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Olympic Aspirations and Shortcomings

sochi1119.jpgThere’s a new essay in Foreign Affairs on the Beijing Olympics, which although were sought after by government officials to bring international prestige to China, and celebrate her recent economic achievements. One bureaucrat told the authors that “Winning the host rights means winning the respect, trust, and favor of the world.” That might not be the case anymore, as the Olympic torch tour quickly unraveled into a public relations nightmare of criticism of human rights and authoritarian abuses. There are certain passages of this article (but certainly not all) in which the words “Russia,” “Sochi,” and “Putin” could be easily and logically substituted, especially the mention of “uncreative responses” to critics as underscoring “a certain political myopia.” Will the Sochi Winter Games games prove to be as controversial as Beijing 2008? Well, at least Moscow has a lot more time to get ready…

Although the Chinese government excels when it comes to infrastructure projects, its record is poor when it comes to transparency, official accountability, and the rule of law. It has responded clumsily to internal and external political challenges — by initially ignoring the international community’s desire for China to play a more active role in resolving the human rights crisis in Darfur, arresting prominent Chinese political activists, and cracking down violently on demonstrators. Although there is no organized opposition unified around this set of demands, the cacophony of voices pressuring China to change its policies has taken much of the luster off of the Beijing Games. Moreover, although the Communist Party has gained domestic support from the nationalist backlash that has arisen in response to the Tibetan protesters and their supporters in the West, it also worries that this public anger will spin out of control, further damaging the country’s international reputation. Already, China’s coveted image as a responsible rising power has been tarnished. (…)

Protests have arisen around virtually every Olympic Games in recent history, but Beijing, with its authoritarian political system, is uniquely threatened by dissenting voices, and it has responded with a traditional mix of intimidation, imprisonment, and violent repression. Teng Biao, a lawyer and human rights activist, was seized in March 2008, held by plainclothes police for two days, and warned to stop writing critically about the Olympics. Yang Chunlin, a land-rights activist, was arrested for inciting subversion because he had gathered more than 10,000 signatures from farmers whose property had been expropriated by officials for development projects. After a 20-minute trial, he was sentenced to five years in prison. In April, the HIV/AIDS activist Hu Jia, who was also one of the authors of the open letter, was sentenced to three and a half years in jail for subversion, after being held under house arrest for several months along with his wife and baby daughter. Although the vast majority of Chinese are probably unaware of these protests and arrests, Beijing’s overreaction demonstrates how fearful the Chinese government is that any dissent or protests could garner broader political support and threaten the party’s authority. (…)Beijing’s failure to respond creatively to its critics and effectively manage its environmental and product-safety issues reveals a certain political myopia. China’s leaders have long been aware that opponents of the regime would try to disrupt the Olympics. They prepared extensively for disturbances by developing a citywide network of surveillance cameras and training, outfitting, and deploying riot squads and other special police. They also made some attempts to defuse international hostility, such as offering to renew the human rights dialogue with Washington that was suspended in 2004 and publicly pressuring Khartoum to accept a joint African Union-United Nations peacekeeping force. But Beijing has been unable to counter the images emanating from Darfur and Tibet. Chinese leaders simply saw no relationship between the pageantry of the Olympics and Tibet, Sudan, or broader human rights concerns, and they never figured out how to engage and disarm those who did. They continue to fail in this regard.