China’s Olympic Nightmare: What the Games Mean for Beijing’s Future

Elizabeth C. Economy and Adam Segal – Foreign Affairs

Copyright Foreign Affairs
ELIZABETH C. ECONOMY is C. V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia
Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. ADAM SEGAL is Maurice R.
Greenberg Senior Fellow for China Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
On the night of July 13, 2001, tens of thousands of people poured into
Tiananmen Square to celebrate the International Olympic Committee’s
decision to award the 2008 Olympic Games to Beijing. Firecrackers
exploded, flags flew high, and cars honked wildly. It was a moment to be
savored. Chinese President Jiang Zemin and other leaders exhorted the
crowds to work together to prepare for the Olympics. “Winning the host
rights means winning the respect, trust, and favor of the international
community,” Wang Wei, a senior Beijing Olympic official, proclaimed. The
>official Xinhua News Agency reveled in the moment, calling the decision
“another milestone in China’s rising international status and a historical
event in the great renaissance of the Chinese nation.”
Hosting the Olympics was supposed to be a chance for China’s leaders to
showcase the country’s rapid economic growth and modernization to the rest
of the world. Domestically, it provided an opportunity for the Chinese
government to demonstrate the Communist Party’s competence and affirm the
country’s status as a major power on equal footing with the West. And
wrapping itself in the values of the Olympic movement gave China the
chance to portray itself not only as a rising power but also as a
“peace-loving” country. For much of the lead-up to the Olympics, Beijing
succeeded in promoting just such a message.
The process of preparing for the Games is tailor-made to display China’s
greatest political and economic strengths: the top-down mobilization of
resources, the development and execution of grand-scale campaigns to
reform public behavior, and the ability to attract foreign interest and
investment to one of the world’s brightest new centers of culture and
business. Mobilizing massive resources for large infrastructure projects
comes easily to China. Throughout history, China’s leaders have drawn on
the ingenuity of China’s massive population to realize some of the world’s
most spectacular construction projects, the Great Wall, the Grand Canal,
and the Three Gorges Dam among them. The Olympic construction spree has
been no different. Beijing has built 19 new venues for the events, doubled
the capacity of the subway, and added a new terminal to the airport.
Neighborhoods throughout the city have been either spruced up to prepare
for Olympic visitors or simply cleared out to make room for new Olympic
sites. Official government spending for the construction bonanza is
nearing $40 billion. In anticipation of the Olympics, the government has
also embarked on a series of efforts to transform individual behavior and
modernize the capital city. It has launched etiquette campaigns forbidding
spitting, smoking, littering, and cutting in lines and introduced programs
to teach English to cab drivers, police officers, hotel workers, and
waiters. City officials have used Olympic projects as a means to refurbish
decaying buildings and reduce air pollution, water shortages, and traffic jams.
Yet even as Beijing has worked tirelessly to ensure the most impressive of
Olympic spectacles, it is clear that the Games have come to highlight not
only the awesome achievements of the country but also the grave
shortcomings of the current regime. Few in the central leadership seem to
have anticipated the extent to which the Olympic Games would stoke the
persistent political challenges to the legitimacy of the Communist Party
and the stability of the country. Demands for political liberalization,
greater autonomy for Tibet, increased pressure on Sudan, better
environmental protection, and an improved product-safety record now
threaten to put a damper on the country’s coming-out party. As the Olympic
torch circled the globe with legions of protesters in tow, Beijing’s
Olympic dream quickly turned into a public-relations nightmare.

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