporarily distract the Chinese people's attention from the problems of rampant corruption, a rising unemployment rate, and deteriorating social order in China.

The Chinese government is famous for what ordinary citizens call "slapping its face to make it look healthy or well fed." This trait of saving face became more flagrant during the Olympic campaign. This past winter, when the Olympic inspection team arrived in Beijing, many residents were ordered to stop heating their homes and offices for several days to reduce the smoke and dust. Migrant workers living in shacks and beggars on the streets were rounded up and moved out.

So far, China has spent millions of dollars on pollution control, infrastructure improvements, and new event venues. Reportedly, the city will spend an additional $2.5 billion.

But where will the money come from? While some of it will come from private sponsorships, much will be taken from the already stretched national budget. Resources that would have helped poor peasants in remote parts of China and millions of unemployed state workers will inevitably be diverted to the Olympic project. This could repeat the tragedy that took place in Mexico City in 1968. Thousands of students protested that the government had spent money on an event that hardly helped millions of impoverished Mexicans. Government troops fired on protesters, killing hundreds.

As a Chinese American, I am thrilled that the Games will be in my native country. But at the same time, I believe it is wrong for China to overextend its financial strength and sacrifice the interests of ordinary citizens.

Hosting the Games will not earn China the international recognition and respect it so desperately craves.

If the government stops its repression of political dissent, abides by international trade and political rules, and works hard to improve the social and economic conditions for its workers and peasants, the West will welcome China with both arms.

Yet, on the contrary, if China does not change, hosting the Games will only put the country under closer scrutiny in 2008. No matter how beautiful the city will look, and how advanced the stadiums will be, athletes and reporters gathering in Beijing from the free world will most certainly see through the veneer.

Wen Huang, a former staff member of The New York Times Beijing Bureau, is a freelance writer.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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