Saturday, August 16, 2008

Questioning the Olympic project, part 2

In a previous essay, I wrote that the Olympics makes us question the symbols and values of modernity by forcing us to ask whether the host country is “ready” to become modern. I used examples from the 1988 Seoul Olympics to show how commentators in 1988 looked at factors other than economic advancement to determine Korea’s progress.

The phenomenon of using the Olympics to judge a non-western country’s modern progress has been even more striking in China. At a press conference in Beijing with Giselle Davies, the IOC’s director of communications, the question of what exactly constitutes “progress” was on stark display:

Channel 4 reporter Alex Thomson: “I’m asking whether you’re embarrassed [about the Chinese government breaking its promises to expand human rights and press freedom before the games]. I’m not asking about how well the games have been run or how wonderful the venues are. Are you embarrassed?”

Giselle Davies: “We’re very pleased with how the organizers are putting on a good sporting event. That’s what this is [about]… the organizers have put on an operationally sound games for the athletes.”

The back-and-forth proceeded along these lines, with Davies focusing on operational success and Thomson focusing on human rights and press freedom. Similarly, when Wang Wei, a BOCOG official, said, “The whole world can see how China is progressing,” his emphasis was on what can be seen: infrastructure, operational aptitude, venues, the visible signs of economic progress.

China’s two bids to host the games have both generated this kind of tension about the meaning of progress. When China first bid to host the Olympics in 1993, there was an immediate uproar about the country’s human rights abuses. At the same time, some Chinese were concerned that China’s economic advancement wasn’t far enough along to successfully host the games:

"I don't think we're ready for it," said Wu Xiaoyong, a consultant for the World Bank in Beijing. "The infrastructure and general service level is not up to requirements. It would certainly be a great honor to host the Games, but it would be better if we waited until we were really ready." [1]

China’s failure to win the bid in 1993 left much bitterness among many Chinese, who believed they lost because of protests from the US government and unfair preferential treatment of Sydney.

Unsurprisingly, the language surrounding China’s 2001 bid focused on whether China was ready for the Olympics—but what was meant by “ready” varied widely. Tom Lantos, a Democratic politician in the US, said in a statement on July 8, 2001:

China's leaders have argued that politics should not taint the delegates' deliberations and that each finalist should be subject only to technical review to determine which city has the best sports facilities, transportation systems, hotels and other material resources needed to carry out a successful Olympics.

But turning a blind eye to the egregious human rights violations taking place every day in China does not remove politics from the Olympics—it permits an authoritarian regime to exploit the Games to prop up its faltering legitimacy by gaining an important symbol of acceptance from the international community. The I.O.C. should reject China's bid and protect the Olympic ideal.

China should earn the Games not because of its ability to build world-class sports sites and manage a massive event, but by virtue of its commitment to upholding the Olympic ideal.

In fact, Olympic officials sought to assure skeptics like Lantos that the Olympics are a positive force, and can even spur an authoritarian country to adopt democracy and improve its human rights. The memory of the Seoul games was important in this regard, as many observers argued that the 1988 games had pushed Korea’s democracy along. There were other promising factors: in China’s first bid for the games in 1993, it had released Wei Jingsheng, a well-known dissident, from jail six months before the end of his sentence in an act of goodwill.

Jacque Rogge, who in 2001 was a Belgium delegate to the IOC and is now the IOC president, has always supported China’s bid. When China won the bid in 2001, he and other IOC members believed the games would bring more human rights to China: ''I think the message was that the IOC wanted to open a country that represents one quarter of mankind and had never organized the games before,” said Rogge. Fran├žois Carrard, another IOC official, had a similar opinion:

Some people say, because of serious human rights issues, “We close the door and say no.” The other way is to bet on openness. Bet on the fact that in the coming seven years, openness, progress and development in many areas will be such that the situation will be improved. We are taking the bet that seven years from now we will see many changes.

For its part, China quite explicitly promised that its human rights record would improve. Yuan Weimin, China’s minister of sport at the time, said,

Like all countries, China has certain areas where something is left to be desired. [As China further opens to the world in preparation for the Olympics and for its expected entry into the World Trade Organization, economic progress] will bring along advances in culture, health, education, sport and, not least of all, corresponding progress in human rights causes. [2]

It is likely that Yuan was sincere in his hope that China would improve its human rights situation, and Rogge and Carrard probably really believed the Olympics would help in this regard. That they were wrong—due to shifting power structures within the Chinese government, an upsurge of Chinese nationalism, increasing defensiveness to Western criticism, and a variety of other factors—is the root of the frustration that Alex Thomson, the Channel 4 reporter, expressed in his harsh questions, as well as frustration elsewhere.

It remains to be seen what path China’s vision of modernity will take in the future, and whether the Olympics will have any real impact on that vision. The country’s current intense nationalism means things probably won’t change for a while, and the games have seriously undermined the credibility of the IOC and, of course, the Chinese government in the eyes of those of us who care about human rights.

What about Beijing impact on the Olympics itself? When IOC officials talk about “Olympic values,” what exactly do they mean? In 2001, human rights were clearly included in those values, and privately, some IOC officials now express regret that Beijing was awarded the games. Publicly, they have a different message: Giselle Davies’s comments above focus on infrastructure and the successful operation of the games, and link those factors to “Olympic values.” We must hope that the Beijing games haven’t changed those values for good.

[1] Michael Breen. “China’s ‘very confident’ on its bid for 2000 Olympics; but Asian giant’s rights record may harm its chances.” The Washington Times, 17 September 1993.

[2] Quotes from Rogge, Carrard, and Yuan are from: Jere Longman. “Beijing wins bid for 2008 Olympic Games.” The New York Times, 14 July 2001.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Georgians and Russians in Beijing

News about the conflict between Georgia and Russia has understandably been relegated to secondary news in China. Many people haven't even heard of the war. It's perfectly understandable—why take attention away from the Olympics, which China has been looking forward to for seven years, to report on a conflict involving a country many Chinese haven't even heard of? And, of course, the conflict could involve some unpleasant questions for the Chinese government (which would certainly come down on the side of Russia if pushed), as it might attract attention to China's own problems with separatists. (The Chinese news I've found about the war hasn't mentioned any reactions from Chinese officials.)

However, the background of the war has led to one of the only truly feel-good moments of the Olympics: an embrace by the silver and bronze air pistol medalists, one from Russia and one from Georgia. Isn't this kind of thing supposed to be what the Olympics is all about?

Friday, August 8, 2008

Notes: the opening ceremonies and Bush

I think it’s fair to say the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony took live special effects to a whole new level. The giant unfolding scroll, the Olympic rings that lifted off the ground: the government certainly spared no expense. The ceremonies can hardly be said to be purely “Chinese”—the organizers must have culled technical talent from around the world, under the skilled directorship of Zhang Yimou, a very international auteur. But the impressive level of organization and the strong desire to put on an amazing show were the driving forces behind the spectacle.

As for the content, it seemed to be pretty much the same stuff that big shows at important Chinese events always have, except more so. There was the glorification of Chinese culture (paper, writing, kung fu) and painfully blatant attempts to legitimize the Party (the minorities, in their costumes, carrying the CCP flag and handing it to soldiers). There was the huge number of performers doing random things as if they were filled with meaning, like beating on drums while moving their heads in a certain way, as if this stuff was somehow traditional. And there was the cringe-worthy presence of cutesy kids, singing songs and walking with Yao Ming.

At any rate, the best part of Olympic opening ceremonies is always the long march (no pun intended) of the athletes. To me, it’s one of the most moving representations of our nation-state system: each contingent, in equal standing with all the others, marching behind its flag. The looks on the athletes’ faces make it obvious how ecstatic and proud they are. It’s one of the first images that come to my mind when I imagine diversity without hostility.

President Bush was in the bleachers, looking relaxed and maybe slightly bored. He’s received a lot of flak for his decision not to boycott the ceremony, as well as for his sometimes inconsistent attempts to address human rights and other issues (especially his number one standby, freedom of religion, which of course mainly means less control over Christians). From the New York Times:

Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, who is closely monitoring China’s handling of the Games, said that the president’s speech [at the opening of the new US embassy on Friday] underscored “this administration’s peculiar combination of cowardice and ineptitude in raising these issues directly and effectively with the Chinese leadership.”

She noted that Mr. Bush opted to criticize China while in Thailand, not in China, and that while he met five well-known Chinese dissidents in exile at the White House, he had not publicly spoken out about current political prisoners.

“His administration will receive myriad suggestions about how to improve rights in China but not act on any of them,” she said in an e-mail message. “They will, on the rare occasions they feel compelled to, offer some predictable platitudes about religious freedom being good for China, and they will turn around within a day and subordinate those interests to trade or security imperatives.”

Bush is walking a tricky line. In the US, there tend to be two main political camps when it comes to China: one advocating greater engagement, and one advocating a tough stance. The latter is a mixed bunch, who all have their own agendas. Neoconservatives are concerned with power balances and tend to get hung up on China’s status as a “communist” country. Then there are those who, like Sophie Richardson above, are predominantly concerned with human rights.

It should be clear that taking a consistently hostile stance towards China would be disastrous. You don’t have to know a lot about Chinese nationalism to realize that such a stance would whip up fervent anti-Americanism and boost legitimacy for the Party. On the other hand, staying quiet on issues of human rights is also not an option for a country that seeks to change its image to that of a moral power (a difficult feat, but we’re working on it). Given these complications, I generally think Bush’s treatment of the situation was mature and well thought out. Long ago he pointed out that boycotting the ceremony would be seen in China as a direct affront to the Chinese people. At the same time, in his speeches he made some important points that got to the heart of the Chinese government’s recalcitrance: that China’s leaders should not fear free expression, and that it would, in fact, make the country stronger. His visit included criticism of China’s human rights problems at every step: prior to leaving the US he met with several well-known Chinese dissidents, and he made his points at every speech about China (which drew ire from the Chinese government). His presence at the ceremony unavoidably gave legitimacy to the Party, but he tried to mitigate that effect as best he could by making his reservations clear.

Anyway, enough editorializing. The surge of madness that was the opening ceremony has ended, and it’s retreated to sort of simmering exhilaration, one that won’t end until the closing ceremony. Enjoy the games.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Beijing 2008 and Seoul 1988

I have an essay up at the China Beat, called "Questioning the Olympic Project: Lessons from Seoul."

It looks back at the 1988 Seoul Olympics to highlight parallel themes that are once more making an appearance in China.

You can access it here.