China may well be the only country with a government that fears Bjork.
Three weeks after film maker Steven Spielberg in February cut ties with the Beijing Olympics, the big-voiced Icelandic pixie chanted “Tibet! Tibet!” on a Shanghai stage during a song about independence. As Olympic protests have grown, China has ratcheted up the rhetoric, sounding a bit North Korean.
Comments such as “doomed to failure,” “vicious-minded” and “splittist activities” have become commonplace. The Nobel Peace Prize-winning Dalai Lama is cast by Chinese officials as “a wolf in monk’s robes” who operates a “clique.” US house speaker Nancy Pelosi also shouldn’t expect an invitation to China anytime soon after sponsoring a resolution criticizing the crackdown in Tibet.
And then you read media reports that China is shopping around for additional help from public-relations firms. To many, it’s a sign that activists have China on the ropes.
Conventional wisdom outside Beijing says the 2008 Olympics are becoming a turning point in China’s relationship with human rights, transparency and democracy. Think again. While the Olympics have become a five-ringed circus and the rhetoric sounds desperate, China isn’t flinching as much as the world expects. Activists will certainly try. They’re not buying into suggestions by China or the International Olympic Committee that the games are somehow sacred and above politics. Sorry, but the Olympics are a highly political undertaking.
Governments have long used the games to showcase power and economic might. Why else would China care about world leaders boycotting the opening ceremony? China wants its global photo op.
Claims about preserving the spirit of the event are equally hollow. The Olympic rings have become as much about economic domination and runaway commercialism as sport. The games have become “American Idol” with sneakers, with athletes vying for multimillion-dollar endorsement contracts. The Summer Olympics are clearly important to China. They just aren’t as big a deal for the nation’s policies as many had figured.
Yes, China has been surprised by the chaos surrounding the Olympic torch’s travels around the globe. Noises about heads of state, government leaders and members of royal families boycotting the 8 August opening ceremony can’t make President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao happy. Yet, to think that China didn’t anticipate a certain amount of criticism and is about to alter its ways is unrealistic. None of this means protesters should give China a pass. An authoritarian nation that pledged to bolster human rights to win the Olympics and chose the slogan “One World, One Dream” deserves to feel the heat.
It’s important, though, to remember China’s priorities: economic growth and support of the Han Chinese, who constitute more than 90% of the nation’s 1.3 billion people. Doing so in the short run means putting on a good show in August and winning loads of Olympic medals to boost domestic support. China certainly cares what the world thinks of its big coming-out party, and spinning opinion won’t be easy.
“Changing long-held perceptions is indeed a huge task for a country as big and diverse as China,” says Martin Roll, chief executive officer of VentureRepublic, a Singapore-based consulting firm.
Yet, when you meet with officials in Beijing, it’s clear the views of Chinese are what matter most. While it seems cynical to say China stands to gain from the Olympic brouhaha, it does in a way. It’s feeding nationalism at a time when China most needs to maintain social stability.
China’s external public relations have been abysmal. Its state-run media are using protests to whip up a flag-waving frenzy. YouTube clips seen in London, New York and Tokyo tell one story; Chinese video-sharing platforms convey another. Bifurcated media coverage guarantees that Chinese and foreigners will have differing views about events in the Himalayan territory and about China’s support of a Sudanese government accused of genocide.
While the rest of the world fulminates over the Olympics, officials in Beijing are looking at ways to keep Asia’s No. 2 economy humming. That’s what interests investors in Chinese stocks, as measured by the CSI 300 Index, which has dropped 33% this year.
China’s 10%-plus economic growth is its security blanket, and the country knows it. The US needs China as much as China needs US consumers to buy its goods. The stability of the US bond market depends on China not dumping its dollars. This makes a broad US boycott highly unlikely.
Keeping this relationship going means China needs to avoid overheating. With so much focus on the Olympics, the country should make sure it doesn’t take its eyes off the economy. There’s speculation about China delaying steps to narrow the gap between rich and poor, revalue the currency and protect the banking system from the subprime-loan crisis until after the Olympics. Given the surge in food and energy prices, China needs to act sooner rather than later.
Even so, China’s policies are less about the Olympics than where it wants to be 10 years from now. None of this means protesters should shut up. It’s just that those trying to throw China off schedule or off message should lower their sights.
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