The empty Beijing hotel rooms and the lower-than-usual interest in the Games outside China are attributable to more than the strict visa policies and security measures that have discouraged travel to Beijing. A year ago, an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll found that two-thirds of Americans surveyed had little or no interest in attending the Games. China’s image (which was not helped by its decision this week to revoke the visa of Olympian Joey Cheek) could affect the size of the international TV audience for the Games. The people in developed countries who think it was a mistake to award the Olympics to Beijing (43 percent of Americans, vs. 41 percent who told Pew it was the correct decision) are less likely to watch.
The fact that the Chinese people think the world loves China helps explain why it is so difficult to persuade Beijing to address human rights and other issues. The Chinese people, after all, see no need for changes to improve the country’s image. In contrast, polls have shown that Americans are aware that the United States’ image overseas has been badly damaged in recent years, and there is widespread agreement that work must be done to improve that image. In China, the Communist Party controls most of the information to which people have access, and that information does not include material showing how unpopular the country has become.
If the Chinese eventually come to understand how the world sees their country, they will ask why its image is so poor. They will learn, then, that there is concern about China’s economic growth and its impact on Western jobs and on the environment, as well as concern about China’s military expansion.