Olympic success boosts China’s confidence

The success of the Olympics is expected to help China’s leaders and people trust the rest of the world more readily, and tone down an often aggrieved nationalism.

David Guttenfelder/AP
‘Shock and awe’: Dancers dazzle viewers around the world from Beijing’s National Stadium during the closing ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games.

As the Olympic flame flickered out on Sunday night, Chinese leaders could congratulate themselves that the event on which they had staked so much had unfolded almost precisely according to their game plan.

The striking success of the Olympics – burnishing China’s prestige as the world admired its sporting prowess, organizational skills, and dramatically modern urban landscapes – could encourage profound changes in the country, say a range of Chinese and foreign analysts.

“The implications of the Olympics go way beyond a recognition that China is a sports power,” says Wenran Jiang, a politics professor at the University of Alberta in Canada. “There are many ways in which the Games will move China forward.”

One profound change that a number of China-watchers predict, in light of the international respect China has earned: that its leaders and people will trust the rest of the world more readily, and tone down an often aggrieved nationalism.

Beijing invested this summer’s Olympics with enormous symbolic importance: They were to crown the country’s rise to the status of a global power. The months leading up to the Games, though, showed China at its clumsy, ill-tempered, and repressive worst.

The government’s harsh crackdown on an uprising in Tibet was bad enough for China’s image abroad. Its angry reaction to the protests that crackdown attracted in several Western cities during the international torch relay made things worse.

Journalists’ reports from Beijing highlighted fears that the city’s chronic air pollution would hamper athletes, and drew attention to the way the authorities were sweeping embarrassments under the carpet by sending migrant workers home, arresting dissidents, and clearing the capital of as many foreigners as possible.

Almost from the moment the Games began with a “shock and awe” opening ceremony, however, the Chinese authorities regained control of the narrative, and the sports became the main story line.

“China set out to stage a spectacle that would win victories in the consciousness of others without firing a shot,” says Robert Kapp, former president of the US-China Business Council. “And for many people around the world, I imagine they have succeeded.”

From TV audiences presented with a “picture-perfect” Games, in the words of Professor Jiang, to visitors here impressed by what they have found, the spectacle appears to have served its purpose.

Before she came to Beijing, Nadine Lewman says, her impression of China was of “sweatshops and smog.” Now, adds the Portland, Ore. resident, “I think it’s a beautiful country. Seeing it has changed my image and I would love to come back. They’ve sold me.”

“I think the Games have been a stunning success for the Chinese government in terms of its international image,” says David Shambaugh, Director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University. “This is going to earn China considerable international respect.”

That is critically important, argues Xu Guoqi, a professor at Kalamazoo College, because for more than a century China has been afflicted by “a sense of inferiority, crying out for recognition and respect like a teenage boy. These Games may be a turning point to cure that syndrome.”

For more than a hundred years, China’s leaders have set themselves the goal of recovering international respect after humiliation at the hands of Europe and the United States in the 19th century. For more than half a century the ruling Communist party has made “standing up to the world” a key plank in its platform.

Successful Olympics, suggests Dali Yang, who heads the department of politics at the University of Chicago, could help move China from “a sense of inadequacy ... to a feeling that China can do this, and do it well.”

There have been signs over the past two weeks of a more relaxed and self-confident Chinese public. Fans have showed exuberant support for the home team rather than the chauvinism that officials had feared. They even cheered Chinese coaches of foreign teams, rather than treating them as traitors.

If China’s leaders decide that their management of the Olympics has earned the country respect, that “offers an opportunity for the Chinese state and the Chinese people to ditch the nationalist narrative of their identity based on shame and humiliation,” says Professor Shambaugh. “Hopefully they can throw all their aggrieved nationalist baggage away and move on like a normal country.”

Where they might move on to, however, is still uncertain.

“What people saw was the patina of a new China,” says Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based political analyst. “Major questions have still not been answered.”

Some troubling answers to questions about the nature of today’s China could be found in the way the government dealt with people who challenged the image of harmony and prosperity that it wanted to project to the world.

Two septuagenarian Chinese ladies were sentenced last week to a year’s “re-education through labor” for daring to apply for a permit to publicly protest the destruction of their homes. The authorities had said authorized protests would be allowed, but in the end approved not a single application to demonstrate.

That drew a rare public rebuke from the US Embassy here, which called Sunday for release of eight US citizens who had been detained in the wake of pro-Tibet protests and said, “We are disappointed that China has not used the occasion of the Olympics to demonstrate greater tolerance and openness.”

Instances of fakery also drew criticism both abroad and at home: at the opening ceremony the little girl who sang “Ode to the Motherland” lip-synched to the voice of another girl judged not pretty enough to appear; the children representing harmony among China’s 56 ethnic minorities, dressed in their national costumes, were in fact all from the Han majority; the televised image of some of the fireworks was the work of computer graphics.

Chinese gymnastics officials were also angry and embarrassed by allegations that at least two of China’s gold-medal winners were under age, a charge being investigated by the International Gymnastics Federation.

As the music from the Olympics closing ceremony dies away, however, grass-roots anxieties that the government stifled during the Games will make themselves felt, says Professor Yang. “When the overriding preoccupation with the Games has gone, individuals will have more opportunities to assert themselves.”

“With society more confident, some elements may try to lead the system forward faster than the government thinks is right,” adds Moses, which could lead to tensions.

When they are confronted by crises, Chinese leaders “tend to hunker down,” says Moses. “Now we have had a successful international event that has gone rather splendidly … this is a good test of how they deal with success.

“China is clearly out of the starting blocks,” he adds. “The question now is how fast it wants to run and in which direction.”

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