Lately, the Olympics has started to remind us of the kind of conversation wherein someone is prepared to reveal a secret, but the key details are not forthcoming. Rather, the speaker dances around the facts, dropping a hint here and there at a carefully measured pace, meanwhile we sit silently, captivated and spellbound awaiting the payoff when the whole truth is finally revealed to us. So we will wait another 14 days for the start of Games of the XXIX Olympiad.
Long before the Olympic flame was ignited at the Hera Temple of Ancient Olympia amid a pompous gathering of international dignitaries, it was clear that Beijing’s Olympics is about far more than mere athletics, contrary to its public statements. In reality, the modern Olympics is both symbolically and materially a political event; simply stated, it is a competition among nations. Although this is ideally intended to be limited to the sports arena, in reality there are no such firewalls in politics and as past boycotts have shown, the Games can and will be exploited as a bargaining chip in international poltics. Moreover, insofar as each team represents its nation, the performance of the national teams is, in a very public way, a projection of national power. As Mao Zhi Xiong, professor of sports psychology at Beijing Sports University recently stated, “If you win a lot of medals, then it shows you have advanced as a country. It means the economy is growing, that living standards are improving and that there is better technology.”
Naturally, Beijing’s propagandists were well aware of this from the start, and from the moment a 14-meter Olympic countdown clock was planted in Tian’anmen Square in 2004, the public awareness campaign and promotion of the Olympic Games has been relentless in every sphere of Chinese public life. There has been constant television and print coverage of the lead-in to the Games, in all of China there is barely a spare placard that does not bear some reference to the Olympics, and sponsorships have been sold for everything from wrist-watches to soft-drinks to big oil to credit card services, with the omnipresent five Fuwa serving as a constant reminder of this Olympic Games with “Chinese characteristics.” Domestically, the Olympics has been a tool of manipulation, pride, and profit, and with an extraordinarily long build-up to the Games the public has been strung along with a sense of anticipation as if they are preparing to witness the rapture.
In terms of infrastructure, the 2008 Beijing Games will be unique in the scale of its production and the transformation it has imposed upon its host city. The Chinese have spared no expense in building the world’s grandest sporting arenas, irreversibly altering the face of the capital city, leveling ancient neighborhoods to add the shiny “modern” luster of blocky high-rises over old Beijing, and displacing an estimated 1.5 million people in the process. While it is commonly quoted that the 17-days of the Games will cost approximately $40 billion — this in a country where the cost of manual labor is written-off as “immaterial” — with the additional suspension of factory operations, the diversion of water via a 309km pipeline from neighboring Hebei province (itself water-poor), the stockpiling of fuel to ensure against power-shortages, the security costs, not to mention any intangibles (loss of work, destruction of historical heritage, trauma inflicted on displaced individuals), we are leery of the offical estimate and suspect the final tab will be far higher. And obviously, where there is a great deal of money being spent, there is a great deal of money being made. The question is, “by whom?” Certainly not these 1.5 million displaced persons.
Similarly, the security precautions have been extraordinary. Recently, the Canwest News Service quoted Interpol chief Robert Nobel’s warning, “We must be prepared for the possibility that al-Qaida or some other terrorist group will attempt to launch a deadly terrorist attack at these Olympics.” Ergo, the Chinese have responded hammer and tongs to all threats — both real and perceived, and the laundry list of precautions seems endless. Paraphrasing from Canwest:
- There are two-kilometer long traffic lines due to security inspection of cars entering Beijing
- Hundreds of checkpoints on every road leading into the capital from Hebei
- Soon to be implemented security checkpoints on major downtown streets
- 100,000 PLA soldiers who protect the capital and Olympic venues (by way of comparison, the US has about 130,000 troops in Iraq)
- 100,000 ordinary and paramilitary police
- 60,000 civilian volunteers — mostly aging members of the Communist-era Neighbourhood Committees – who will be their eyes and ears around the city for the Games
- Surface-to-air missile outside the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube
- Security checks simply to enter the new Beijing Capital Airport in addition to checks inside the airport
- Bomb-sniffing dogs and baggage inspectors on the subways
- A computer system linked to Interpol’s database of more than 14 million stolen and missing passports
- 265,000 closed-circuit security cameras mounted in the various host cities
- Tickets for the opening and closing ceremonies have an RFID chip that stores a picture, the holder’s name, address, passport number, telephone and e-mail
- Bus and train travelers must present identification
- Mailing packages to Beijing or any of the other five Olympic venues requires both identification and inspection
- The cost of securing the Games is estimated at $50 million
There have also been first-hand accounts of random automobile inspections within the city, systmatic PSB visits to foreigners in their hotel rooms, and security personnel patrolling the streets of Beijing with black, mushroom-shaped devices that are evidently used to detect invisible danger signs, such as EMFs or chemical traces. Moreover, such is the state of secrecy that it was recently reported by CNN that the 17,000 employees who will participate in the opening ceremonies have taken an oath of silence, breaking which can result in imprisonment.
Such an iteration of precautions is a bit dizzying, but first and foremost, these measures serve to protect the 10,700 athletes, more than 80 heads of state or government, and hundreds of thousands of spectators at the 37 Olympic venues held in 7 different host cities (Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Qingdao, Shenyang, Tianjin, and Qinhuangdao). However, the bottom line for China, its irreducible self-interest is very simply a successful Olympic Games.
Okay, so this is obviously an extremely serious event to Beijing, but what is meant by a “successful Games?” We can gain some insight into this by way of the inexorable promotion of the Games, and the fact that Olympics has evidently taken-on new dimensions within the minds of the average Chinese citizen. In it’s simplest incarnation, it is the positive representation of China that matters most to the Han Majority, who are in our humble opinion among the world’s most zealous in practice of cultural pride. Therefore, the pictures that will be broadcast in China will offer imagery of material wealth, modernity, sophistication, and most importantly the success, unity (“One World, One Dream, One China”), and power of China and the Chinese people. It is the moment when China will attempt to stand tall in the world and “retake” its position among world powers, and thereby shed the “century of humiliation” that has been scorched into the minds of Chinese via experience or public education. And on the symbolic level, perhaps the holy grail for many Chinese is the opportunity to “defeat America” on the field, which is likely and more than mere medals, is viewed as a harbinger of things to come.
Meanwhile, internationally, the unveiling of the Games has thus far been ugly with large-scale demonstrations and arrests in various locations around the world, which according to the Pew Global Attitudes Project diminished China’s standing in world public opinion. However, the international viewing audience for the 2008 Summer Games is still estimated to be approximately 4 billion, the largest in history and these viewers are also very much part of Beijing’s calculus in the imagery produced for its Olympic narrative.
To viewers who have not spent significant time in China, in spite of constant media attention, the country is shrouded in mystery and misconceptions (we would also argue that the same applies to many that live within its borders). Effectively, this makes the international viewership a very impressionable audience, upon which the same eye-popping showmanship and images of competence, cultural richness, human performance, and power will create a defining image of China in the minds of many viewers. It is, frankly, a moment for China to show-off in a manner choreographed with exaggerated precision and punch of a kung fu flick. Thereby, it serves as a projection of Chinese “soft-power,” enhancing the stature of the China’s government, corporations, culture, and people in the eyes of the world. To be sure, this not a trivial feat; however, Beijing also understands that the extraordinary exposure that China will gain through the Olympics is a double-edged sword.
Of course, it was long known that the Games would be used by activists to squeeze a highly insular government. And subsequently, the melee surrounding the longest-ever torch relay did yield negative publicity for China; likewise, an Olympic disaster such as a catastrophic terrorist attack, riots or mass arrests, disruption of the ceremonies, suicide protests or attempts at self-immolation could have an effect directly opposite Beijing’s intended projection. A violent, chaos-ridden Olympics fraught with protests and heavy-handed responses from China’s enormous army of security personnel could impress upon the world the image of an exploitative, authoritarian state, controlled under the coercion of brute force and arms to serve the interests of its elite. Such events would make Beijing’s attempts at a glittering Olympics seem a hollow gesture and merely an exercise intended to manipulate the world public. Needless to say, people don’t like to feel deceived or manipulated, and the damage posed by such a scenario is also nontrivial. Not only would it be bad for China’s image, but it would also create the impression that China is a less stable place than its “game-face” indicates, which would create the perception of political risk. In short, it would be bad for business.
Obviously, for the greater good, a successful Olympics is in the immediate interest of the majority of the world and for those situated in the “Sinosphere,” particularly the Chinese, and most specifically, the Chinese elite. Given the extraordinary security precautions and “preemptive measures,” we would be surprised to see anything greater than a few hundred arrests, and for a mere 17-day event, it would seem that the more frightening scenarios are on the low-end of the probability spectrum.
Thus, in our view, the great drama of this Olympics is between those trying to present a brilliant, gilded image of China and those trying expose the ugly face of oppression, exploitation, and all matters some prefer be swept under the rug. In fact, the reality lies somewhere in between, and we believe it would probably best for China and the greater good if the world can glimpse that reality, so as to better understand the nation, its people, and its inevitable impact on the world.
All views expressed by Opinionist writers are their own and do not indicate any official position taken by Shanghaiist.
View from inside National Stadium from GameBids.com
Photo of Olympic Stadium Fireworks from toomanytribbles