JOURNALISTS moaned about China’s internet controls and thuggish police. Human-rights groups complained that it broke promises to allow protests. Spectators and residents alike grumbled about tight security and visa restrictions that kept people away from Beijing. But the Olympics earned more than enough praise to bolster China’s confidence in its ability to impress the world.
From the world’s biggest airport terminal, where the athletes and visitors arrived, to the colossal new “bird’s nest” stadium and the lavish opening and closing ceremonies involving thousands of costumed soldiers drilled to perfection, China wanted to inspire awe, and leave visitors and viewers alike impressed by the country’s grandeur, immensity and a national will to succeed.
Few would dispute that this goal was achieved. President George Bush and dozens of other world leaders showed up. Beijing’s perennial smog lifted for at least a few days. And breaking the hold that America and Russia (or the Soviet Union) had long enjoyed on the top gold-medal position allowed China’s pride to glow even brighter. As Chinese leaders see it, the Olympics could hardly have gone better.
But will a proud and confident China interact with the world any differently? Diplomats have long complained about a “victim mentality” among Chinese bureaucrats that dwells on China’s sufferings at the hands of foreign powers before the Communist takeover in 1949, and perceived attempts by the West to impede its rise today. The games should have helped to change this. The decision by Mr Bush, Britain’s Gordon Brown and even France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy to attend (Mr Sarkozy having hinted at a possible boycott over Tibet) demonstrated that no major power was prepared to risk annoying China.
Ardent nationalists in China may be temporarily quieted by the medals and the praise (even if ambiguously couched in the case of the statement by Jacques Rogge, the International Olympic Committee’s president, who described the Beijing games as “truly exceptional”). But China’s leadership is unlikely to abandon its rhetoric of victimhood, which it sees as a useful way of bolstering its legitimacy.
For foreign consumption no reference was made to Mao Zedong or the party at the Olympic ceremonies, despite their heavy emphasis on China’s achievements. But the party still promotes itself to a domestic audience as the organisation that helped China “stand up” after decades of subjugation.
In the buildup to the games China tweaked its foreign policy behaviour. It tried to seem more engaged in helping to resolve the conflict in Darfur. It suggested democracy might be a good thing for Myanmar. One reason for these gestures was probably a concern that international criticism of China’s attitude towards human rights in Myanmar and Sudan might overshadow the Olympics. More important is a growing belief by Chinese diplomats (regardless of the games) that as a big power China cannot entirely ignore such crises. But it continues to resist much more than token efforts. The Communists fear that prodding a country like Myanmar provides a precedent for prodding China, and the party is not confident enough to risk that.
In the coming months, China will likely turn inward. It has much soul-searching to do over recent domestic crises such as upheaval in Tibet, militancy in Xinjiang and a deadly earthquake in Sichuan. It worries about balancing a growing economy with the need to control inflation. China is unlikely to behave like a self-assured power globally unless it feels stable internally. The ban on protests and lavish security precautions during the Olympics showed how vulnerable the party still feels itself to be.
7 months ago