Authoritarianism in the Light of the Olympic Flame
In April 2007, Beijing announced its grand plan for the Olympic Torch Relay. The official theme, “harmonious journey,” was clearly meant as an indirect reference to the “harmonious society” advocated by President Hu Jintao soon after he assumed office in 2005. The relay plan will break many Olympic records, with the longest route, the broadest territory, the highest altitude (through the Tibetan Himalayas), and the largest number of participants. The torch will pass through 22 cities in five continents, as well as 113 domestic cities and regions throughout China. The route’s inclusion of Hong Kong, Taipei, and Macao is intended to symbolize the great “unity” of the Chinese ethnicity.
Words such as “the first,” “the best,” “the pride of Chinese around the world,” “harmony,” and “dream” frequently appeared in media reports and comments in mainland China regarding the torch relay. The official Beijing Olympic website states: “From March to August 2008, the world will focus on this route—the glorious Olympic torch will carry the spirit of the Olympics and the dream of the people around the globe, lightening the voyage of ancient civilizations and evolving into the brand new ‘harmonious journey.'”
Yet these inspirational words mask a harsher reality–the authoritarian nature of the Beijing political regime. For the Chinese government, the Olympic Games are less about “harmony” than about promotional opportunities and huge financial gain. The slogan is “One World One Dream”— but the “dream” is that China will be recognized and accepted as a world player, with the world’s attention focused on spectacular sports events rather than the continuing human rights abuses which every day cause suffering to thousands of ordinary Chinese citizens.
The 1936 Berlin Games—the first to stage a torch relay—illustrate the need for vigilance when a regime uses the Olympics for propaganda purposes. Adolf Hitler skillfully exploited the Games in a dual fashion: on the one hand, he sought to cover up his military buildup and intentions by presenting to the world the image of a peaceful, sports-loving nation; on the other hand, he used the Olympic stage to showcase Nazi theories of Aryan superiority. Hitler’s gamble paid off like so many of the risks he took in his first years of power: an international boycott was averted, and Germany won the most medals in the Berlin Olympics —eighty nine, far more than the fifty six won by the second-ranked United States. The Berlin Games were the first Olympics where television was used, and were further glorified by Leni Riefenstahl’s film Olympia.
Yet only three short years after the Berlin Olympics, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, thereby igniting the Second World War and the Holocaust. A few months before the 1980 Moscow Olympics, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. This time, because the invasion flagrantly violated the Olympic spirit and the Berlin precedent was not forgotten, many countries boycotted the Moscow Olympics. Even China, which had just been readmitted as a participating nation, followed the lead of the U.S. and chose not to attend the Moscow Games. At that time, 147 countries were Olympic members; only 80 participated in the Moscow Games, nearly two-fifths of the member countries having decided to join the boycott.
In the early years of the 21st century, the most powerful authoritarian country in the world has won its bid to host of the Olympics. No other city in Olympic history has matched the Beijing’s efforts in terms of propaganda, mass mobilization, investment and efforts to arouse nationalist fervor.
A “hot wok” of nationalism
On July 13, 2001, Beijing’s surprise victory over Toronto, Paris, Istanbul and Osaka was announced at a meeting of the International Olympic Committee in Moscow. In Beijing the news sparked massive rejoicing. That same evening, more than a million Beijingers went on the streets to celebrate. Millions of people in other Chinese cities also stayed up all night to celebrate. With crowded streets, brandished flags, joyful tears, hoarse voices due to constant shouting, China instantly became a hot wok of boiling nationalism.
The top communist leaders headed by Jiang Zemin made their way to Tiananmen Square to celebrate with the exhilarated masses. Slogans such as “realizing the dream of a hundred years,” “the grand revitalization of Chinese,” “the bankruptcy of Western anti-China forces” were chanted throughout the night. This was sweet revenge after “the shame endured for more than a century” and “the sick East Asian” derogatory label which instilled in many Chinese a sense of insecurity, coupled with the ambition to rise again as a great hegemony.
The official Beijing launch ceremony for the one-year Olympic countdown on August 8, 2007 undoubtedly broke Olympic records in terms of investment, scale, and mass participation. On that morning, more than one million residents participated in the great morning exercise simultaneously taking place in ten parks including Chinese Century Park and Yuyuan Park, as well as 20 other sites in Beijing.
From 7 p.m. to 9 p.m on that evening, the Beijing Olympic Committee hosted a mass countdown celebration at Tiananmen Square. The top leaders in the Central Government and Beijing Municipal Government, the President of the International Olympic Committee, Olympic representatives from 205 countries, diplomatic luminaries, main corporate sponsors for the 2008 Olympics all showed up for the event. Performances by domestic and international artists were broadcast by TV to China and the rest of the world.
A Beijing Olympic Committee spokesman explained the mass rejoicing by stating that the purpose of the Beijing Games was quite simply to allow modern China, inheritor of the wealth of the ancient Chinese civilization, to bring happiness to the world. The theme song “We Are Ready,” performed by one hundred Chinese singers, expressed the confidence in a successful Olympics.
Ever since the East clashed with the West in the 1840s, the empire that once considered it as the center of the world—the Chinese word for China is “Zhong Guo,” or “Empire of the Middle”– was first defeated by the West, and then was conquered by Japan. The shameful “sick East Asian” became a Chinese taboo. After the Communist party took power, it used every social resource, including an appeal to nationalist sentiments extending to sports events, to buttress its dictatorship. By encouraging strong performances in sports, the regime sought to create the image of a “strong East Asian” which would supersede the cliché of the “sick East Asian,” and thereby enhance its own popularity and legitimacy.
Nationalism as a tool for the Party
In the Mao era, nationalism was distilled in the slogan: “from now on, the Chinese people stand up.” This resurgence was manifested not only in the quest to become a nuclear power, but also in the realm of sports, in particular table tennis. When the Chinese Ping Pong team defeated the Japanese team in the 1960s, the victory left my generation with an indelible memory. The so-called “Ping Pong” diplomacy would also play a famous role in paving the way for Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972.
In the Deng era, nationalism was embodied in the slogan, “Strengthening China.” The formidable rise of the Chinese Women’s Volleyball Team (CWVT), winner of the gold medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, was saluted by the Central Party Committee and by Chinese citizens from all walks of life. Even in academic centers such as Beijing University, students amended Deng’s slogan to: “Strengthening China by learning from CWVT.”
Following the Tiananmen massacre of June 4, 1989, the Chinese government faced mounting domestic and international pressure. Once again, the government turned to sports to whip up nationalist fervor and enhance its own popularity, while distracting from its lack of true legitimacy. The hosting of the 11th Asian Games, or Asiad, in 1990, was a successful step in this direction: China won a total of 341 medals, far ahead of South Korea and Japan which each garnered fewer than two hundred medals.
Encouraged by this success, China engaged in an all-out effort in 1991-93 in bidding for the right to host the 2000 Olympics. However, the 1989 Tiananmen massacre was still fresh in the memories of most observers, and Beijing’s bid was strongly opposed by the United States and several other countries.
In September 1993, Beijing lost out to Sydney in one of the closest votes in Olympic history. This was perceived by many Chinese as a stinging humiliation, and spurred a nationalist backlash which was perhaps best expressed in the 1996 bestseller The China That Can Say No. This book—a collection of essays by various authors—urged an uncompromising rejection of American values such as individualism, and excoriated the “pro-Western” stance of certain intellectuals such as the astrophysicist Fang Lizhi and journalist Liu Binyan. The book also renewed calls for war reparations from Japan, as a belated compensation for this country’s actions in the Second Sino-Japanese War of 1937-45.
The party-state’s reliance on nationalism continued during the Jiang Zemin era from 1989 to 2002, as expressed by the slogans “Diplomacy of A Great Nation” and “the Grand Renaissance of Chinese Ethnicity,” instead of Deng’s “Strengthening China by Avoiding to Be Top Guns.” The Jiang regime never passed up a chance to promote nationalism, which became more and more fervent. In 2001, the bid for the 2008 Olympics once again became an ace-card for the government. The regime needed the bid to promote its own legitimacy, while the mass population wanted this chance to revenge for the 1993 shameful failure. By mobilizing all resources, the communist party not only played its usually effective trade card when facing political pressure, but mobilized even more resources than for the earlier bid, hiring top international public relations companies to polish its image. This was a crucial factor, in light of China’s dismal record in human rights including freedom of speech. Behind such devotion to winning the bid was the fear for not being able to lose again.
The 2008 Olympics will be the most important event staged by the Chinese Communist Party since Hu Jintao’s accession to power in November 2002. For Hu, the opportunity to host the Olympics is even more important than the Seventeenth Congress of the Central Party Committee which took place in October 2007. No matter how fierce a fight to get into the top leadership, the party conference will not affect Hu’s leadership position. However, hosting a successful or unsuccessful Beijing Olympic Games will affect the political image of the current leadership—and even affect Hu’s legacy in history. No doubt, to host an Olympic Games of unprecedented success is the No. 1 political priority for the current regime, which has to mobilize all resources to advertise for the Olympic ring.
Propaganda machine on overdrive
Mindful of this scrutiny, the Chinese government has adopted a four-pronged approach to make the Beijing Games a dazzling success. First, the propaganda machine for the Olympic Games has been in full swing to drum up internal support. Since 2001, when Beijing won the bid, the mainland media have been encouraged to stir nationalist fervor, for example through a multitude of Olympics-related special programs on government-controlled television stations. Non-stop sport competitions and art performances have been themed for the Olympics, while advertisements and billboards related to the Games are plastered in large and small cities throughout the country. Chinese athletes participating in international sports competitions need to talk about the Olympics if they wish to be perceived by the authorities as “politically correct.”
Moreover, the government has mobilized its public relations machine to create a benign image. In November 2006, an unprecedented government-sponsored exhibition on human rights was held in the Beijing Cultural Palace for Nationalities. The exhibition was clearly geared to an internal audience, chronicling “human rights developments” in China since 1949, such as medical care programs in impoverished rural areas.
To burnish its image abroad, the government loosened the restrictions affecting foreign media for the first time, and the Committee to Protect Journalists—an American nonprofit organization which had opposed Beijing’s bid—came to visit China.
At the opening ceremony of the International Sports Conference in Beijing in April 2007, Premier Wen Jiabao spoke of the Beijing Olympics as a means to present a democratic, open, civilized, friendly and harmonious China to the world.
China has invested unprecedented sums in preparing the Olympics. In August 2007, with one year to go before the opening ceremony, the total investment for the Beijing Games already reached $40 billion. Major financial outlays are required for the implementation of the Chinese Sports Committee’s “Olympic Honor” plan, which comprises of an Olympic team including 17,000 professional athletes and 4,900 professional coaches. The Committee’s “119 blueprint” spells out China’s objective of becoming the country with the most medals in 2008 by vastly exceeding the 63 medals won at the 2004 Athens Olympics, where China ranked second behind the United States which had garnered 103 medals.
Finally, to ensure social stability during the Olympics, the government is nipping any emerging sign of dissent in the bud. Law enforcement organs continue to abuse their power by tightly controlling the media—particularly domestic outlets–and Internet, constraining nongovernmental organizations as well as individual petitioners, and imprisoning people for merely exercising their inherent right to free speech. This of course is in complete contradiction with the second point mentioned above, whereby the authorities are seeking to create the image of a government genuinely concerned with human rights. In fact the main international human rights organizations released reports, as the one-year countdown to the Olympics began, alerting the world that the Chinese government has not honored its pledge to improve its human rights records.
The true meaning of “One World, One Dream”
As the one-year countdown started, some voices of dissent were also heard within China. On August 8, 2007, forty two Chinese liberal writers, scholars and rights defenders published an open letter addressed to President Hu Jintao and entitled “One World, One Dream, Equal Human Rights–Our Call for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.” I signed this letter, along with the leader of “Tiananmen Mothers” Ding Zilin, the journalists Dai Qing and Gao Yu, as well as the former top Communist Party official Bao Tong (who has also contributed a chapter to this book).
The Open Letter stated that “when the world focuses at China, Chinese Government should realize its solemn promise to improve human rights.” The reasoning is simple:
“Without the protection of the human rights of all Chinese citizens equally–i.e., without abolition of the rural-urban residential control system, without an end to discrimination against women and sexual, ethnic, and faith minorities, and without ending the suppression of political dissent–it is senseless to talk about ‘One Dream’ for all of China.” The letter called for basic rights reforms including amnesty for all prisoners of conscience and an end to the forced evictions and land appropriations undertaken to construct Olympic facilities.
The Beijing Olympics will probably benefit both the government, which will see its prestige enhanced if it delivers a spectacular and successful show, and the elite class which will be enriched by both the Olympic effect and the underlying corruption. Nationalist pride may swell in the short term, but the long-term interests of the Chinese and even the cause of peace will not be served. Unless the Chinese government can be persuaded to undertake meaningful human rights forms, the flickering hope for a truly better China could vanish once the flame of the Olympic Torch has been extinguished.