Last week, amid continuing calls from activists in Europe and the US to boycott the Olympics to protest China’s record on human rights, came a rare rebuke from the International Olympic Committee. The committee expressed disappointment with a speech in which Tibet’s Communist Party leader used the occasion of an Olympic torch ceremony to denounce the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.
What the committee and the rest of the world don’t realize is how little China cares what they think. Here in Beijing, the Olympic Games are primarily for domestic consumption, justifying the government’s new global power to its own people.
For millennia, Chinese dynasties have claimed the “mandate of heaven” to justify their existence. On this score, there hasn’t really been any great leap forward. Inept dynasties augur instability and are overthrown. China still has no democracy and no real sense of political stability. Rulers fear revolution and, just as strongly, so do the people. And nationalism is the dominant strategy for preventing it. With a well-run Olympics, the Chinese Communist Party can prove its legitimacy and its continued mandate.
By September, it is conceivable that China’s global standing could plummet while China’s citizens see the Olympics as an astounding success. Despite the Internet and the lifting of some restrictions on journalism, there’s still an ocean-wide gap between the international and domestic news media. During the torch relay in Paris this spring, for instance, Chinese TV viewers saw mainly the heroic efforts of the wheelchair-bound amputee who used her upper body to shield the flame from a lunging protester and not the mass of pro-Tibet demonstrators.
In junior high and high school here, two semesters of history instruction focus on the humiliation of China by Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Russia and the US during the last centuries. International criticism is described as a continuation of this legacy, and for other countries to condemn the regime is to disparage the Chinese people. Foreign criticism strengthens domestic loyalty to the regime, so the threat of a boycott of the Olympics in August only bolsters nationalism.
In March, an exhibition baseball game in Beijing between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres provided a sneak preview of what to expect at the Olympics. A 16ft sign at the stadium listed 100 banned items, including, oddly, brooms. The singing of the US national anthem was forbidden. The police seized and interrogated a Korean fan of the Dodgers pitcher, Chan Ho Park, for holding a sign reading “Park is No. 1”. While foreign spectators were taken aback by the security measures, the Chinese were impressed that the teams were there at all.
For the Olympic athletes, victories remain to be won. But for Chinese leaders, the competition is pretty much over. They triumphed in 2001 when the International Olympic Committee selected Beijing as the site for this year’s Games and hundreds of thousands of Beijingers streamed into Tiananmen Square to celebrate. It was one of the biggest gatherings there since the 1989 massacre.
A few world leaders may boycott the opening ceremony. But the Games will go forward and be televised to what China will most likely declare is the largest worldwide audience ever. The Chinese government will have pulled off a modern Olympics.
©2008/ The New York Times
Edited excerpts. April Rabkin has written for Slate, the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org