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China's Olympic Moment

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
August 22, 2008

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From the dazzling opening ceremony to the impressive pursuit of gold medals, Chinese nationalism was the topic of much discussion (Foreign Affairs) surrounding the Olympic Games. Indeed, nationalist sentiment was evident from flag-flying audiences in stadiums to daily medal tallies in the Chinese media. But in comparison with the fervent nationalism that had gripped the country after anti-government protests in Tibet and human rights demonstrations during the international leg of the Olympic torch relay, such displays have been mostly absent during the games. Anti-government protests (Xinhua) were also minimal, point out experts.

The government focused on stage-managing its most spectacular event before a global audience, experts say. It called for "harmony" during the games and took steps to ensure a well-choreographed audience. The official People's Daily called on citizens to cheer for all and the government trained squads to cheer for other nations' teams (WashPost). The Chinese media also stepped in to defuse tension when bloggers targeted Lang Ping (ChinaDigitalTimes), the U.S. women's volleyball coach, after her team defeated the home team. China's national weekly magazine Beijing Review called her a "cultural ambassador" between China and the United States.

The Chinese government was faced with another challenge when, in a moment of national trauma, China's much-touted hurdler Liu Xiang dropped out before the 110-meter race because of an injury. Xiao Qiang, the director of China Internet Project, writes in China Digital Times that since he was a significant part of "China’s biggest image project," Chinese Internet censors have been deleting negative online comments about him. Official media and online news portals also set a sympathetic tone in reporting the story.

The government was determined to offer an unforgettable Olympics, spending about $42 billion (Xinhua), much of it on huge infrastructure projects, as well as initiatives that included language and etiquette training for the Chinese and tight security measures. To explain what the games mean for China and its people, Asia expert Orville Schell points to China's century of humiliation (Newsweek). Yet Joshua Kurlantzick, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes that not all of China has been cheering (TNR) for the Olympics. "Focusing solely on pride ignores another China, one far different from the middle class people with the money to travel to Beijing," he writes. Kurlantzick points to rural China, which has fallen far behind in the country's economic growth story. The Olympics have, in fact, made lives more difficult for many of the poor in China, say rights groups. In an attempt to present a glitzy image, they allege the Chinese government undertook many steps that violated human rights. The Chinese government rejects (CNN) such charges.

Rights groups also lament restrictions on the media, arrests of dissidents, and the regime's refusal to allow protests during the games. Minky Worden of Human Rights Watch tells the Associated Press that the Beijing Games, rather than bequeathing a positive legacy, "may leave in place permanent technological surveillance and monitoring networks that make doing human rights work even more dangerous and difficult for Chinese citizens." However, author Lijia Zhang writes those who attack the Chinese regime miss the point (Guardian) that there have been huge advances in personal and economic freedoms.

The country's economic gains have been undeniable. Average annual GDP growth of more than 9 percent over thirty years has helped lift some 250 million people above the government's poverty line. Sustaining such progress may require another kind of Olympian feat. Inequality has also been on the rise, says the Asian Development Bank. China's future growth, writes (Foreign Affairs) U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson, Jr., "depends on its increasing integration into global trade, investment, and financial markets."

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