Beijing’s Olympic Challenge

by Linda Jakobson

Linda Jakobson is Senior Researcher of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. Her latest book is Innovation with Chinese Characteristics. High-tech Research in China (Palgrave, 2007). An edited version of this column was initially published in Finnish in Helsingin Sanomat 6 August 2008.

BEIJING - The Beijing government appears to be facing a daunting Olympic challenge. On the one hand, China's leaders must ensure the safety of 80 visiting heads of states, some 16,000 athletes and hundreds of thousands of Olympic spectators. On the other hand, they face mounting criticism for overly - some would say hysterically - stringent security measures.

The small number of Chinese who follow foreign news commentary are upset because they realize that China is losing face internationally by portraying a rigid and old-fashioned state, one that it is unable to deal flexibly with the pressures of an international mega-event with the entailing security challenges. Thousands of foreigners are unhappy because some of them have been denied visas to see the Games and those residing in Beijing are being harassed with security checks in a manner not experienced since the 1980s. An estimated three million migrant workers are angry because they were forced to leave the city for two months. Thousands of businessmen are losing money because they do not have staff to run their operations or tourists to cater to (Chinese from other cities have been scared away by draconian security measures).

Lastly, foreign journalists are enraged because contrary to initial promises by the Chinese government their work is being restricted. The minor incident involving Beijing police trying to stop Hong Kong journalists from photographing scuffles between police and prospective ticket purchasers last week was indicative of what is in store during the Games.

But do these disgruntled groups really matter to the Beijing government? The short answer is no. For the Chinese Communist Party the Beijing Olympics will be successful if they are successful in the eyes of the Chinese people. This is the foremost goal. As long as the majority of Chinese do not hear about any major protest against the Beijing government by Chinese citizens, China's leaders will applaud themselves. Despite the hype about internet use in China (253 million users according to recent estimates), the overwhelming majority of Chinese still receive their information about domestic and foreign events from Chinese government-controlled media sources. A recent Pew Research Center Global Attitudes Survey reflects this reality: Only 13 percent of Chinese go online for news. A whopping 96 percent say television is their primary news source. Television is the most strictly controlled media in China.

The Chinese media hardly makes mention of any dissatisfaction by Chinese citizens with regard to the Olympics. Three million unhappy migrant workers who show up in statistics as part of the country's 800 million rural residents are inconsequential; they have no means to organize themselves to protest. Discontented intellectuals comprise a tiny minority and can be expected to refrain from criticism in this period of utmost national importance. The same applies to annoyed businessmen. The handful of human rights activists who have dared to protest have been detained or sent to education-through-labor camps.

As for foreign criticism, Chinese commentators are well-versed in pointing out that foreigners are wary of a rising China and Western forces are eager to find fault in China. A culture of national humiliation, emphasizing the disgrace that Chinese suffered because of outsiders in the 19th and 20th centuries, has been the platform of the Communist Party since the People's Republic was founded in 1949. Memorializing this period of national humiliation is part of the Chinese national psyche.

The Olympics present the Communist Party with an opportunity to show the Chinese people that it is a competent government. The Party derives its legitimacy from above all two deliverables: first, ensuring that economic growth continues and second, strengthening the perception of China as a prosperous and strong nation in the eyes of the Chinese people. Evoking a sense of pride in China is paramount for the Communist Party as it struggles to cope with huge challenges, ones ranging from protests over lost jobs and unsafe working conditions to illegal land confiscation by corrupt officials and environmental hazards resulting from China's rapid growth and lack of law enforcement.

As an Olympic host the Chinese government hopes to show the world a modernizing China, a prospering China, and an internationalizing China. The vast majority of Chinese share these objectives. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Survey 93 percent of respondents view the Olympics as improving China's global image.

However, for many governments -- in particular in the West - and for a host of NGOs who have grievances about issues ranging from arbitrary arrests to Tibet, and for many ordinary people who support the causes of these NGOs, the Beijing Olympics present either an opportunity to assess how tolerant China has become or a chance to highlight the shortcomings that exist in China - and to pressure the Beijing government to change its policies. So, while the Chinese government and Chinese public view the Olympics as an event which will hopefully be a jubilant "graduation" party in the international community, many people and organizations around the globe view the Beijing Olympics as China's international entrance examination. The gulf between the starting points for China's domestic and international audiences is so wide that there are bound to be serious misunderstandings.

Indeed, Beijing's slogan for the 2008 Olympic Games is "One World, One Dream". But controversy surrounding the manner in which Beijing has prepared to host the Games is proof that in this one world there are many dreams - and they are worlds apart.

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