The Beijing Olympic Games will reveal the two sides of China: the enormous economic progress the country has made over the last 30 years but also the ‘alarming’ levels of uneven development and the devastating environmental consequences of its progress. In a briefing sponsored by the European Policy Centre, Minxin Pei, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment, explained that these Games will also be among the most controversial, as they focus the world’s attention on China’s human rights record.

Risks and Opportunities

Pei said the Beijing Olympics will set records. They will be the most expensive Games ever, with the most modern facilities in the history of the Olympics. There will be more sports than ever before. An unprecedented number of world leaders will attend the opening ceremony - this will be the first time in recent memory that a U.S. President attends Games held outside the U.S.. And in a major departure from normal practice, these Games are, in effect, being organized by a national government, not just by a city administration.

At the same time, these will also be the most controversial Games since Moscow was awarded the Olympics over 25 years ago. While China has introduced extraordinary economic reforms, has the world’s largest population, and the fastest-growing economy, its poor human rights record will be the “dark cloud” that overshadows their festivities.

These Games are extremely important for both the Chinese people and the Chinese government. For the Chinese people, it is a chance to show the world the enormous progress the country has made over the last 30 years. It marks a “psychological milestone” ending a century and a half of humiliation that began with the Opium War in 1840 when China was marginalized by Western imperialism. For the Chinese government, it is a golden opportunity to add political legitimacy to economic prowess, demonstrating that the country is powerful, and has a legitimate and effective government capable of hosting an international event.

Staggering Progress and Inequality

Pei said the Chinese government hopes the outside world will see “one world, one dream, a green Olympics and a harmonious world order.”

However, the picture will be more mixed: world-class facilities and an amazing infrastructure in terms of its scale, daring design, and the speed at which it was constructed will provide evidence of how far the country has come from the “dark days of radical communism, the cultural revolution and Tiananmen Square.” This is a government that “gets things done” and a country that is now part of the globalised world order.

On the other hand, the outside world will also see an increasingly prosperous country with alarming levels of uneven development. Just 15 miles from the Games, the poor live in terrible housing. People will be haunted by pictures of the 7,000 school buildings that collapsed during the earthquake and wonder how a country that can build world-class sports facilities can fail to construct safe schools.

Pei warned that they will see that economic progress has also brought enormous environmental degradation. With its dirty water and air, Beijing will be the most polluted city ever to stage the Games - three times worse than Seoul or Los Angeles.

Conflicting Perceptions

Unlike most countries where economic progress brings political security, the Chinese government still feels politically insecure, and continues to censor the Internet, control NGOs, and restrict press coverage.

China is a contrasting mix of both a cosmopolitan, globalized, English-speaking society, and an increasingly nationalistic population that is intolerant of outsiders. This nationalism has created a gulf between how the Chinese people see the Games and the how rest of the world views them. Chinese people feel Western criticisms of their country reflect the fact that the West cannot accept that China is becoming a global power, whereas in the West people believe the Olympics are being exploited to give a non-democratic government political legitimacy.

Defining Success

Pei argued that given the level of the government’s economic and political investment, the Games will be a success from a logistical standpoint.

Turning to the possibility of political protests during the Games, Pei explained that they would only be disruptive if the government handles them badly. If it handles them well, they will not be significant.

As to whether the Games will be a political success, Pei believed the Chinese government will find it difficult to win the international public relations game. Members of the international media will bring their negative perceptions of China to bear on the games, and the government will not be able to steer the media in the direction it would like. However, the Games will be very popular with China’s domestic population, and the government will win an overwhelming political victory on the domestic PR front.

Impact of the Games

As to whether the Olympics are likely to bring political change or more freedom to China, Pei argued that with the exception of Seoul, history has shown that sporting events do not in and of themselves bring long-term change. The Beijing Games will have a minimal long-term economic or social impact on the country.