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Olympic Pressure on China

Authors: Preeti Bhattacharji, and Carin Zissis
Updated: June 17, 2008
This publication is now archived.

Introduction

As the Beijing Olympics draw near, the world is bracing for what promises to be a historic event. China has promoted the games as an international coming-out party under the slogan, "One World, One Dream." Even the opening date is auspicious: August 8, 2008—8-8-08—is a very lucky day in Chinese numerology. Since Beijing won its bid to host the games, however, critics have attacked China's record on issues ranging from human rights to food safety to the environment. Just before the Olympic torch relay, China cracked down on Tibetans protesting the subjugation of their culture. The repression and violence that ensued brought international condemnation and calls for Olympic boycotts. China's environmental degradation, restrictions on free speech, and continued investments in Sudan, Myanmar, and Zimbabwe have drawn criticism as well. In its campaign to win the right to host the Olympics, China pledged to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that the games would remain "open in every aspect." Many believe China is failing to abide by that pledge, but the vehemence of anti-China sentiment abroad has spurred a nationalist backlash within China, and the Chinese government strongly condemns what it considers the politicization of the Olympic Games.

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Setting the Stage

After winning its bid to host the games, the Chinese government released an "action plan" with a series of commitments related to development, the environment, and governance. Beijing pledged in its Olympics strategy "to be open in every aspect to the rest of the country and the whole world." But Minxin Pei, senior associate in the China program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, calls Beijing's commitments "vague." He says "the interpretation of such pledges is contentious," with a divergence of opinion about what they mean inside and outside China. While activists and critics of China's Communist Party may look for concrete progress on development and human rights, the "kind of measures the government has taken regarding the Olympics are more related to the appearance of Beijing as a nice, livable city," says Pei.

"The kind of measures the government has taken regarding the Olympics are more related to the appearance of Beijing as a nice, livable city." — Minxin Pei, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

In this Foreign Affairs article, CFR's China experts Elizabeth Economy and Adam Segal write the process of preparing for the games is "tailor-made to display China's greatest political and economic strengths," but the leadership failed to anticipate the extent to which the games "would stoke the persistent political challenges to the legitimacy of the Communist Party and the stability of the country." To improve Beijing's image, China launched a new initiative: "Welcome the Olympics. Improve Manners and Foster New Attitudes." As a report (PDF) by Human Rights in China shows, the campaign is designed to discourage things like public spitting, belching, and soup slurping. Urban improvements have led to more extreme measures as well: In its special section on the upcoming Olympics, Human Rights Watch says the construction of Olympic facilities in Beijing has forced the eviction of thousands of citizens in and around the capital, often without adequate compensation or access to new housing.

Turning Beijing Green

The Olympics have spotlighted China's environmental record. China recently surpassed the United States to become the world's largest greenhouse-gas emitter. If China's development strategy continues on its current course, the country's emissions will surpass those of all industrialized countries combined over the next quarter century, writes CFR Senior Fellow Elizabeth C. Economy. In part because of scrutiny of its environmental record, China pitched the idea of the "Green Olympics,"including new standards for water and air pollution in Beijing, as part of the bid to host the games.

The city has made some strides to meet its promises, with air quality improving each year for the past six years. Beijing has closed factories and relocated chemical and steel plants to mitigate air pollution. It plans to spend nearly $1.6 billion to improve the city’s water supply before the games. Other measures are planned, including limits on motor vehicles. In a four-day test in 2007, the city took 1.3 million cars off the road (Reuters) to see if it would reduce air pollution in preparation for the games. Technicians with Beijing’s Weather Modification Office will also use a method known as "cloud-seeding" (AP) to force rain and clean the city’s air. In the meantime, athletes around the world have taken unique steps (IHT) to prepare for the polluted conditions they will face in Beijing, and some teams, including the Americans, plan to arrive only at the last minute and to bring their own supplies of food and water.

The 'Genocide Olympics'

Beijing has been criticized for doing business with the Sudanese government despite ongoing violence in Sudan's western region of Darfur. More than 200,000 people have died, and another 2.5 million have been displaced. In 2006, a report (PDF) from a UN Panel of Experts implied that China was Sudan's main arms dealer, though China's special envoy on Darfur says that China is only supplying 8 percent of Sudan's total arms imports. Regardless, China is Sudan's largest trading partner, purchasing up to two-thirds of the country's oil exports.

Some national Olympic teams, including the Americans, plan to arrive only at the last minute and to bring their own supplies of food and water.

Because of China's investment in Sudan, Mia Farrow, an actress and former UNICEF goodwill ambassador, has led a campaign to dub the games the "Genocide Olympics." She says she hopes to shame Olympic sponsors into getting China to divest in Sudan. U.S. director Steven Spielberg has also expressed concern with China’s investment in Darfur. In February 2008, he publicly withdrew as an artistic adviser for the games, claiming that China "should be doing more" (BBC) to end the “continued human suffering” in the war-torn region.

Experts disagree on the efficacy of such outside criticism. Pei suggests Beijing may moderate its Sudan policy to a slight degree, but adds that "if the level of shrillness is too high, then nothing will be accomplished." He believes increased criticism from abroad will only serve to unite the Chinese government and its people. In an interview with CFR.org, former Olympic CEO Mitt Romney notes that Olympic sponsors are financially "locked in" for the Beijing games, regardless of any attempts to shame them. He adds that "taking action which in any way disrespects China—or is seen as being disrespectful or 'taking away face,' if you will, from China—would have the exact opposite effect than had been intended."

But other experts say Beijing is watching U.S. public opinion on how it handles Khartoum. In a January/February 2008 article for Foreign Affairs, Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt and Andrew Small write that Beijing has already changed its Sudan policy because of the public outcry on Darfur. In 2006, China abandoned its policy of noninterference and began pressuring Sudan into accepting the deployment of more than twenty thousand UN and African Union troops in Darfur. China has also sent close to three hundred of its own military engineers to Sudan. "China's shifting diplomacy reflects not a fundamental change in its values but a new perception of its national interests," they say.

Tibetan Protests

With less than six months to go until the Beijing games, the international spotlight turned on Tibet. On March 10, Tibetan monks launched a series of peaceful demonstrations to advocate for greater autonomy from Beijing. Details remain sketchy, but clashes erupted between demonstrators and security forces in Lhasa, and these spread to other cities in Tibet and surrounding provinces. The Chinese government responded with an ongoing crackdown that included shooting, beating, and arresting suspected dissidents. According to China's state-run news sources, just over twenty people have died in the fighting, but Tibet's government-in-exile says the death toll is over two hundred.

Human rights groups and governments around the world condemned China's actions, calling them a flagrant violation of human rights. The United States, which submits a report to Congress each year on the status of talks between China and the exiled Dalai Lama, urged Beijing to refrain from violence and to respect Tibet's cultural heritage. The U.S. Congress formed a new "Tibet Caucus" and began debating a number of measures aimed at holding China accountable for the conduct of its security forces in Tibet.

Some human rights groups have called on the United States and the European Union to react more forcefully and boycott the Beijing Olympics. Some prominent leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, have said they will not be attending the games' opening ceremony. In April, U.S. President George W. Bush said his plans to attend the games "haven't changed" (Newsweek.com).

While the crackdown in Tibet is ongoing, it was overshadowed in May by an earthquake (WashPost)  in China's Sichuan Province. Experts say that despite Olympics-related pressure, China is unlikely to reverse its position on Tibet, given its increasing entrenchment in the region and investment in an expensive train to carry tourists there that opened in 2006. The Indian city of Dharamsala is planning to host an Olympics for Tibetans in exile.

Carrying the Torch

The Olympic torch, which was lit in Olympia, Greece, crisscrossed the world in an elaborate relay. Chinese officials wanted the tour to be a "journey of harmony," but it instead became a lightning rod for controversy both inside and outside the People's Republic.

When the relay route was announced, Taiwan and Tibet became immediate sources of concern. Officials in Taipei objected because Taiwan's stop was scheduled to occur before Hong Kong, which they said was intended to make Taiwan appear part of the Chinese domestic leg (Taipei Times). Beijing’s Olympics Committee countered the claim by arguing Taiwan had previously agreed to the stop. The IOC set September 20, 2007, as the deadline for resolving the dispute, and when negotiators failed to meet the deadline, the route was redirected to bypass Taiwan.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown have said they will not be attending the games' opening ceremony. U.S. President George W. Bush says his plans to attend the games haven't changed.

Similar concerns were raised by Tibetan activists, many of whom objected to the torch's scheduled stop on Mount Everest. In the midst of the Sichuan earthquake and Tibetan protests, Chinese officials announced that the Tibetan leg of the relay would be shortened from three days to one.

Outside China, the torch attracted criticism as well. In cities like London, Paris, San Francisco, and New Delhi, it was met with throngs of protesters, many of whom used the opportunity to denounce China's human rights record. Despite being flanked by Chinese security operatives, the torch was attacked and even extinguished during its international tour.

Nationalist Backlash

Ever since China won its Olympic bid, critics around the world have taken advantage of the opportunity to criticize the Chinese regime. But the Chinese government has condemned attempts to politicize the Olympic Games. "A few organizations are attaching some topics to the Olympic Games to slur China's image and to put pressure on the Chinese government," said a spokeswoman of the Chinese foreign ministry, adding, "No country in the world is perfect in human rights issues."

Anti-China protests surged as the Olympic torch toured Europe, stoking Chinese nationalism and prompting many Chinese to cancel plans to travel to France. In a CFR symposium, Dru Gladney, president of the Pacific Basin Institute, said that many Chinese were suspicious of the protesters' intentions. "When we criticize China on issues such as Tibet or its treatment of its Muslims, Chinese think that we're trying to drag that country down, we're trying to keep them back," he said. China's state-run news sources have fueled these nationalist feelings by accusing Western media outlets of an anti-China bias.

The IOC has sided with China, arguing that the Olympic Games should be isolated from politics. During an April 2007 press conference, Hein Verbruggen, a senior official with the International Olympics Committee, responded to questions about holding China accountable on human rights issues by saying, "We are not in a position that we can give instructions to governments as to how they ought to behave." But despite efforts by China and the IOC keep the Olympics apolitical, the Beijing games have joined a long list of Olympic Games that have gotten tangled up in political affairs.

Regulating International Media Coverage

China's Communist Party tightly controls media access and coverage. But in January 2007, Beijing began to loosen regulations for foreign journalists, allowing them to report throughout the country without the permission previously required. The eased restrictions—which also apply to journalists from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macao—are supposed to last through the Summer Games, when twenty-thousand foreign reporters are expected to descend on Beijing. It remains unclear if the reforms will stay in place after the games' conclusion, but they are currently scheduled to lapse in October 2008.

Anti-China protests surged as the Olympic torch toured Europe, stoking Chinese nationalism and prompting many Chinese to cancel plans to travel to France.

An Economist reporter tested the new regulations while reporting about HIV/AIDS in a village in Henan. Local officials initially tried to bar coverage but, after a call to Beijing, they cooperated with the journalist's request. Ashley W. Esarey, an expert on Chinese media at Middlebury College, says in a podcast that the relaxed laws for foreign journalists serve as a Communist Party "experiment" to test out less restrictive media regulations. He warns the laws "will be rescinded if they're seen as jeopardizing the Communist Party's hold on power," particularly if the openness inspires Chinese journalists to seek greater freedoms themselves.

Some journalists have already had their new rights flouted. According to the Foreign Correspondents Club of China, foreign journalists have reported more than 230 cases of harassment, obstruction, and detention since the new laws were enacted. A recent report from the Committee to Protect Journalists catalogues the ways in which journalists throughout China are censored, and argues that China has fallen short of its Olympic promises.

Tibet's unrest poses a particular challenge. Restrictions on media coverage in Tibet, always something of a special case due to China's sensitivity about the once-independent region, grew tighter still with the March 2008 outbreak of violence between protesters and security forces. Even before the violence, applications for travel to the region by international journalists routinely were refused. Beginning in March, reporters were banned from the region completely, telephone and internet service were interrupted, and some broadcasts and Internet sites of major Western outlets, including CNN, the Guardian, the BBC, the Los Angeles Times, and others, were reportedly jammed by Chinese authorities for a time.

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