TWQ: Beijing’s Olympic-Sized Catch-22 - Summer 2008
July 1, 2008
On August 8, Beijing will host the opening ceremonies for the 2008 Summer Olympics. For two weeks, we will be treated to athletic performances that animate dreams and inspire the world, set against the backdrop of one of the world's most ancient and celebrated civilizations. That, at least, is the way that Beijing would like to sell the Games. For better or worse, they will mark a critical crossroads in China's development as a responsible global player.
Just as the Tokyo Olympics in the summer of 1964 closed the book on wartime Japan, the Beijing Games will end China’s past century as the "sick man" of Asia and open a new chapter as a modern, advanced nation. The newly built stadium known as the "Bird's Nest" and the supermodern "water cube" aquatics center are iconic Olympic facilities offering the world a new image of China beyond the Great Wall. The symbolism of China's first astronaut in space carrying the Beijing Olympic banner could not have been a stronger statement of the nation’s aspirations.
The Olympics, however, also generate pressures on the regime to change its behavior, not just its image. Beijing is wrestling with the difficulties of conjoining its controlled and closed political system with the classical liberal ideals of individualism, open competition, and respect for human dignity embodied in the Olympics. It is under siege from intense international scrutiny of its behavior by media stars such as director Steven Spielberg, journalists, Nobel laureates, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and socially responsible corporate actors all demanding changes in China's domestic and foreign policies.
The catch-22 dilemma for political change faced by Beijing is inescapable. China has responded by making piecemeal but real adjustments in policies toward Sudan and Burma as well as on selective, internationally known human rights cases. Yet, when it comes to separatist protests or domestic activists, the regime continues to be ruthlessly efficient and forceful in its control, as it has done with the demonstrations in Tibet, regardless of cries for an Olympic boycott. The true story of whether the Olympics change China will be written long after the Olympic flame is extinguished, but the prospects may not be nearly as dark as people think.