The Olympics in China: a moment for pride – and world scrutiny

Chinese officials are treating the Games as proud confirmation of their country's emergence as a global force to be reckoned with.

Andy Wong/AP
Getting Ready: The mascot Fuwa cavorts outside Chaoyang Park Beach Volleyball Ground Stadium.
David Gray/reuters
Getting Ready: A smokestack rises next to apartments near the 'bird's nest' National Stadium. Olympic officials say they might postpone events if air quality is too poor on competition day.
Zhao Jianwei/Xinhua/AP
Getting Ready: A cheerleading squad in Tianjin practices for a national competition to perform in the Olympics.

The Beijing authorities are obsessed with the 2008 Olympic Games – which don't begin until August. You cannot turn your head in this city without one of the five "Fuwa" Olympic mascots smiling at you from a billboard, open a newspaper without reading an Olympics-related story, or turn on the television without seeing a proud promotional clip of Olympic venues. But the Games are a double-edged sword, offering China a chance to show off its prowess – and focusing critical attention on its failings, reports staff writer Peter Ford.

What does China get out of hosting the 2008 Olympic Games?

An unprecedented opportunity to shine in the international spotlight for an intense three weeks. The Chinese government is treating the Games as a symbolic end to 150 years of humiliation by outside powers and a confirmation of its status as a global power to be reckoned with. Immensely proud of their 5,000-year-plus civilization, the Chinese also hope to show the rest of the world another side of their country than its economic miracle.

Successful Games would be a powerful antidote to the sort of negative press China has been suffering for the past nine months or so, which has drawn attention to poor food quality and other product safety regulations. And whether they are successful or not, the Games have already provided a strong boost to Beijing's economy.

And when the Games are over, officials are desperately hoping (though they won't say publicly) that China will have sneaked past the United States to top the gold medal tally. In Athens four years ago, Chinese athletes won 32 golds to America's 35.

Has the prospect of hosting the Games widened political freedoms in China or improved other aspects of life?

Far from heralding a relaxation, the 2008 Games have actually led to increased repression, according to international human rights group Amnesty International. Beijing had promised improvements in its human rights record, but the head of Amnesty's German chapter said in December that she expected to see "an increase in harassment, detentions, and people placed under house arrest ahead of the Games."

That is because Beijing officials are anxious to present a facade of harmony to the world and its journalists. The government is expected to try even harder than usual to keep anybody who might disturb that image – protesters against religious repression, Tibetan rights activists, or AIDS patients complaining about inadequate government care – out of sight.

Foreign journalists have been told they will be free to report anything from China, but local reporters are still subject to strict censorship.

Opponents of the Beijing government will undoubtedly use the Olympics, and the presence of 10,000 foreign media personnel, to try to publicize their causes. The Chinese police will undoubtedly try to stop them. Expect cat-and-mouse games outside the sports venues.

Still, Beijing residents are enjoying somewhat cleaner air as authorities struggle to reduce pollution ahead of the Games. "That's a real sign of international criteria interacting with a developing nation and requiring a shift of consciousness," says Martin Jacques, a London-based writer on Chinese affairs.

Will the Games be a success?

On the architectural and civil engineering front, China's preparations for the 2008 Games have won nothing but praise from the International Olympic Committee: the "bird's nest" Olympic stadium is spectacular and all construction work is on – or ahead of – schedule.

But if the authorities are good at the hardware, they are not so good at the software, say longtime residents. There are reasons to wonder how well they will handle visitors and the sorts of problems they will pose. This is not a society where ordinary people are encouraged to spontaneously take the initiative to solve a difficulty, which is what Olympic volunteers normally do at the Games to iron out local wrinkles.

Tourists might also suffer from sticker shock: Some hoteliers are planning to increase their room rates by as much as 1,000 percent during the Games. A spokeswoman for the Beijing Olympic Games Organizing Committee (BOCOG) says customers should haggle to avoid "exorbitant" rates.

Perhaps the most worrisome problem Olympic organizers face is air quality. By taking cars off the roads, closing factories, and halting all construction work, the government hopes to improve Beijing's notorious pollution. But IOC officials have said they will consider postponing athletic events if the air is too dirty on competition day. To the Chinese, that would represent a considerable loss of face.

How will China deal with threats of boycotts over issues such as Darfur?

Officially Beijing is ignoring them, except occasionally to dismiss them as inappropriate. But at the same time, "the Chinese government does not want any problems for their Games – they deeply want to avoid it," as John Lucas, a prominent Olympic historian puts it.

One of the results: Although protesters are keeping the public pressure on Beijing over Darfur, Western diplomats say China has in fact been helpful in pressuring the Sudanese government for the past year or so.

The authorities are confident that outright boycott campaigns will fizzle, and they are probably right. But they do not want China to be a pariah at Games time, which gives pressure groups some leverage. And there is nothing Beijing can do about the novel Olympics symbols that are springing up to highlight the repressive nature of the Chinese government – five rings of barbed wire in an Amnesty poster, five interlocking handcuffs in a campaign by Reporters Without Borders. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the name of Reporters Without Borders.]

How is the rest of the world viewing China's role as Olympics host?

China's international detractors and boosters alike are curious about how the Games will turn out in a country where so much of what is happening is unprecedented.

Many in the West are angry that China is being given a chance to burnish its international image without improving its human rights record. "The IOC ought to be using this opportunity to put pressure on the Chinese government ... but that hasn't happened," complains Robert Evans, a British Labour Party member of the European Parliament.

Especially in the United States, perceptions of China and the Games have been soured by the bad news about China that people are paying attention to because of the Games, such as recent food and toy-safety scandals, environmental disasters, or China's military buildup.

"It has gradually dawned on people that it is not all about a shiny new China," says Oded Shenkar, a China specialist at Ohio State University in Columbus.

At the same time, the Olympics are as symbolic to the outside world as they are to Beijing of China's regained status. However critical foreigners are, Mr. Jacques points out, "China is a rising power, and people don't want to be left out of the action."

Mark Rice-Oxley contributed reporting from London.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.