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The Chinese view: If you can hold an Olympics, you rule

July 6, 2008

By April Rabkin
The New York Times
July 2, 2008

BEIJING - Last week, amid continuing calls from Europe and the United
States to boycott the Olympics to protest China's record on human
rights, came a rare rebuke from the International Olympic Committee.
The committee expressed disappointment with a speech in which Tibet's
Communist Party leader used the occasion of an Olympic torch ceremony
to denounce the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.

What the committee and the rest of the world don't realize is how
little China cares what they think. Here in Beijing, the Olympic
Games are primarily for domestic consumption, justifying the
government's new global power to its own people.

My neighbor's 12-year-old son has seen half a dozen movies starring
the five balloon-headed Olympic mascots: Beibei, Jingjing, Huanhuan,
Yingying and Nini. He has been reminded of the Olympics every day at
school and on the street by billboards depicting the masses as a gray
ocean converging like a wave to lift up a red-uniformed basketball
player making a layup. He listens to Olympic tunes -- one of which
sounds like a drill sergeant singing along to carousel music.

For millennia, Chinese dynasties have claimed the "mandate of heaven"
to justify their existence. On this score, there hasn't really been
any great leap forward. Inept dynasties augur instability and are
overthrown. China still has no democracy and no real sense of
political stability. Rulers fear revolution, and just as strongly, so
do the people. And nationalism is the dominant strategy for
preventing it. With a well-run Olympics, the Chinese Communist Party
can prove its legitimacy and its continued mandate.

By September, it is conceivable that China's global standing could
plummet while China's citizens see the Olympics as an astounding
success. Despite the Internet and the lifting of some restrictions on
journalism, there's still an oceanwide gap between the international
and domestic news media. During the torch relay in Paris this spring,
for instance, Chinese TV viewers saw mainly the heroic efforts of the
wheelchair-bound amputee who used her upper body to shield the flame
from a lunging protester and not the mass of pro-Tibet demonstrators.

In junior high and high school here, two semesters of history
instruction focus on the humiliation of China by Britain, France,
Germany, Japan, Russia and the United States during the last
centuries. International criticism is described as a continuation of
this legacy, and for other countries to condemn the regime is to
disparage the Chinese people. Foreign criticism strengthens domestic
loyalty to the regime, so the threat of a boycott of the Olympics in
August only bolsters nationalism.

In March, an exhibition baseball game in Beijing between the Los
Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres provided a sneak preview of
what to expect at the Olympics. A 16-foot sign at the stadium listed
100 banned items, including, oddly, brooms. The singing of the United
States national anthem was forbidden. The police seized and
interrogated a Korean fan of the Dodgers pitcher Chan Ho Park for
holding a sign reading "Park is No. 1." While foreign spectators were
taken aback by the security measures, the Chinese were impressed that
the teams were there at all.

For the Olympic athletes, victories remain to be won. But for Chinese
leaders, the competition is pretty much over. They triumphed in 2001
when the International Olympic Committee selected Beijing as the site
for this year's games and hundreds of thousands of Beijingers
streamed into Tiananmen Square to celebrate. It was one of the
biggest gatherings there since the 1989 massacre.

This August a few world leaders may boycott the opening ceremony. But
the Games will go forward and be televised to what China will most
likely declare is the largest worldwide audience ever. The Chinese
government will have pulled off a modern Olympics -- as close to a
mandate from heaven as could be imagined by any dynasty of any era.
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