[Viewpoint]China’s choiceIf the experience of the Seoul Olympics 20 years ago is any guide, the current unrest in Tibet may be just the start of difficulties for the Chinese government in its efforts to successfully host the Beijing Olympics. The summer Olympics are the world’s largest planned media event, enhanced by the rapid convergence of television with the Internet as exemplified by YouTube and the blogosphere. The result is an international media system that conveys a flood of visual messages with the power to focus global attention as never before.
As occurred in South Korea, pro-democratic forces in China and around the world are seeking to utilize the unprecedented media scrutiny accompanying the Olympics to pressure China’s government.
Tibet is not the only pressure point. On another issue, Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg resigned as an artistic adviser to the Beijing Olympics Organizing Committee to protest China’s complicity in the humanitarian crisis in Darfur.
However, the major unresolved political issue in China as the Olympics approach is the lack of public accounting for the 1989 uprising in Tiananmen Square. An official statement carried on the Web site of the United States Embassy in Beijing urges a public accounting of those killed, detained or missing in connection with Tiananmen, noting, “It is now 18 years since the brutal and tragic events of Tiananmen Square. The international community and ordinary Chinese citizens still do not know how many people were killed or injured when Chinese troops and tanks entered Beijing.”
South Korea used the Seoul Olympics to herald the nation’s economic and technological development and introduce it to the world, especially to the communist countries in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, which had been cut off during the Cold War era.
In similar fashion, China hopes that the Beijing Olympics will give a boost to its continued progress and economic growth. Ultimately the positive image that China hopes to project through the Beijing Olympics will be conveyed electronically and preserved digitally in the televised images and messages it produces.
The political parallel between Beijing and Seoul is unavoidable, at least to anyone with more than a passing knowledge of East Asia. South Korea had its Gwangju uprising in the spring of 1980 while China had a similar pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Both uprisings involved civilian loss of life and were put down by military force. Although Gwangju was far bloodier, relative to population, it received much less international media attention than the confrontation in Tiananmen Square, with its iconic television image of a young man standing down a tank.
Faced with widespread demonstrations in the spring of 1987, South Korea’s military government accepted opposition demands for elections and other reforms. This decision came at a time of intense international media scrutiny and with the successful hosting of the Seoul Olympics hanging in the balance.
The general question is whether the current global media attention on China can contribute to political liberalization in that nation, as it did in Korea.
Obviously, there is no 1:1 comparison to be made, but the question becomes all the more interesting because of the new role of the Internet in global affairs, both political and economic. Increased worldwide attention to China as the Olympic Games approach is shown by both Internet search activity and coverage of the Beijing Olympics by the 4,000-plus media organizations represented in Google News.
To this point, the government of China has resisted any public accounting of Tiananmen, in much the same manner as Seoul’s military government had done until 1987. Can China continue to resist as the focus of worldwide media attention inexorably intensifies over the next several months?
The Chinese government now finds itself on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, attempts to prevent international media such as CNN from reporting from Tibet will detract from economic progress and the positive image China seeks to convey. On the other, a free flow of information will most likely encourage democratic forces within China, posing a threat to the current government.
China wants to build a knowledge-based or information economy, with the kind of fiber-optic and mobile broadband networks that South Korea and Japan already possess.
However, the Chinese government itself still adheres to a policy that suggests the Internet can be guided or controlled to prevent the free flow of political information via the Web. Possibly the only nation with a more restrictive attitude toward modern networks is North Korea, whose government pursued policies that are economically, technologically and politically bankrupt.
Despite the sheer size of China’s economy, it ultimately faces the same dilemma as does North Korea today, and as the military government in Seoul faced in 1987. Allow the construction of modern networks ― which play a key role in modern economies and the free flow of information through those networks ― or seek government-controlled communication and suffer the consequences economically and politically.
20 years ago, the Seoul Olympics helped advance democratization, economic development and the information society in South Korea, opening up this country to the world in ways that could hardly have been foreseen. To what extent will China have a similar experience this year?
The answer depends on China’s response to its dilemma. Certainly the politics of the Beijing Olympics will be powerfully mediated by television and the Internet.
Another certainty in this era of instant global communication is that all important diplomacy takes place publicly and will be recorded electronically for posterity.
*The writer is deputy director of the Fulbright Commission in Seoul.
by James F. Larson