China: China and the Olympics


Phar Kim Beng

The importance of the Beijing Olympics Game to the top Chinese leadership has been obvious to the likes of Singapore's Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew from 2001. Speaking to Professor Ezra Vogel of Harvard University, Lee affirmed that the leadership of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would from this point on want a "stable regional environment." This would allow China to host the Olympics Game successfully; in addition to which build the platform to host the World Shanghai Expo in 2010 too.

Both events would showcase the best of China; even as Beijing is reeling from various environmental concerns that threatened to mar the game and the expo. Although Asia has, over the same period, been affected by the terrorist attacks of September 11 in 2001; the Bali Bombings in 2002; the subsequent health hazards posed by the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003; the Tsunami in 2005; followed by the scare of Avian Influence/Bird Flu in 2006; none of these non-traditional security threats have challenged Lee's great power thesis. There are several cases to show marked optimism.

In contrast to the Chinese missile diplomacy in 1994-1995, where Beijing lobbed missiles into the Taiwan Straits to protest President Lee Teng Hui's ostensible attempt to 'take Taiwan away from China,' President Hu Jing Tao has deftly handled Taiwan without causing any more rancor. Although there is currently a missile stockpile of close to 200 missiles aimed at the island, this is a continuation of what China has been doing since 1994. Politically, Beijing does not want to agitate the relations any further, due to the extent to which Fujian province relies on Taiwanese investment too.

As things are, China does not harbor any plans of attacking Taiwan unless there is a clear attempt to break free from the clutch of China. Interestingly, while Taiwan's President Chen Shui Bian has from time to time tried to provoke China into resorting to aggressive rhetoric - usually by speaking in local Taiwanese dialect which makes him all but un-intelligible to the leaders in Beijing - Hu has kept a calm facade. The sabre rattling between China and Taiwan, in other words, has in the interim stopped; bringing much stability and peace to the people across the straits.

Southeast Asia has also stopped feeling all alarmed and threatened by a belligerent China. Indeed, China and ASEAN relations are now at a peak with huge turnover from increased volumes of trade. Aside from Taiwan and Southeast Asia, China has also tried to be a "responsible stakeholder" by taking the lead in convening the Six Party Nations Talks over the Korean Peninsula.

This has resulted in the gradual relaxation of tension between Pyongyang and other countries, especially the cessation of North Korea's plan to 'go nuclear.' Kim Jong II is now no longer averse to dialogue, meetings and even inter Korean summitry. No one knows why the Olympics game is of such meaningful import to the Chinese elites and leadership. But romantic idealism is probably not the most persuasive explanation. Rather, it is the result of a delicate learning progress too. When China began sending missiles into the Taiwan Strait, it created a maelstrom of controversy throughout the world. Its image as a peace-loving country suffered heavily. Since then China has learned the strategic importance of "soft power", to which what the mainland scholars refer to as "public diplomacy."

As a country that is determined to achieve its "peaceful evolution" or "peaceful development," it is crucial to take the non-military option at all point, in order to consolidate its soft power. Therefore, earning the world's positive affection and attention are crucial to China's resurrection as a responsible power in the eyes of global public opinion. US actress Mia Farrow has apparently understood this point very well, and threatened to have the Beijing Olympics in 2008 potentially classified as a "genocide game" if China does not try to use its seeming influence on Sudan to put an end to the humanitarian tragedy in Darfur. By threatening to expose the Beijing Olympics in a negative light, Mia has got the leaders' attention. In the same vein, with the Olympics literally months away, China cannot afford the world to believe that it supports the brutal crackdown of the monks in Myanmar too. Hence China has, to the extent possible, tried to distance itself from Myanmar, while still accepting ASEAN's leadership in handling the situation.

Without a doubt, the Beijing Olympics are important to China. Super empowered individuals like Steven Spielberg who is one of the artistic directors of the games has even written to President Hu to hold China to better standards in governance. Such pressures, in drips and drabs, can see China being more sensitive to security and environmental issues in the months to come.

WATCHPOINT: Will the Olympics have a positive impact on China's path to a more democratic or, at least, human-rights-oriented domestic policy, or will the Games simply reinforce the status quo?


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