Will China love the Olympic spotlight?
The New Straits Times Online[Tuesday, November 27, 2007 10:38]
By Ian Bremmer

A protester holds a placard in Australia. Is China ready for increased focus on its weaknesses?
A protester holds a placard in Australia. Is China ready for increased focus on its weaknesses?
WHEN the International Olympic Committee awarded Beijing the 2008 Summer Games in July 2001, the announcement ignited wild celebrations across the country. The Chinese Communist Party hoped to use the games to showcase the country's emergence as a dynamic, modern nation. But as China's leaders begin final preparations for the games next August, they may be wondering if hosting the event was such a good idea after all. They have significant reasons for doubt.

China's senior leaders always closely monitor spontaneous public expressions of nationalist fervour, fearful that shifting winds might blow an unwelcome storm in their direction. Of course, what they hope is that the games will channel these energies towards national solidarity, which will allow the leadership to deliver its people a moment of achievement and patriotic glory.

But the Olympics will also bring intense international scrutiny of China's weaknesses at a delicate moment in the country's development. The world knows of China's success and its attractiveness as a destination for foreign investment, but few outsiders have seen first hand the steep price the country is paying for its new prosperity.

The most obvious signs of that cost flow through the country's waterways and contaminate its air. Runaway growth and development have left about 70 per cent of the country's lakes and rivers polluted, many unfit for human use of any kind. Indeed, nearly a half-billion Chinese lack access to clean drinking water, and the number of terminally-polluted rivers and lakes grows daily.

But air quality will prove the more embarrassing problem next August. Television coverage of athletes gasping for breath will hardly provide Beijing with the signature Olympic image it had in mind, and growing international anxiety over climate change and other environmental hazards will ensure that such issues receive considerable media coverage.

There is also the risk that the games will become a political circus, as the international spotlight generates irresistible opportunities for public protest. The Chinese leadership has demonstrated many times that it can quell domestic dissent, but the unique scale of the Olympics will require round-the-clock vigilance.

Activists with grievances over Tibet, Taiwan, Myanmar, Darfur and dozens of other political, environmental, and human rights issues are making plans. Is China ready for Greenpeace, Human Rights in China, Amnesty International and Falun Gong supporters to take to the streets, with thousands of foreign journalists hungry for stories and asking questions that the authorities are unaccustomed to answering?

Even if police are able to maintain order in Beijing, can they extend that control across the country?

Can they manage the flow of information and ideas through the blogosphere as online activists open yet another front in their battle for free information? What we do know is that Chinese officials have never faced a challenge of this scale with such a potential to win and lose face.

The games will generate significant foreign-policy risks as well. In Taiwan, outgoing President Chen Shui-bian is stirring the independence pot, knowing that the Olympic spotlight will limit Beijing's ability to respond forcefully. He has proposed a popular referendum on Taiwanese membership in the United Nations. China's influence within the UN would prevent such a move even if Taiwan voted yes, but an international confrontation is the last thing China wants coinciding with the Olympics.

Then there is the matter of how the games will be received in the West. Since 2001, China has increasingly become the focal point of much anxiety in the developed world. Huge bilateral trade deficits, accusations that the country keeps its currency undervalued and a rash of defective and dangerous Chinese-made exports have fuelled a protectionist backlash in the United States and Europe.

Amid bitter election-year debates over Iraq and Iran, and a souring economic outlook, Americans may be in no mood for the triumphalist pageantry of a new rising power on display in Beijing. Will China's uneasy Asian neighbours be any more receptive? International criticism is sure to follow if something, anything, goes wrong during the games, especially if it involves the suppression of dissent and is vectored around the world via 24-hour cable television and the Internet.

China has changed since it "won" the 2008 games seven years ago. The party leadership has grown more self-assured in its growing international role, but its ability to manage the pace of change at home has become more uncertain.

In 2001, then president Jiang Zemin hoped the games would herald China's arrival as an industrialised power. But his successor, Hu Jintao, has focused on the damage that has come from unrestrained growth.

He and Premier Wen Jiabao have also championed a more "harmonious" society because they understand that the growing wealth gap, social tensions, environmental and public health problems and the Communist Party's tenuous relationship with China's less advantaged people can no longer be neglected.

As China's leaders scramble to address these challenges, will they still relish the idea of providing an international audience with front-row seats? How they look back on the games once the confetti is swept from the streets is far from certain. -- Project Syndicate

Ian Bremmer is president of the Eurasia Group and a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute