Join our Mailing List

"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

Olympic Pressure on China

June 19, 2008

Preeti Bhattacharji and Carin Zissis
Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) USA
June 17, 2008

Introduction

As the Beijing Olympics draw near, the world is bracing for what
promises to be a historic event. China has promoted the games as an
international coming-out party under the slogan, "One World, One
Dream." Even the opening date is auspicious: August 8, 2008—8-8-08—is
a very lucky day in Chinese numerology. Since Beijing won its bid to
host the games, however, critics have attacked China's record on
issues ranging from human rights to food safety to the environment.
Just before the Olympic torch relay, China cracked down on Tibetans
protesting the subjugation of their culture. The repression and
violence that ensued brought international condemnation and calls for
Olympic boycotts. China's environmental degradation, restrictions on
free speech, and continued investments in Sudan, Myanmar, and
Zimbabwe have drawn criticism as well. In its campaign to win the
right to host the Olympics, China pledged to the International
Olympic Committee (IOC) that the games would remain "open in every
aspect." Many believe China is failing to abide by that pledge, but
the vehemence of anti-China sentiment abroad has spurred a
nationalist backlash within China, and the Chinese government
strongly condemns what it considers the politicization of the Olympic Games.

Setting the Stage

After winning its bid to host the games, the Chinese government
released an "action plan" with a series of commitments related to
development, the environment, and governance. Beijing pledged in its
Olympics strategy "to be open in every aspect to the rest of the
country and the whole world." But Minxin Pei, senior associate in the
China program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace,
calls Beijing's commitments "vague." He says "the interpretation of
such pledges is contentious," with a divergence of opinion about what
they mean inside and outside China. While activists and critics of
China's Communist Party may look for concrete progress on development
and human rights, the "kind of measures the government has taken
regarding the Olympics are more related to the appearance of Beijing
as a nice, livable city," says Pei.

"The kind of measures the government has taken regarding the Olympics
are more related to the appearance of Beijing as a nice, livable
city." — Minxin Pei, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

In this Foreign Affairs article, CFR's China experts Elizabeth
Economy and Adam Segal write the process of preparing for the games
is "tailor-made to display China's greatest political and economic
strengths," but the leadership failed to anticipate the extent to
which the games "would stoke the persistent political challenges to
the legitimacy of the Communist Party and the stability of the
country." To improve Beijing's image, China launched a new
initiative: "Welcome the Olympics. Improve Manners and Foster New
Attitudes." As a report (PDF) by Human Rights in China shows, the
campaign is designed to discourage things like public spitting,
belching, and soup slurping. Urban improvements have led to more
extreme measures as well: In its special section on the upcoming
Olympics, Human Rights Watch says the construction of Olympic
facilities in Beijing has forced the eviction of thousands of
citizens in and around the capital, often without adequate
compensation or access to new housing.

Turning Beijing Green

The Olympics have spotlighted China's environmental record. China
recently surpassed the United States to become the world's largest
greenhouse-gas emitter. If China's development strategy continues on
its current course, the country's emissions will surpass those of all
industrialized countries combined over the next quarter century,
writes CFR Senior Fellow Elizabeth C. Economy. In part because of
scrutiny of its environmental record, China pitched the idea of the
"Green Olympics,"including new standards for water and air pollution
in Beijing, as part of the bid to host the games.

The city has made some strides to meet its promises, with air quality
improving each year for the past six years. Beijing has closed
factories and relocated chemical and steel plants to mitigate air
pollution. It plans to spend nearly $1.6 billion to improve the
city's water supply before the games. Other measures are planned,
including limits on motor vehicles. In a four-day test in 2007, the
city took 1.3 million cars off the road (Reuters) to see if it would
reduce air pollution in preparation for the games. Technicians with
Beijing's Weather Modification Office will also use a method known as
"cloud-seeding" (AP) to force rain and clean the city's air. In the
meantime, athletes around the world have taken unique steps (IHT) to
prepare for the polluted conditions they will face in Beijing, and
some teams, including the Americans, plan to arrive only at the last
minute and to bring their own supplies of food and water.

The 'Genocide Olympics'

Beijing has been criticized for doing business with the Sudanese
government despite ongoing violence in Sudan's western region of
Darfur. More than 200,000 people have died, and another 2.5 million
have been displaced. In 2006, a report (PDF) from a UN Panel of
Experts implied that China was Sudan's main arms dealer, though
China's special envoy on Darfur says that China is only supplying 8
percent of Sudan's total arms imports. Regardless, China is Sudan's
largest trading partner, purchasing up to two-thirds of the country's
oil exports.

Some national Olympic teams, including the Americans, plan to arrive
only at the last minute and to bring their own supplies of food and water.

Because of China's investment in Sudan, Mia Farrow, an actress and
former UNICEF goodwill ambassador, has led a campaign to dub the
games the "Genocide Olympics." She says she hopes to shame Olympic
sponsors into getting China to divest in Sudan. U.S. director Steven
Spielberg has also expressed concern with China's investment in
Darfur. In February 2008, he publicly withdrew as an artistic adviser
for the games, claiming that China "should be doing more" (BBC) to
end the "continued human suffering" in the war-torn region.

Experts disagree on the efficacy of such outside criticism. Pei
suggests Beijing may moderate its Sudan policy to a slight degree,
but adds that "if the level of shrillness is too high, then nothing
will be accomplished." He believes increased criticism from abroad
will only serve to unite the Chinese government and its people. In an
interview with CFR.org, former Olympic CEO Mitt Romney notes that
Olympic sponsors are financially "locked in" for the Beijing games,
regardless of any attempts to shame them. He adds that "taking action
which in any way disrespects China—or is seen as being disrespectful
or 'taking away face,' if you will, from China—would have the exact
opposite effect than had been intended."

But other experts say Beijing is watching U.S. public opinion on how
it handles Khartoum. In a January/February 2008 article for Foreign
Affairs, Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt and Andrew Small write that
Beijing has already changed its Sudan policy because of the public
outcry on Darfur. In 2006, China abandoned its policy of
noninterference and began pressuring Sudan into accepting the
deployment of more than twenty thousand UN and African Union troops
in Darfur. China has also sent close to three hundred of its own
military engineers to Sudan. "China's shifting diplomacy reflects not
a fundamental change in its values but a new perception of its
national interests," they say.

Tibetan Protests

With less than six months to go until the Beijing games, the
international spotlight turned on Tibet. On March 10, Tibetan monks
launched a series of peaceful demonstrations to advocate for greater
autonomy from Beijing. Details remain sketchy, but clashes erupted
between demonstrators and security forces in Lhasa, and these spread
to other cities in Tibet and surrounding provinces. The Chinese
government responded with an ongoing crackdown that included
shooting, beating, and arresting suspected dissidents. According to
China's state-run news sources, just over twenty people have died in
the fighting, but Tibet's government-in-exile says the death toll is
over two hundred.

Human rights groups and governments around the world condemned
China's actions, calling them a flagrant violation of human rights.
The United States, which submits a report to Congress each year on
the status of talks between China and the exiled Dalai Lama, urged
Beijing to refrain from violence and to respect Tibet's cultural
heritage. The U.S. Congress formed a new "Tibet Caucus" and began
debating a number of measures aimed at holding China accountable for
the conduct of its security forces in Tibet.

Some human rights groups have called on the United States and the
European Union to react more forcefully and boycott the Beijing
Olympics. Some prominent leaders, including German Chancellor Angela
Merkel and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, have said they will
not be attending the games' opening ceremony. In April, U.S.
President George W. Bush said his plans to attend the games "haven't
changed" (Newsweek.com).

While the crackdown in Tibet is ongoing, it was overshadowed in May
by an earthquake (WashPost)  in China's Sichuan Province. Experts say
that despite Olympics-related pressure, China is unlikely to reverse
its position on Tibet, given its increasing entrenchment in the
region and investment in an expensive train to carry tourists there
that opened in 2006. The Indian city of Dharamsala is planning to
host an Olympics for Tibetans in exile.

Carrying the Torch

The Olympic torch, which was lit in Olympia, Greece, crisscrossed the
world in an elaborate relay. Chinese officials wanted the tour to be
a "journey of harmony," but it instead became a lightning rod for
controversy both inside and outside the People's Republic.

When the relay route was announced, Taiwan and Tibet became immediate
sources of concern. Officials in Taipei objected because Taiwan's
stop was scheduled to occur before Hong Kong, which they said was
intended to make Taiwan appear part of the Chinese domestic leg
(Taipei Times). Beijing's Olympics Committee countered the claim by
arguing Taiwan had previously agreed to the stop. The IOC set
September 20, 2007, as the deadline for resolving the dispute, and
when negotiators failed to meet the deadline, the route was
redirected to bypass Taiwan.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Gordon
Brown have said they will not be attending the games' opening
ceremony. U.S. President George W. Bush says his plans to attend the
games haven't changed.

Similar concerns were raised by Tibetan activists, many of whom
objected to the torch's scheduled stop on Mount Everest. In the midst
of the Sichuan earthquake and Tibetan protests, Chinese officials
announced that the Tibetan leg of the relay would be shortened from
three days to one.

Outside China, the torch attracted criticism as well. In cities like
London, Paris, San Francisco, and New Delhi, it was met with throngs
of protesters, many of whom used the opportunity to denounce China's
human rights record. Despite being flanked by Chinese security
operatives, the torch was attacked and even extinguished during its
international tour.

Nationalist Backlash

Ever since China won its Olympic bid, critics around the world have
taken advantage of the opportunity to criticize the Chinese regime.
But the Chinese government has condemned attempts to politicize the
Olympic Games. "A few organizations are attaching some topics to the
Olympic Games to slur China's image and to put pressure on the
Chinese government," said a spokeswoman of the Chinese foreign
ministry, adding, "No country in the world is perfect in human rights issues."

Anti-China protests surged as the Olympic torch toured Europe,
stoking Chinese nationalism and prompting many Chinese to cancel
plans to travel to France. In a CFR symposium, Dru Gladney, president
of the Pacific Basin Institute, said that many Chinese were
suspicious of the protesters' intentions. "When we criticize China on
issues such as Tibet or its treatment of its Muslims, Chinese think
that we're trying to drag that country down, we're trying to keep
them back," he said. China's state-run news sources have fueled these
nationalist feelings by accusing Western media outlets of an anti-China bias.

The IOC has sided with China, arguing that the Olympic Games should
be isolated from politics. During an April 2007 press conference,
Hein Verbruggen, a senior official with the International Olympics
Committee, responded to questions about holding China accountable on
human rights issues by saying, "We are not in a position that we can
give instructions to governments as to how they ought to behave." But
despite efforts by China and the IOC keep the Olympics apolitical,
the Beijing games have joined a long list of Olympic Games that have
gotten tangled up in political affairs.

Regulating International Media Coverage

China's Communist Party tightly controls media access and coverage.
But in January 2007, Beijing began to loosen regulations for foreign
journalists, allowing them to report throughout the country without
the permission previously required. The eased restrictions—which also
apply to journalists from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macao—are supposed
to last through the Summer Games, when twenty-thousand foreign
reporters are expected to descend on Beijing. It remains unclear if
the reforms will stay in place after the games' conclusion, but they
are currently scheduled to lapse in October 2008.

Anti-China protests surged as the Olympic torch toured Europe,
stoking Chinese nationalism and prompting many Chinese to cancel
plans to travel to France.

An Economist reporter tested the new regulations while reporting
about HIV/AIDS in a village in Henan. Local officials initially tried
to bar coverage but, after a call to Beijing, they cooperated with
the journalist's request. Ashley W. Esarey, an expert on Chinese
media at Middlebury College, says in a podcast that the relaxed laws
for foreign journalists serve as a Communist Party "experiment" to
test out less restrictive media regulations. He warns the laws "will
be rescinded if they're seen as jeopardizing the Communist Party's
hold on power," particularly if the openness inspires Chinese
journalists to seek greater freedoms themselves.

Some journalists have already had their new rights flouted. According
to the Foreign Correspondents Club of China, foreign journalists have
reported more than 230 cases of harassment, obstruction, and
detention since the new laws were enacted. A recent report from the
Committee to Protect Journalists catalogues the ways in which
journalists throughout China are censored, and argues that China has
fallen short of its Olympic promises.

Tibet's unrest poses a particular challenge. Restrictions on media
coverage in Tibet, always something of a special case due to China's
sensitivity about the once-independent region, grew tighter still
with the March 2008 outbreak of violence between protesters and
security forces. Even before the violence, applications for travel to
the region by international journalists routinely were refused.
Beginning in March, reporters were banned from the region completely,
telephone and internet service were interrupted, and some broadcasts
and Internet sites of major Western outlets, including CNN, the
Guardian, the BBC, the Los Angeles Times, and others, were reportedly
jammed by Chinese authorities for a time.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
Developed by plank