World Seeks a Label to Define the Beijing Games
As Key Story Lines
August 8, 2008; Page A10
BEIJING — Since at least 1936, almost every Olympic Games has become known for a dominant story line: Hitler and Jesse Owens in Berlin, the black-power salute in Mexico City, the massacre of athletes in Munich, or the bribery scandal in Salt Lake City.
|WSJ’s Ian Johnson talks about the legacies of past Summer Olympic Games and discusses how the 2008 Beijing Games might be remembered.|
Now it’s Beijing’s turn, with a difference. Most other Olympics acquired their label during or after the Games, usually after emotions had coalesced or a big news event pushed other stories off the front page. But the combination of fascination with China and increasingly intense churn of media attention has changed that. The effort to define this summer’s Games has been going on now for months, a cacophony of narratives that have vied for dominance even before the Games begin.
The Olympics are to formally kick off Friday with elaborate Opening Ceremonies directed by Zhang Yimou, China’s most famous filmmaker. A chorus of Chinese children are to sing the Olympic anthem in Greek, and an elaborate fireworks show will light the sky. Scores of corporate chiefs and heads of state — including U.S. President George W. Bush — are expected for what seems like a combination of sporting event and diplomatic summit.
For many, these Olympics are a Rorschach test for how one feels about a big, complicated and hard-to-pigeonhole developing country holding a major international event. Human-rights groups have tried to dub the Games the "Genocide Games" for Beijing’s support of Sudan and that African government’s alleged crimes in Darfur. Others have called them the "Smog Games" for the city’s dreadful air pollution. Still others predict this will be the Games when China gets crowned the next sporting superpower. Meanwhile, architecture critics have descended upon Beijing to visit the city’s new trophy buildings, seeing in them signs of everything from crypto-fascism to architecture’s power to democratize.
All of which has led to perhaps the most unexpected story line of all: the China-Fatigue Games.
"There’s almost the feeling of the ‘Anticlimactic Games,’" says Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine, and author of a book on China’s role in the global village. "It’s almost as if the Olympics have happened already."
China’s own hopes are relatively simple. "I hope [visitors] will see a peaceful China, a civilized China and a China that is progressing," Wu Jianmin, a senior Chinese diplomat, told journalists Thursday.
The effort to define China’s first-ever Olympics goes back at least to 2001, when China won the right to host the Games. China’s president at the time, Jiang Zemin, declared it one of the most important victories for China in recent history. Hosting became a national task; it was no longer just Beijing’s Games but China’s Games, with the entire country mobilized behind it.
That made it a tempting target for China critics. Plans to disrupt the Games began early. Two years ago, for example, students at Harvard University hosted a conference on how to use the 2008 Olympics to publicize the issue of Tibetan independence. They decided to appeal to world leaders to boycott the Games and plotted about how to organize demonstrations inside China during these next two weeks.
Others targeted the torch relay. In what proved to be a tactical mistake, China decided to hold the relay in Western countries, where protests then took place. China was stunned when protesters in France almost stopped the relay by grabbing the torch.
Celebrities got involved early on, too. When director Steven Spielberg said he would help stage the Opening Ceremony, actress Mia Farrow publicly criticized him for helping a government that she said was aiding Sudan commit genocide in Darfur. Mr. Spielberg pulled out.
One reason why politics may be so high on the agenda is that this is only the second time since the end of World War II that the Games haven’t been held in a country that is pro-Western or at least neutral. The only other time, 1980 in Moscow, the U.S. led a boycott (which China joined).
"Part of what’s happening is the clash between East and West," says Susan Brownell, who has written extensively on Chinese sports. "We have a rising power that is not under U.S. control."
Politics hasn’t been the cause of the "Smog Games" label. A year before the Games, Western media were raising questions about Beijing’s air quality. China countered by vowing to improve it. Some independent evidence shows that air quality is getting better. Thursday, a haze still blanketed Beijing, but experts said pollution levels were down 20% over the same period last year.
The environment highlights how China is caught in a Catch-22. The roaring economy and overall popular support for the government is due to relaxed economic and political control. But to improve the environment — and in general to hold the Games successfully — China has resorted to top-down measures, such as banning cars or temporarily closing factories.
"The great irony of this is that much of the success of China [in recent decades] is a retrenchment of the government and to a certain extent political relaxation," says Jacques deLisle, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has written on the battle to control the Beijing Games’ image. "But to get this image across they have to go back to pre-reform methods."
In the battle to control the message, proponents and opponents have drawn on history. Critics have dubbed this a redux of 1936, when the Nazis used the Games to emphasize their near-total control over society. Defenders have said it is more like the 1988 Seoul Games, which came to symbolize South Korea’s dramatic democratization. Others see this closer to Tokyo in 1964: an Asian country eager to put the past behind it and dazzle with technological wonders like the Bullet Train.
Although China isn’t as technologically advanced as Japan, it has deployed state largess to impress visitors, especially architecture fans. Critics have visited and been duly impressed by the city’s new trophy buildings, such as the "Bird’s Nest" stadium, the giant new home for state broadcaster China Central Television and the egg-shape National Center for the Performing Arts. Even though the latter two aren’t related to the Olympics, they have been taken as symbols of a new, dynamic China, never mind that they are products of a colossal state effort.
Much of this discussion, however, may be irrelevant for the most important target audience: the Chinese people themselves. The foreign criticism has already helped the government by causing Chinese to pull together defensively, says Scott Kronick, who heads the China operations of public-relations giant Ogilvy, which has done pro bono consulting work for the Chinese government.
"They want to use this to promote reforms and national unification — the harmonious society," Mr. Kronick said. "I think it’s achieved this already. Even the foreign criticism has helped this."
For many Chinese, the flood of state leaders and foreign dignitaries will show that the government has succeeded. The Olympics, says Prof. deLisle, will come across to most people here like this: "Chinese athletes will win, the world will come to China, and there will be this incredible show."