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Can the Olympics Democratize China?

August 6, 2008

by Moji
Editor: John Feffer
Foreign Policy In Focus
August 4, 2008

The surprising survival and endurance of the Chinese Communist Party
(CCP) since the pro-democracy 1989 Movement has led most scholars to
be skeptical about the prospects of democratization in China. No
prediction seems safer than that the CCP will continue to control
China for years, if not decades. No prediction invites more ridicule
than to argue that the CCP's days in power are numbered.

Yet the prospects for democratization in China have never been more
propitious. Indeed, the coming Olympic Games may well turn into a
mega-drama with far-reaching implications. In fact, anti-CCP
activists are already using the Olympics to push the country toward
democratization, amplifying their pressures like the students in the
1968 Olympics in Mexico City (which ended bitterly with the massacre
of 300 students ten days before the games). The Olympics could also
open the way to democratization as the 1988 Olympics did in South
Korea. The CCP leadership is fully aware of these dangers and is
preparing for them by cracking down on its opponents. Yet the
leadership is not likely to be able to control the sequence of events
that will lead to its downfall.

The Magic Number 2025

Prior to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, analysts
and scholars were under the impression that the Soviet Union would
evolve, not collapse, even though information about the economic and
structural crisis of the USSR was available to policy makers from
various intelligence sources. As Bruce Berkowitz explains, informed
policy makers did "not 'get' blindsided; they blindsided
themselves."1 Indeed, "despite seeing the fault lines, none of these
people could construct a plausible scenario in which the cold war
wound down before 2025."2

Similar to the Soviet Union in 1989, China is presently facing
daunting social, demographic, political, structural, ethnic, and
economic difficulties, to mention only a few highly problematic
dimensions of the most populated state in the world. And similarly,
many scholars and analysts do not predict substantial democratization
processes in China anytime in the near future. As in the Soviet case,
notable scholars like Harry S. Rowen argue that China will not
collapse but will gradually evolve and become a democracy by ...
2025.3 Similarly, Roland Inglehart and Christian Welzel also
predicted in 2005 that "China will make a transition to a liberal
democracy within the next two decades", namely by 2025.4 Those who
object to economic-evolution theories, like Minxin Pei, point to the
determination of the CCP leaders to protect their rule and privileges
by all necessary means, and highlight the CCP's ability to introduce
new strategies that may improve the odds that their "rule will
continue to thrive in the next two decades."5

Yet, the conditions that exist in China today and those that existed
in China in 1989 when the pro-democracy Tiananmen Square movement
emerged are strikingly similar. In 1989, rampant corruption and
inflation were the most important political issues. These are exactly
the two main pressing problems of China today. Corruption is so
rampant that President Hu Jintao recently acknowledged the problem
and vowed to eradicate it. On top of that, inflation is soaring to
dangerous levels, exacerbated by unemployment among urban dwellers.
The lower echelons of this "second China" cannot keep up, and a
Chinese government think-tank has warned "that rising food and
property prices are causing discontent among a majority of the
country's urban poor."

Furthermore, rural protests in China have become a common phenomenon
in recent years. In 2005, for example, official statistics recorded
about 87,000 protests, some of them very violent including improvised
weapons and some involving up to tens of thousands of people.6
Moreover, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences reported that 20% of
Chinese university graduates in 2007 remain unemployed. Many
thousands of unemployed graduates are Chinese students who studied
abroad in democratic countries.7 These young, highly educated, yet
unemployed people in the heart of Beijing can become the
foot-soldiers of a new student movement.

Democracy as Unexpected

The democratic experience of recent decades has taught us three main
lessons. First, democratic social movements often emerge at the least
expected time and succeed in democratization under the most
unfavorable conditions. Second, successful democratization and the
lack thereof are intricately connected to political opportunities
that can be exploited within and beyond the system. Third, conditions
and opportunities do not naturally cause democratization; people must
take advantage of these opportunities and also create strategies and
tactics that outsmart the regime. Democratization does not depend on
abstract factors or enlightened decision of elites. It depends only
on effective demands and pressures that force power holders to step
down or agree to political reform. When effective pressures are
brought to bear on authoritarian regimes, the dictatorial monolith is
broken or deepened, and the ruling elite are forced to negotiate or
step down. As Frederick Douglass said long ago, "Power concedes
nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will." As such,
the demands for democracy in China can resonate loudly and
effectively during the Olympics in Beijing this August through
tactics of dramatizing the games.

The quick emergence and spread of democratic social movements often
takes specialists by complete surprise. Just in recent months did two
such unexpected movements emerge. The first started in September 2007
after Burmese monks took to the streets of Rangoon and rallied a
democratic movement. The brutal suppression of this movement led to a
"boomerang effect" of international condemnations and pressures that
facilitated government talks about a new constitution with opposition
leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Five months before the Olympics, Tibetan
monks ignited a protest movement against the Chinese government that
spread like wildfire to other parts of the country bringing
international condemnation on China. In reaction, Chinese
intellectuals sent a petition of protest to the Chinese government
and to other member of the CCP. Interestingly, one of the precursors
to the 1989 Tiananmen Movement, also five months before it began, was
the Petition Movement initiated by the Chinese intellectual Fang Lizhi.

Unexpected shifts in popular attitudes -- from fear to anger -- often
follow dramatic and symbolic events that substantially change the
degree and extent of perceived injustice and the degree of resistance
motivation in the population.8 During these special moments, people
suddenly discover that others share their attitudes and feelings, and
they may suddenly realize that the all-powerful regime of yesterday
is actually weak and fragile.

Most scholars argue that such transformations of public opinion are
quite impossible in China today because the Chinese are now far more
nationalistic and materialistic driven than ever before, and that
intellectuals and students care more about clean and efficient
government than about democratization. This line of argument,
however, fails to recognize the dynamics that gave rise to the 1989
Movement. Most student activists, let alone government employees, had
no clue that they are about to ignite, and participate in, a mass
movement. The transformative event that changed things dramatically
in 1989 was when a small group of students declared a hunger strike.
Up until the hunger strike, most people and even students were
apathetic to the movement. Yet, the hunger strike challenged the
moral basis of government legitimacy and deeply moved people
emotionally.9 In a matter of days, without Internet or mobile phones,
well over a million people took to the streets of Beijing (and
elsewhere in China) sympathizing with the students, including
government employers, police and army personnel, and the official
media. Could this type of dramatic event happen again during the Olympic Games?

Olympics as a Spark

Most discussion about China's Olympics revolves around whether the
Olympics should be boycotted in part or as a whole because of China's
human rights abuse, its backing of the genocide in Darfur, and more
recently, the harsh suppression of the Tibetan uprising. Less
attention has been paid to how the Olympics could create a rare
window of opportunity for protest. The Olympics could potentially
spark a people's power movement that would lead to democratization
through several possible paths.

Symbolically, the first spark has already been lit; it is the Olympic
torch itself. In the course of five months, the Olympic torch has
traveled 85,000 miles through 20 countries. Demonstrations were
dramatic in several major cities such as Paris, London, and San
Francisco. Scandalous events began even before the Olympic torch was
lit. Pro-Tibetan activists stormed into the live broadcast of the
lighting ceremony, disrupting the event and embarrassing Liu Qi,
president of the Beijing Organizing Committee. Other protests coupled
with the Tibetan uprising hurt China internationally and made it
fully aware of the immense danger of holding the Olympics.

The Olympics create a rare window of several weeks during which
approximately two million tourists will visit Beijing. Over 20,000
journalists representing many foreign media channels are expected as
well. They could capture instances of protest and suppression and
transmit them live to hundreds of millions of people in China and
around the world. Unlike the brutal massacre of Mexican student
activists who were trying to draw attention to their struggle ten
days before the 1968 Olympics, the Chinese government's ability to
suppress protests in Beijing will be extremely limited and could
backfire in the current international and domestic context.

Political protests in live broadcasts from the Olympic opening
ceremonies, during the games themselves, and on the various
medal-honoring ceremonies (to mention a few possibilities) could set
off a chain of events leading to a political crisis. Protestors can
enjoy a human shield of tourists between themselves and the police
forces, as well as instantaneous contact with Chinese and world
audiences through people's mobile phones, the Internet, and the major
media networks. Any small group of protestors could potentially spark
a mega-drama that would keep Chinese and international viewers
captivated by the news. Under these circumstances the CCP apparatus
may come under various domestic, international, and internal (elite)
pressures that could lead to an important political opening in the system.

Many groups in China are interested in taking advantage of the
Olympics to amplify their voices. The Tibetans, though primarily
pursuing their own autonomy from China, seem the most likely
candidates for igniting protests, but there are many other
underground groups.10 Falun Gong members, for example, may stage a
peaceful meditation in Tiananmen Square. The Tiananmen Mothers Group
(the mothers of those killed in the 1989 events) has already
petitioned the Chinese government to come clean about the death toll
in 1989. Led by Nobel Peace Prize nominee Ding Zilin, this group can
stage a drama in Tiananmen Square in memory of their dead children.
Discontented urban migrants and labor protests are potential threats
to the regime too. Student activists, intellectuals, workers, and
other underground groups may also plan to take advantage of the
unique situations of the Olympics.

Protests may also arise in connection to unforeseen organizational
scandals during the games. For example, the Chinese government has
set a goal to decrease the horrendous air pollution in Beijing in
order to have clear skies throughout the games. A failure to reach
this national goal could end bitterly if in August athletes face a
combination of a smog, humidity, and heat in Beijing. Olympic
athletes may find that the environmental problems of Beijing affect
their ability to perform well and this may shame the Chinese. A
quarter of the British athletes training in China, for example,
suffer from exercise-induced asthma and risk health problems in
Beijing. Air pollution may be particularly dangerous to marathon
runners. Haile Gebrselassie, the marathon world record-holder,
already pulled out of the marathon event for precisely this reason.
The International Olympic Committee has said that it will postpone or
cancel endurance events if conditions pose a danger to athletes'
health. Indeed, if athlete's health is seriously jeopardized during
the games, this could lead to a public outcry. Construction scandals
or transportation scandals could have similar political implications.

The Olympics are perhaps the highest expression of the nationalistic
sentiments that the CCP-led governments have cultivated as an
alternative ideology to communism. In recent years, however, "What
the Chinese government fears most of all is a national movement that
fuses various discontented groups ­ such as unemployed, farmers, and
students ­ under the banner of nationalism."11 The Olympics may serve
as such a uniting event. The games may enlist people's national
sentiments to demand a main missing component in their national
identity ­ the political rights that their government is depriving
them. Alternatively, the Olympics may end up as an embarrassing
spectacle either due to political disturbances or as a result of
hazardous environmental conditions. The patriotic spirit and national
pride of many Chinese may be insulted and lead them to take their
pent up angers out against the government for failing to deliver the
national goal that it had promised and for which it had years to
prepare. Alternatively, the failure to restore "social harmony" in
Tibet may also stir national sentiments that may backfire against the

The earthquake in the Sichuan Province has complicated the situation
even further for the CCP. Journalists ignored government instructions
and reported as they saw fit. Civil society experienced an
unprecedented moment of unity, organization, and mobilization. The
government had nothing to do other than try to ride this wave. Yet,
despite the government efforts to strengthen its position, many
Chinese realized that the CCP corruption can kill. They saw how elite
schools were left standing while nearby public schools fell on their
children due to illegal construction standards fostered by
corruption. Many Chinese already realized that uncorrupt rule is
impossible without accountable and elected representatives in all
levels of government. Now that aggrieved parents are trying to
protest, the government is trying to silence them as well. Perhaps
families of the earthquake victims will use the Olympics to amplify
their protest.

A scandal-plagued Olympics could be the last straw after the Tibetan
uprising and the earthquake. Nothing could be more insulting and
humiliating than inviting the whole world, including state leaders,
to witness a "disharmonious society."

Acting against Dictatorship

The Chinese government seems to be fully aware of the dangerous
potential that the Olympics pose to their rule. The fear that the
Olympics will spur a political crisis has led the government to begin
an early crackdown on, and silencing of, all potential
"troublemakers." For example, the authorities announced that they
will only allow state-sanctioned companies to upload video and audio
files on the Internet. They jailed 51 online dissidents, and blocked
more than 2,500 Web sites.12 The authorities also began cracking down
on and restricting NGOs. The Chinese government even sent a special
Chinese police force to Israel for training in counterterrorism and
crowd control.13 Indeed, Amnesty International has noted an increase
of human rights abuse in direct relation to the Beijing
Olympics.These human rights abuses echo Chinese power holders' deep
concerns about non-violent protests during the Olympics which could
yield a new color-revolution. Shi Zongyuan, China's top press
regulator, admitted this freely: "When I think of color revolutions I
feel afraid."14

Yet, the actions of the government alone cannot determine the
political outcomes of the Olympics.  Just as the government can
prepare and plan for the Olympics, so can its rivals. One of the
major lessons from the study of social movements and democratization
is that careful planning, clever strategies, effective tactics, and
skillful execution of non-violent resistance can make the difference
between successful democratization and complete failure. There are
indications that the power of non-violent conflict is conscious among
those pursuing democratic reform in China. As such, human agency is a
key component in the initiation and success of struggles against
non-democratic structures.15

The regime's opponents know the weaknesses of the regime and how they
can be exploited in the context of the Olympics. The inventions and
innovations of resistance tactics to avoid government surveillance
are important in this respect. Activists may use mobile phones (with
alternating sim-cards) and text messages in order to effectively
organize and coordinate action. These means have already been used in
protests across China and under other non-democratic regimes. The
Internet in particular offers new avenues for resistance and
coordination that the regime knows little about, despite its 30,000
strong Internet police force.

The importance of agency, tactics, and careful planning cannot be
exaggerated. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. and his colleagues
learned important lessons from their failed attempt to stage a drama
in Albany, GA, and skillfully implemented those lessons in their
"Program C" ("C" standing for confrontation) in Birmingham, AL. This
televised drama resulted in the enactment of the Civil Rights Act in
1964. Similarly, activists who are intent on bringing political
reform to China may have learned historic and strategic lessons from
the 1989 Movement and can successfully implement them this summer.
The Chinese government can do little against this, and much of its
early suppression actions may prove counterproductive.

The main weapon of the weak is their strategic thinking, tactics, and
ability to take advantage of opportunities that temporarily make
physical power irrelevant. Former slave Harriet Jacobs alluded to
this already in the 19th century, "Who can blame slaves for being
cunning? They are constantly compelled to resort to it. It is the
only weapon of the weak and oppressed against the strength of the
tyrants." In the Olympics, when millions of tourists from all over
the world will be in Beijing, as well as over 20,000 journalists, the
configuration of power will change, opportunities will be many, and
this cunning will be pivotal.

Global Repercussions

A successful democratic movement in China during the Olympics is
bound to be a mega-dramatic event with far-reaching repercussions. A
democratic movement may cause the ruling elite to split, it may force
the elite to negotiate, or it may compel them to initiate real
democratic reforms. Alternatively, the dynamics of a movement may
force power holders to step down because they will be too discredited
to negotiate. Whatever may be the specific course, such a global
event could be compared to the collapse of the Soviet Union and
communism in Eastern Europe, which had a snowball effect on inspiring
democratic movements elsewhere.

Similarly, the authoritarian states in the shadow of China would most
likely be swept away by a new swell of democratic excitement. While
we cannot predict exactly how far and in what pace such an event will
impact other countries, we do know that the world would become much
more inhospitable to non-democratic regimes without a dictatorial
China, and hence several developments can be predicted.

China's authoritarian neighbors such as Burma, Singapore, and
Thailand would probably not be able to withstand the democratic tide
should a dramatic democratic movement hit China. Even dictatorial and
isolated countries such as North Korea and Laos, will find much more
difficult to maintain their isolation in the international arena
without China's strong backing and economic aid. Developing counties
in Africa which are reliant on China for trade and international
protection, such as Sudan, may also be affected. A drama in China may
even penetrate the Middle East and inspire student movements in
places like Iran. It is also likely to augment and strengthen
democratic trends within one-party states.

The prediction that this democratic moment will occur as a result of
the Olympics is one of probability, based on what we know from
people's democratic experiences; it is not a deterministic prediction
nor is it based on normative wishes. Clearly it is also possible that
protests will not be successful, but this will be despite the
existing possibilities, not because of missing preconditions for an
effective democratic movement in China.

Finally, the possibility of Chinese democracy involves a moral
obligation and policy implications. The Chinese people can be helped
in their struggle for recognition and democracy.16 The international
community can amplify the pressure on the Chinese government should a
protest movement begin. Non-violent Chinese activists can be trained
and helped from abroad. Tourists can serve as shields to those
peaceful demonstrators and prevent the authorities from quickly
quelling protests.

We should be mindful until and during the Olympics, and think
strategically about how to facilitate the demands of those who are
struggling for an accountable and democratic China that respects
dignity and rights.

Moji is the pen name for a U.S. academic in China for the games.

1. Bruce Berkowitz, "U.S. Intelligence Estimates of Soviet Collapse:
Reality and Perception," Blindside: How to Anticipate forcing Events
and Wildcards in Global Politics (Brookings Institution Press, 2007), p.30.
2. Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall, "Ahead of the Curve: Anticipating
Strategic Surprise," Blindside: How to Anticipate forcing Events and
Wildcards in Global Politics (Brookings Institution Press, 2007), p.95.
3. Henry S. Rowen, "When Will the Chinese People be Free?" Journal of
Democracy 18(3), 2007, pp.38-52; and Dali L. Yang, "China's Long
March to Freedom," Journal of Democracy 18(3), 2007, pp.58-64.
4. Inglehart, R., & Welzel, C. Modernization, Cultural Change, and
Democracy: The Human Development Sequence (Cambridge, UK: New York:
Cambridge University Press, 2005), p.191.
5. Minxin Pei, "How China is Ruled," American Interest, Spring 2008,
p.51; Minxin Pei, "How Will China Demcratize?" Journal of Democracy,
18(3), 2007, pp.53-57.
6. Gordon Chang, "Halfway to China's Collapse," Far Eastern Economic
Review, 169(5), 2006, pp.25-28.
7. Susan Shirk L, China: Fragile Superpower (Oxford ; New York:
Oxford University Press, 2007), pp.29-30.
8. Doug McAdam and William H. Sewell, Jr., "It's About Time:
Temporality in the Study of Social Movements and Revolutions," in
Silence and Voice in the Study of Contentious Politics, ed. R.
Aminzade. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p.112.
9. Dingxin Zhao, The Power of Tiananmen, pp.163-172.
10 .For comparison, the Basques' struggle for independence in the
1970s contributed to a growing sense of crisis in Spain, and as such
facilitated the general struggle against Francoism that led to a
negotiated transition to democracy.
11. Susan Shirk L, China: Fragile Superpower (Oxford: New York:
Oxford University Press, 2007), p.62.
12. Jim Yardley, "Dissident's Arrest Hints at Olympic Crackdown," New
York Times, January 30, 2008.
13. "Israel to train Chinese police ahead of Olympics" Agence France
Presse, November 12, 2007.
14. Quoted in Peter Ackerman and Michael J. Glennon, "The Right Side
of the Law," American Interest (September/October) 2007, p.46.
15. Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall, A Force More Powerful: A Century
of Nonviolent Conflict (New York: Palgrave, 2000).
16. Peter Ackerman and Michael J. Glennon, "The Right Side of the
Law," American Interest 3(1): 41-46, 2007.

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