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Politics and Games: Was Beijing 2008 a Mistake?

August 14, 2008

By SPIEGEL Staff
Spiegel (Germany)
August 12, 2008

While the world complains about human rights violations, air
pollution, censorship and the despotic rule of the Chinese regime,
China is celebrating a dream come true. Many in the West are
convinced that awarding the Olympics to Beijing was a mistake. Are they right?

The Olympic opening ceremony in Beijing: political games

A picture is worth a thousand words, but it rarely gives the whole
story. These days, a wide range of images are coming out of Beijing.
These include crowds of flashy dancers organizing themselves into
enormous life-like figures, but also goose-stepping soldiers parading
the Chinese flag through the Beijing National Stadium, dubbed the
"Bird's Nest." We see images of the city smothered in a thick
yellow-brown layer of smog, but the cameras never show that the sky
can sometimes just be blue. Our televisions flash images of policemen
marching in martial formations beneath the Olympic stadium, despite
the fact that you'd be hard pressed to actually find them there these
days. Apparently, these are images designed to match -- and shape --
opinions. In reality, they're all about clichés.

Ironically enough, the most spine-chilling images to come out of the
29th Olympic Games so far have been provided by Chinese state
television itself. On Friday morning, the broadcaster transmitted
images of foreign dignitaries arriving in front of the monumental
Great Hall of the People on an eerily empty Tiananmen Square. The
movements of an honor guard in front of the entrance's huge columns
were filmed using a wide-angle lens, which made the images
reminiscent of the Nazi propaganda films directed by Leni
Riefenstahl. These images, at least, say that it was a mistake to
award the Olympics to Beijing. They hearken back to Berlin in 1936.
And they say that, once again, the International Olympic Committee
(IOC) is helping a dictatorship polish its reputation worldwide.

Even eight hours after the Olympics began playing on television
screens across the globe, the ominous images failed to get much
brighter. Instead of coming across as a joyful celebration of the
world's youth, large portions of the opening ceremony seemed more
like a monumental festival thrown by a country celebrating its
shining self-image. The images were not those of a country opening up
to the world, but rather dazzling symbols of age-old greatness and
modern-day power. Organizers dug deep into the costume collection of
a 4,000-year-old culture to create teeming cascades of closely
coordinated actors, and even China's minorities were given airtime
under the spotlights. But, behind all of this, skeptics could see a
repeat performance of old-style communist ceremonial pomp -- only
using 21st-century props.

Was it a mistake to award the games to China? Should a country that
oppresses minorities, operates forced labor camps and suppresses
freedom of speech be allowed to bask in the warm glow of the Olympic
flame? Were the IOC's assurances that the country would open up --
the grand promise of betting on the emergence of a bit of democracy
on the road to these Olympics -- nothing more than a devious ruse
aimed at securing an appearance on the world's greatest advertising
platform? This seems to be the general consensus of many in the West,
and there are definitely majorities in countries -- including
Germany, the UK, Belgium, Greece, Italy and Spain -- that welcome the
fact that their own political leaders have decided -- more or less as
a public protest -- not to attend events in Beijing. But that still
doesn't make them right.

A Matter of Cultural Interpretation

Whether deliberately or not, by hosting the Olympic Games, China has
allowed more freedom in public than it has at any other point in its
history. There are over 20,000 accredited foreign journalists in the
country, thousands of athletes and officials, tens of thousands of
tourists from Western democracies and a few daredevil protesters who
have used the occasion to scale power poles and unfurl "Free Tibet"
banners in the heart of the Chinese capital.

Athletes also protested last week, wrote open letters, communicated
appeals from abroad to China. All over the world, experts are talking
openly about these issues. On talk shows and in parliamentary debates
worldwide, China is the hot topic, and some of this finds its way
back to the country. Encounters between locals and visitors in
Beijing will also have an effect. Chinese society is changing, and
this process consists of many tiny adjustments, thousands of
fragments that can coalesce to form a new mosaic.

Simple images fail to accurately portray this situation. This
explains why so much of what we see appears to be so stereotypical.
It also shows that, when faced with such a daunting array of
contradictory material, the media has chosen to admit defeat. Western
-- and German -- television frequently shows images of pagodas,
despite the fact that there are hardly any left among the
skyscrapers' shadows. When it comes down to it, China might not be
terribly eager to open up to the rest of the world, but the reverse
is also true: By constantly reproducing its favorite images of the
country, both positive and negative, the world has also insulated
itself from the real China.

Take, for example, the throng of sports reporters and special
correspondents from around the world, many of whom are traveling to
China for the first time. Being so new to the country, they tend to
misinterpret their first impressions. This unfamiliarity has even led
some German newspapers to report that Beijing has somehow been
transformed into a city of fear during the games. At the Main Press
Center on the Olympic Green, the rumor mill is working at full speed,
and even the tiniest novelties are put to use in hectically typed headlines.

Is it really newsworthy that American bicycle racers wore respiratory
masks when they arrived in Beijing? Is it important that a swimmer
has circulated a nude photo of herself in Beijing to protest against
the fur industry? And are the pole climbers sincerely interested in
fighting for the Tibetan cause, or could they also be partially
motivated by a desire for their own 15 minutes of fame, which has
become so easy to win these days in Beijing?

Appearance and Reality


These days, Beijing seems a little strange. To improve the air
quality, half the cars are not allowed on the streets, which has
resulted in smoothly flowing traffic on the beltway instead of the
customary gridlock. Volunteer workers are stationed at every corner
and intersection, rushing forward to greet all foreigners and put
their broken English to the test. They have been told to keep their
eyes and ears open to spot terrorists trying to secretly infiltrate
the city. Of course, it's easy to write these harmless stewards off
as government thugs -- as long as you never speak with them. But the
fact is that these workers -- all 400,000 of them -- are proud. They
want to be part of the Olympic family and part of the dream now
coming true in China.

On the one hand, no one doubts that, in the months preceding the
games, the Chinese security apparatus thoroughly scanned the entire
city. Video cameras have been installed on every corner and the
security level is high. These days, it's safe to say that any country
would take similar precautions. On the other hand, the mood in
Beijing has in fact been predominantly one of cheerfulness. People
throw small Olympics parties brimming with local and national pride.
Children's choirs sing in neighborhood centers, and small red flags
can be seen fluttering all over the city.

But if you're inclined to ask what might be wrong with this picture,
one place to look might be Tiananmen Square. In a free country,
there's no doubt that a place like this would be an Olympic venue, a
place to hold colorful celebrations with people from around the
world, a place crowded with large screens, beer stands and all kinds
of booths. But, these days, the square is empty.

Different People, Different Chinas

As we reflect on the nature of today's China, it is important to draw
a clear distinction between the state and society, which is gradually
emancipating itself. It's an important distinction to make before
addressing the issue of whether it was wrong to allow Beijing to host
the Olympics. No one can deny that China's dynamic society has earned
this honor over the past few decades. This cannot be said, however,
about China's ruling elite, which has used the opening ceremonies for
its own purposes, sending idealized images to broadcasters around the
world -- but primarily feeding them into their own national media network.

Indeed, if China's athletes win the most medals, the party and the
government will surely milk it for all its worth. The IOC has either
underestimated these secondary effects or irresponsibly acquiesced to
them. The IOC also presumably overestimated its soft power. Out of
pure vanity -- and wrongly, as it turns out -- the masters of the
games assumed that they had so much power over China's leadership
that they could actually influence its behavior.

In countering such criticism, the committee points to the history
books. IOC representatives did this repeatedly last week in Beijing
as they tried to draw attention to the social changes that took place
in Japan after the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and how the 1988 Seoul
Olympics gave a boost to democracy in South Korea.

The question is, however: Can you really compare China with Japan and
South Korea? One person who seems to think so is US President George
W. Bush, who seems to be playing a wild new form of ping-pong
politics. Only a week before Friday's opening ceremonies, Bush hosted
five Chinese dissidents at the White House. On Wednesday, he severely
took to task the human rights policies of the Chinese government. And
then on Thursday, Bush boarded his jet to travel across the world to
be present as the most important guest of honor at the opening
ceremony. Does Bush lack principles? Or is that how things are done
in the world of politics?

The German Position

For Germany, at least, the fact that not a single member of the
German government -- neither a member of parliament nor German
President Horst Köhler -- was sitting in the VIP lounge in the Bird's
Nest on Friday is not going to do anything to enhance its influence
in China. Nor does it help that Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany's minister
for both sports and the interior, and Defense Minister Franz Josef
Jung are only planning to visit German athletes in China two weeks
into the competition. Granted, Germany is remaining true to its
principles. At the same time, though, it is unwilling to venture into
uncharted waters by actively taking part in a difficult historical process.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel can be praised for her moral
integrity, but diplomacy is still defined as the art of finding the
right means to meet your goals. When it comes to China, Merkel's tool
of choice has been the club, and she most recently swung it in
November when she put German-Chinese relations on ice for six months
by receiving the Dalai Lama in the Chancellery. This prompted
objections from her coalition partners, the left-leaning Social
Democrats, and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was
very frustrated by what he called Merkel's "window dressing
policies." For her part, however, Merkel interpreted this as only
causing minor damage to domestic politics.

Indeed, Merkel won't achieve much more on China, nor is she even
really trying. The chancellor has neither launched any initiatives
nor actively supported any dissidents, as have Bush and French
President Nicolas Sarkozy. Nor has she spoken out clearly on China's
human rights record, as both Bush and British Prime Minister Gordon
Brown have. Under these circumstances, it should come as no surprise
that Merkel did not openly boycotted the opening ceremony of the
Olympics, which was no longer even an option. Instead, she somewhat
meekly blamed "previous engagements" for not being able to attend. In
reality, these engagements turned out to be visiting the Italian
region of South Tyrol while on vacation Friday -- something else
China's leader will never forgive her for.

Delivering on Promises

Back in Beijing, every movement counts, every sentence, every photo.
What this means is that these are the first political games of the
21st century and that their historical significance will be greater
than their athletic importance. In 1980, the war in Afghanistan led
many Western countries to boycott the Moscow Olympics, and when the
Eastern Bloc took its revenge in Los Angeles in 1984, China broke
ranks with the communist boycotters. This summer, Beijing is only
continuing this series of politically charged Olympics. It might not
be about East versus West anymore, but it still has something to do with ideas.

That said, does it still have anything to do with sports? If you had
had a chance to eavesdrop on German athletes over the last few weeks,
you might very well have your doubts. Many of them have used the past
months to reflect on possible forms of protest, to give interviews --
with varying degrees of profundity -- on Tibet and Darfur, and to
self-righteously criticize their American counterparts for not even
addressing such debates. Such activities may have earned them a few
points on the popularity scale, but actually serving any cause seemed
to be of only secondary importance. When the IOC finally issued a
declaration listing all the things athletes were forbidden from
doing, it quickly took the wind out of their sails. As things now
stand, it doesn't look like we should expect any political activities
from athletes over the next two weeks.

These Olympics are supposed to be "green," "high-tech" games with a
"human face." The opening ceremony has already kept the "high-tech"
promise, at least. With floating lights, perfectly choreographed
fireworks, and breathtaking moments when the laws of gravity seemed
suspended, China has proven that it has mastered all these high-tech
special effects. It remains to be seen, however, how "human" and
readily understandable this festival of sports will be for Western
observers. It already became clear during the opening ceremonies that
some things which move the Chinese to tears leave Europeans unmoved
-- or even slightly alarmed.

MARKUS FELDENKIRCHEN, ULLRICH FICHTNER, LOTHAR GORRIS, MAIK
GROSSEKATHÖFER, DETLEF HACKE, ANDREAS LORENZ

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