The countdown to the Olympic Games has begun. China wants to present itself as a modern country, which is open and on a par with the rest of the world. But the run-up to the Games has not been without controversy -- the torch relay was a PR disaster. Only the devastating earthquake in Sichuan brought China and the West closer again. But the impression remains that the Olympics have never been as politicised as these upcoming Games.
July 13 2001 was a day for celebrations in Beijing. Tens of thousands stormed onto Tiananmen Square after the city was awarded the 2008 Olympic Games. The day was also a day of great promises and expectations. In its bid, China had done what it now refuses to do -- it had mixed sport and politics.
One of the vice presidents of the bid committee, Liu Jingmin, argued that to award the Games to Beijing would promote the development of human rights. The International Olympic Committee agreed -- the then director general of the IOC acknowledged that there were human rights abuses in China but said that the IOC would wager there would be many changes in seven years.
In seven years, there have indeed been many changes. The Chinese GDP has doubled since 2001. In 2003, China sent a man into outer space, and a new set of leaders is now ruling the country.
But much has remained the same. People’s rights continue to be abused and people who think differently risk jail. These conditions cannot be compared with the sheer terror campaigns from the Mao era but still… Human rights lawyers, although they exist, are prevented from doing their work properly. The Internet is censored. And nowhere in the world are there so many journalists in detention as in China.
For the preparations for the Games, China has been able to fully exploit its strengths. There has been a huge mobilisation of massive resources from above, the development and implementation of huge campaigns for educating the population, either in English language skills or in how to stand at bus stops; the ability to attract foreign capital and know-how has been proven. Fantastic infrastructure projects have been implemented, new underground links have been built, as well as a new airport terminal and the new national stadium is already an architectural icon.
But these strengths when it comes to “hard” factors do not obscure the weaknesses in terms of “soft” factors -- transparency, for instance, or the rule of law or the way of dealing with unorthodox ways of thinking. The reactions to the protests in Tibet in March were not what one expects from a self-assured, open and modern regional power.
The government is willing to go to great lengths to present itself as modern. 30 million euros have been spent on the Olympic infrastructure. Factories around Beijing have not been operating for weeks now to ensure a blue sky for the Games. And although there is a lack of water in the surrounding province of Hebei, it is still being transported from there to Beijing.
But the shininess of the stadiums alone and the mastering of modern technology will not transform the Olympic Games into a World Festival of Youth. And that’s why Beijing should finally learn to be relaxed in such a way that befits a country of its size and culture. Especially when it comes to the treatment of people who think differently.