History professor Aminda Smith was in a taxi cab in Beijing in 2001 when the radio announcement was made that China had won the 2008 Olympic bid. Immediately after, the city erupted around her in fireworks and celebration and didn’t settle down the entire night. But the sentiment wasn’t just confined to the city. Asian Studies assistant director Marilyn McCullough was in a town 2,000 miles west of Beijing for the announcement. The next day, the town’s 16-page daily newspaper devoted 15 of its pages to the Olympics. “I’ve talked to Chinese people – for Beijing to get the Olympics, it means China has joined the world. It’s even more important than China joining the WTO [World Trade Organization]. It’s the chance to present China’s best foot forward,” McCullough said. “They want the best Olympics and everyone to fall in love with Beijing.”
This isn’t the first time an Asian country has used the Olympics to give an advance to its national image. Japan hosted the Games in 1968 during the massive modernization of the country, and in 1988, the Olympics gave South Korea an extra boost to its growing democracy movement. Twenty years later, China is at the center of the stage, though there’s no question China has already entered into the world’s vision, Olympics or not. With a steadily growing economic miracle, a population more than 1.3 billion, strong military power and an influence in world events such as the genocide in Darfur, China can no longer be shoved into the background. And the Olympics are just the opportunity to remind everyone this is true.
[mccullough]The government is certainly trying to make sure the Olympics go well. Most news reports that make it out of the country’s censored press are full of its achievements in the areas of modern and environmental construction of the Olympics buildings, including the symbolic “Bird’s Nest” stadium. Other buildings are being knocked down and replaced by modern counterparts, toilets are being renovated to the “super” toilets now used by Japan, and the city has plans for controlling the air pollution during the Olympics, including a no-driving ban. “The Chinese government wants the world to see its best sides. They focus on Beijing; they are trying to make Beijing an amazing capital city,” said Mengyu Shi, a business student who lived in China for 15 years. “I think it won’t be completely perfect, because some marathon runners just announced that they won’t be participate in the Beijing Olympics due to air pollution, but Chinese people are doing their best.”
However, all the “good” reports about the Beijing Olympics and the focus on making the city a modern tourist destination leave room for other issues to fly under the radar, including human rights issues and the censoring of journalism and activism. These issues can only be heightened by the pressure surrounding the Olympics and the desire of the government to present China in its best light to the world. While there are fewer reports of the jailing of political activists, the quelling of protests and the deaths of Olympic construction workers, these reports continue to exist nonetheless.
“The government promised to do a cleaning up and make a freer society for the Olympics. It’s not happening,” McCullough said. “There are more restrictions on the Chinese.”
These restrictions come on top of industrialization that isn’t always beneficial to the Chinese people living in Beijing and other cities. Though the modernization of Beijing has helped institute some needed changes in traditional buildings, including indoor plumbing and heating, it has also led to the large-scale dislocation of Beijing residents in order to make room for the new buildings – many of which are being built specifically for the Olympics. “The main focus in China is urban programs, construction and infrastructure. It’s too much emphasis here and not enough elsewhere,” said Xuefei Ren, a professor of sociology who specializes in Chinese urbanization. “China is spending a lot of efforts to build a good image, but not necessarily in terms of human rights.”
The government gives compensation for people who are forced from their homes, but according to McCullough, those people lose more than just their homes. The displacement breaks connections and networks with relatives and friends when they are pushed out of the central part of Beijing. The resulting living situations are therefore isolated and in poorer areas. “People get compensation, but it’s not enough to buy apartments in the city center, so they have to move to suburbs. In China, suburbs are poor in structure, transportation and quality of life,” Ren said.
It’s not only an issue for Beijing residents. With the modernization in the city and the desire to make the place on par with Paris or London, the government has also taken steps to get rid of certain types of people – people who might mar the image of China during the Games. “Before, you could go any morning and see squatters standing along the road, looking for day jobs. Those people are gone. The people in shantytowns have gone back to the countryside,” McCullough said.
Some may say this is a good thing for the city, but squatters are literally carted out of town. “When the Olympics committee visited in [the] morning, they would cart beggars out of town, but by evening they would be back in,” Smith said. The government also has labeled 13 types of people who aren’t allowed at the Games, including dissidents and people friendly with foreign forces, according to Yu Pingping, a supply chain management graduate student who lived in China for most of her life.
As a member of the religion Falun Gong, Pingping falls under the category of people barred from the Games. This, however, is not new for her – members of Falun Gong have been actively persecuted for years as a threat to the government. But Pingping described her religion as peaceful and called the persecution “the biggest human rights violation in human history, and it’s not improving.”
The persecution has been actively going on for about nine years, though the initial government target was to eliminate the religion in three months, Pingping said. She said news stories from the Chinese government paint the practitioners as murderers and that many, including her own mother, are jailed for no reason. “My mom was arrested and beaten, and we didn’t know until a week or two later. There was no legal paperwork,” she said. Now the government checks up on the family, and since it’s considered a crime for three Falun Gong practitioners to congregate at the same time, going home is always nerve-wracking for Pingping. [china3]
Shi, on the other hand, supports the government in its activities. “I don’t think the Chinese government is persecuting people who practice normal religions. It is some religions that try to overturn the government, like Falun Gong,” he said. “Maybe there is persecution, I just don’t know about it and am not interested in it.”
Most people in China are of the same mind, according to Shi. He said he doesn’t know much about human rights situations in China in general, and that seems to be the popular belief. The West seems to have a view of the Chinese government as a harsh totalitarian organization that doesn’t care about Chinese lives, but in actuality, many Chinese are better off from it, economically at the very least, Shi said. And they’ll probably be even better off if and when China pulls off the international Olympic feat. “There are some things they’ve promised to do and not done anything about it. More like window dressing. But these issues affect very few people. Ninety-nine percent of Chinese people really don’t care,” McCullough said. This same discontent runs in the nature of politics in the United States – yes, some things could be changed, but it need not result in a complete overhaul of the political structure of the country.
However, for the percentage of China’s large population who face persecution and alienation for their beliefs and for the rural population that still suffers from a lack of education, poor health care and gender disparity, the Olympics can only exacerbate their situations as the government works hard to quell protests and uprisings. “China wants to present a unified front to the West,” McCullough said. “The government needs to get anyone out of there who they know is going to make a scene.”
Historically, it’s been the peasants in the countryside who rise up in protests. While the government has recognized there are problems that need solving in the rural areas, the focus is all on Beijing and the cities as the Olympics approach, and it’s unlikely many tourists will leave the urban area during the Olympics. It’s the protests in the cities that concern the government.
While it has always been difficult to protest in China – one must get a permit from the government first – it has been increasingly more difficult as the Olympics approach. Government efforts include the imprisoning of outspoken political activists and a police-like force ready to squash any protests in a short amount of time. However, Ren said there is more of a forum for protesting because of environmental groups and non-governmental organizations. “You don’t directly challenge the central government but these groups have opened up the decision-making process for ordinary citizens,” she said. “It’s a power game between the government and civilians. It’s hard to tell who will win.”
[pingping]But while this may mean more of a push for the movements environmental groups support, this still says nothing about those who the government is actively persecuting and those who cannot afford the more expensive Olympic prices in Beijing. And the government, like always, maintains strict control of the news that gets out of China to the international press. The Olympics have given the government another reason to put more stringent rules on journalists at home, according to Pingping. “We’re not aware of things. Before coming to the United States, I wasn’t aware Tiananmen was so terrible. We’re deaf and blind and don’t know what’s happening. There’s always only one voice allowed. Even if reaches Chinese people, can’t speak without being punished by the government,” Pingping said of her experience as an activist.
China did make a promise to allow more press freedom to international journalists in order to host the Olympics. While it may be slightly better now, China is heavily weighing reports that might portray China against its desired international image, and journalists are quietly not allowed to report on these things, McCullough said. “But it depends on what kinds of things journalists say. You can complain about the government and say there’s corruption, but you can’t say that another would be better.” However, the government, when pressed, usually will tell the truth, Smith added. “The government hasn’t been caught lying, just not saying. They’re whitewashing and just not telling,” Smith said.
Activism has succeeded, though, in the case of Darfur, thanks to the Olympics. China, afraid of having the Games labeled “Genocide Olympics,” bowed to international pressure to decrease relations with the Sudanese government – relations that will still remain, nevertheless, as long as there is oil in Africa. But ceding to international wishes in this case seems to be somewhat of an isolated case – China responds better to open discussions, understanding and respect, according to Smith. She added it’s unlikely the increased attention on the country will do much to change anything permanently in terms of human rights and issues like Darfur and China’s continued occupation of Tibet. “It’s probably the right time to put pressure on China and to ask them to justify or rethink things. But publicly humiliating China won’t work. They respond much better to open conversation. China is most open to countries who treat them with respect,” she said.
Some of the movements, such as greening, will continue after the Olympics are over, Smith said. “These gains will continue after the Olympics. They started before the Olympics in 1980s. The Olympics are just a reason to really push for rapid gains,” she said. “Other places continue to grow. With the hype from the Olympics, other towns have gotten new train stations and improvements. The government wants it to spread to rural areas, too.”
However, the world shouldn’t expect China to switch to democracy anytime soon, though South Korea did around the time of its Olympics and coming-out party. “The long term impact of the Olympics will be more changes in the economic sphere, but not political. That’s always separate from everything else,” Ren said.
The “everything else” also includes China’s cultural history, which often seems swept under the rug with all the focus on politics and economy. Unfortunately, here’s where the heart of the Olympics lies – in the sharing of different cultures in a peaceful setting. “I’m worried we’re missing out on an opportunity to learn more about the Chinese people themselves,” Smith said. The Olympics committee has somewhat recognized this and has incorporated the five traditional elements into its logo with their names spelling out “Beijing Welcomes You,” but at the same time, all taxi cab drivers in Beijing are required to memorize common English phrases for the Olympics. [chin1]
This desire to appear friendlier to the English-speaking world is only one more example of China’s “new” place in the international community. The world has been watching China closely since the announcement of the Olympic bid, and though China, like any other country, is far from perfect, it’s time to recognize the role it plays in globalization. The Olympics are only the start, for better or worse. What comes after the Games is a whole other story that has yet to be brainstormed, much less written.

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