[Overseas view]China’s Olympic headachesAt different times and in different settings, Chinese officials have billed this summer’s Beijing Games as the “Green Olympics,” the “High-Tech Olympics” and the “People’s Olympics.”
Given the sheer number of people and groups who mean to use the event as a platform for criticism of the Chinese government, it may well be remembered as the “Turmoil Olympics.” International journalists, many of whom are intent on providing a comprehensive portrait of today’s China, are virtually certain to test the limits of Beijing’s openness and patience.
As conflicts emerge between the host and its guests, the potential fallout could further damage China’s already vulnerable political and trade relations with the United States and a host of European countries.
When Beijing won the right to host the Games seven years ago, the Chinese leadership hoped the event would showcase China’s emergence as a modern and dynamic economic powerhouse. It will surely do that. But it will also cast a harsh international spotlight on the ugly environmental price China has paid for its new prosperity and its government’s unwillingness to tolerate dissent.
Many around the world know of China’s go-go growth, but few have seen for themselves how its toxic effects now flow through the country’s waterways and contaminate its air. About 70 percent of China’s lakes and rivers are severely polluted. Nearly half a billion Chinese lack access to clean drinking water.
The International Olympic Committee has warned that poor air quality might force postponement of some outdoor events. Television coverage of athletes choking on smog is hardly the signature image Beijing has in mind for the Games, and growing international anxiety over climate change and other environmental hazards ensure that pollution-related news will cloud front pages all over the world.
In addition, there are plenty of political activists, foreign and Chinese, who will use the games to highlight China’s support for repressive regimes in Sudan, Burma and North Korea — and human rights abuses within China itself. Many in the U.S. are eager to air charges of unfair Chinese trade practices, dangerous and defective Chinese-made products entering U.S. markets, and suspicions that the Chinese government is concealing the true scale of its military spending.
But with Beijing’s violent crackdown on protesters in Tibet, a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment may finally have crested. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and 15 other members of the U.S. House of Representatives have called on President Bush to boycott the Games’ opening ceremony. Representative Thaddeus McCotter has introduced what he calls the “Communist Chinese Olympic Accountability Act,” a measure that would bar all U.S. government officials and employees from attending the opening ceremonies in response to complaints as diverse as China brutalizing protesters in Tibet, forcing a one-child policy upon Chinese families and engaging in wanton environmental degradation.
Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel won’t be at the opening ceremony. Nor will Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk or Czech President Vaclav Klaus. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has hinted he may not attend, either.
The risk was already high that the Games would become a political circus. Activists eager to embarrass the Chinese leadership have been preparing for this moment for years, and the Olympics create irresistible opportunities for public protest. China’s security forces have plenty of experience with protesters; the country already sees tens of thousands of demonstrations each year, and Beijing will pull out every conceivable stop to maintain order during the Games. But the unique scale of the Olympics poses an unprecedented challenge — and virtually guarantees that efforts to quell protest will have to continue everywhere at once and around the clock.
Is China ready for Greenpeace, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Falun Gong supporters to hit the streets on a single afternoon with foreign journalists recording the police response? No one will know for sure until it happens. International journalists will ask hundreds of questions that Chinese officials are not used to answering. China faces a considerable international backlash if it reneges on promises to allow journalists to report freely ahead of the Games (outside of Tibet) or if it sticks to a recent decision to ban live media coverage from Tiananmen Square.
There are two reasons why conflict during the Games would be particularly damaging. First, when it comes to unrest in Tibet or on the streets of Chinese cities, Beijing will not give an inch to appease international critics. On trouble in Darfur, the Chinese message is: “We will work with the international community to ensure peace and stability.” On trouble in Tibet or Tiananmen, the message is: “Mind your own business.”
Second, a fragile U.S. economy, protectionist pressures in Washington and election-year U.S. politics will leave many Americans in no mood for the triumphalist Olympic pageantry on display in Beijing. China has become a convenient political scapegoat (fairly and unfairly) for many of the ills now weighing on the U.S. economy: And any display of police-state repression during the Games will draw a sharp public reaction within the United States, to which presidential and congressional candidates will feel compelled to respond. U.S.-Chinese trade relations are already on shaky ground. Tit-for-tat recriminations over the Olympics can only make matters worse.
During the Olympics, neither China nor its critics will back down on issues that draw them into conflict. President Bush, who appears intent on attending the opening ceremony, finds himself in the uncomfortable position of insulting his hosts by satisfying demand from within his party for public criticism of China’s record on human rights. It’s reasonable to wonder how many Chinese officials, regardless of what they say in public, are already longing for the day when the party is over and their guests have gone home.
*The writer is president of Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy. He can be reached via e-mail at research@eurasiagroup. net.
by Ian Bremmer