China’s Olympic Nightmare

Written by CFR’s Elizabeth C. Economy and Adam Segal, from Foreign Affairs:

On the night of July 13, 2001, tens of thousands of people poured into Tiananmen Square to celebrate the International Olympic Committee’s decision to award the 2008 Olympic Games to Beijing. Firecrackers exploded, flags flew high, and cars honked wildly. It was a moment to be savored. Chinese President Jiang Zemin and other leaders exhorted the crowds to work together to prepare for the Olympics. “Winning the host rights means winning the respect, trust, and favor of the international community,” Wang Wei, a senior Beijing Olympic official, proclaimed. The official Xinhua News Agency reveled in the moment, calling the decision “another milestone in China’s rising international status and a historical event in the great renaissance of the Chinese nation.”

Hosting the Olympics was supposed to be a chance for China’s leaders to showcase the country’s rapid economic growth and modernization to the rest of the world. Domestically, it provided an opportunity for the Chinese government to demonstrate the Communist Party’s competence and affirm the country’s status as a major power on equal footing with the West. And wrapping itself in the values of the Olympic movement gave China the chance to portray itself not only as a rising power but also as a “peace-loving” country. For much of the lead-up to the Olympics, Beijing succeeded in promoting just such a message.

The process of preparing for the Games is tailor-made to display China’s greatest political and economic strengths: the top-down mobilization of resources, the development and execution of grand-scale campaigns to reform public behavior, and the ability to attract foreign interest and investment to one of the world’s brightest new centers of culture and business. Mobilizing massive resources for large infrastructure projects comes easily to China. Throughout history, China’s leaders have drawn on the ingenuity of China’s massive population to realize some of the world’s most spectacular construction projects, the Great Wall, the Grand Canal, and the Three Gorges Dam among them. The Olympic construction spree has been no different. Beijing has built 19 new venues for the events, doubled the capacity of the subway, and added a new terminal to the airport. Neighborhoods throughout the city have been either spruced up to prepare for Olympic visitors or simply cleared out to make room for new Olympic sites. Official government spending for the construction bonanza is nearing $40 billion. In anticipation of the Olympics, the government has also embarked on a series of efforts to transform individual behavior and modernize the capital city. It has launched etiquette campaigns forbidding spitting, smoking, littering, and cutting in lines and introduced programs to teach English to cab drivers, police officers, hotel workers, and waiters. City officials have used Olympic projects as a means to refurbish decaying buildings and reduce air pollution, water shortages, and traffic jams.

Listen to this essay on CFR.org and read also In China, the game has changed by Victor D. Cha.

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