As national challenges go, hosting an Olympiad surely ranks far below establishing ethnic harmony, a healthy trade balance, peace with neighboring states, or respect for the rule of law. In the glare of the global media, however, the superficial often prevails. China is likely to be judged by much of the planet in the coming weeks on how it stages the Beijing Games, which provide a priceless opportunity to show off achievements at a time when its global competitor, the United States, is struggling with a misfiring economic engine (WSJ) and remains enmeshed in an unpopular war. For all the high-minded invocations of the Olympic spirit, no one should doubt that the Beijing games will be as powerful a marketing campaign for China's authoritarian capitalist model (Foreign Affairs) as any devised by Madison Avenue.
This isn't new. From the inception of the modern Olympics, governments have strained every national muscle to turn the supposedly apolitical games into showcases for national, ideological, or even racial superiority. As this photographic timeline indicates, politics and the Olympics have gone hand-in-hand from the start. Berlin 1936. Moscow 1980. Los Angeles 1984. The list of Olympics colored by geopolitics is lengthy.
Yet the context in which the world views the games also matters. Take the Olympic Games away, and the year China has endured is not necessarily one an aspiring world leader would want to repeat—a point CFR senior fellows Elizabeth C. Economy and Adam Segal made in this recent Foreign Affairs article. A catastrophic earthquake in Sichuan Province caused grievous human suffering, but also deep political damage to the Communist Party's efforts to portray its monopoly on political power as consensual, as parents protested (NYT) the shoddy construction that led to the deaths of so many school children. Beijing’s continued dealings with the regimes running Sudan, Myanmar, and Zimbabwe hardly polished the nation's credentials as a responsible global stakeholder. Internally, nationalist unrest, first in Tibet and surrounding provinces, and then by violent groups seeking independence for the vast Muslim region of Xinjiang, highlighted some of the challenges facing China's rulers.
China has gone to enormous lengths to attempt to prevent journalists from placing the games in this context. Beijing has blocked internet sites (NYSun). Sweeps of dissidents, tightened visa restrictions, and desperate efforts to temporarily curb Beijing's notorious pollution are all meant to display Chinese competence.
The perceived missteps of U.S. policy since 9/11 only abet China's rising stature. Whether or not Iraq or Afghanistan ultimately emerge better off for their contact with U.S. forces, global opinion continues to be unfavorable toward the United States on these two campaigns, as the latest Pew global survey (PDF) indicates. While the Pew survey also found considerable concern about China's influence, there remains an environment in which the China model is "growing disturbingly popular in some circles," says James K. Glassman, U.S. undersecretary of state for public diplomacy.
When all the medals in Beijing are tallied, China may very well come out on top, displacing the traditional German, Russian, and U.S. powerhouses. That would be a victory of sorts. But the real competition is for hearts and minds in those many nations where poverty and despair persist. Parag Khanna of the New America Foundation sees the future (NYT) as a one in which China, Europe, and America vie for influence among the middleweight powers of the world—countries like Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia, and Ukraine. Will such nations heed the counsel of Western liberal democracies even as those countries see their own economic fortunes in relative decline? Or will the gleaming venues, beaming medal winners, and economic rise of China tempt them to think otherwise?