The real results of the Olympic games


The dust has settled in the calm after the 2008 Summer Olympics, and it has become apparent that Beijing did not make a mistake when they made their bid to host them. But I still believe the International Olympic Committee did when it awarded the games to Beijing in the first place. While the Olympics have, excuse the cliché, been depicted as China's "coming out party" to the world, the biggest gains for the Chinese leadership were internal. The Olympics continued to secure the Communist Party's legitimacy to the Chinese. The games failed to liberalize China's political institutions as promised by the one-party government and the IOC.

Let us refresh out memories of the pre-Olympics coverage ¾ before athletes like Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt became household names. The 2008 games were plagued with controversies since the selection of Beijing in 2001, considering the human rights record of the host nation. The Chinese government promised that the lead up to 2008 would see dramatic improvements in education, health and human rights, and the IOC supported this assertion. We have seen how poorly Beijing has followed on these obligations.

We saw the spectacular ceremonies and thrilling competitions at the Olympics, and yet we remained (un)aware of the cost. Images of the games were largely controlled by the state. No protest applications out of the 77 submitted were approved for the demonstration zone. Security personnel threatened foreign protesters. Reporters were detained for covering impromptu demonstrations. Thousands, if not millions, of citizens were displaced from their homes in the name of infrastructural progress. China is still not stepping up to its obligations with the environment. (Neither are we.) We must not forget about these things within the afterglow from the games.

Considering these actions, when people ask you years from now why the 2008 summer games were controversial, I hope it will not be because of some vague recollections of lip-synching and alleged under-aged gymnasts.

Concerns involving the governing regime in China, which made the initial selection controversial, were hardly uniform. They come from the left and the right, ranging from the censorship of media, suppression of free religion, the one-child policy, environmental issues, its policies toward Darfur and the crackdown on the Falun Gong. The protests that dominated the headlines in the West during the torch relay were mostly for the cause of a free Tibet. Whether you agree with the agenda of the protesters, the images of them gathering in large numbers in London, Paris and San Francisco in the cause of self-determination were moving.

But these images would not be read the same way within mainland China. The most popular image of the protests from the state-run media was the image of the Chinese paralympic fencer Jin Jing boldly defending the Olympic flame from an assaulting protester while bound to a wheelchair. Ultimately, the protests would be seen within the nation as a hateful demonstration against the Chinese as a population rather than the regime -- another symptom of the one-party system. The one-party oligarchy continued to extend its legitimacy with the help of anti-western sentiment.

Counter-protests erupted. Red banners were waved in the face of those foreigners who dared advance a Tibetan "separatist" movement. Chinese students studying overseas would become vocal for their homeland against what they perceive to be the pro-Tibet slant of college campuses, with a victim complex that dwarfs that of the college Republicans. Clearly, this emotional defense is understandable, considering that these students, fortunate enough to have been able to study overseas, have good reason to defend the system that has put them ahead of so many other Chinese.

Certainly, some of the anti-Chinese sentiment in the West can be blamed on ignorance. Asian civilization continues to be framed as exotic, if not dangerous, through the lens of the western media. We must avoid lumping all aspects of a society into a singular entity when we criticize or praise it. Even when we, as Western observers, criticize a political regime, we must remember that it itself is not a singular political force.

The current generation controlling the one-party system in China was raised under that system. The individuals with power often use terrible means to maintain and consolidate their power. For them, it has been the only means they know. We have a responsibility on the international stage to make such injustices known, but we have seen what branding a nation as "evil" has done to ourselves in the world.

Shortly after the tragic Sichuan earthquake killed nearly 70,000 people in central China, international criticisms of the Chinese regime were largely muted. A new image captivated the Chinese and the world: the image of Chinese civil servants, military and ordinary people doing their part to help their countrymen pull through a major disaster. These people truly believe their system can work.

The earthquake joined the torch relay protests as part of a broader narrative of challenges China had to overcome before "coming out" as a major global player at the Beijing games. (See the formulaic Olympics commentary by Bob Costas and others.) The lip-synching and gymnast age controversies were just the visual cracks of deeper social problems in a nation governed by a one-party system determined to avoid even the most minor embarrassments.

The idea of the Olympics in Beijing being a catalyst of liberalization was sold to the international community since its selection. Historically, the modern Olympics have never directly caused a wave of political reform in its host nation. It has always legitimized the people in power, and the same still seems to be true with 2008. The state's message of control closed whatever hope was left for dialogue to open up.

We, as Americans, have the power to watch our corporations closely when they do business in China and elsewhere so that they can spread our values of freedom rather than be accomplices of information suppression. But ultimately, the solutions to China's ills could only come from the Chinese themselves. I believe the games have done little to improve the conditions in China, and in some ways, the games made things worse. If the clichés are right and the 21st century emerges as the Chinese's century, then I look forward for the day they prove me wrong.

Roger Sheng is a Rutgers College senior majoring in political science and journalism and media studies. His column "The Echo Chamber" runs on alternate Mondays. He welcomes feedback at rogsheng@eden.rutgers.edu.


Roger Sheng

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