August 28, 2008
By Helle C. Dale
The Beijing Olympics are now part of history. The question is
how they will be viewed. Olympic history has had some extraordinary
highs and lows, and of course Chinese leaders would like the just
concluded extravaganza to take its place among the soaring
successes. The category in which China competed, that of major
leading international nations and the gold medal prize, was "the
respect of the world." When it comes to spin control, image
crafting, and all of the arts of the PR business, the Chinese won
It would have to be conceded in the first draft of history that
Beijing succeeded. In fact, it succeeded so magnificently that it
could be argued that every Olympic Games should be held in a
totalitarian society where for a brief period of time at least,
government control can produce an illusion of perfection. The China
that the thousands of visitors experienced and millions of
television viewers saw was one of shining sports venues, clean air,
no poverty, exciting historical sights, great athletes, and
And it was not just the images. The Chinese indeed had the
gratification of seeing leaders from the world over travel to
Beijing to watch their athletes compete, a sign of international
respect for the country. President Bush's decision to be the first
American president to travel to an Olympic opening ceremony outside
the United States certainly has to be questioned in that context -
and of course it provided some embarrassing images of the president
from the beach volleyball arena, while Russian tanks were rolling
into Georgia with brilliant timing.
Nor is there any denying that the Chinese medal count was
impressive - though the scoring by certain international judges to
please their hosts did have something to do with it. While the
United States won the overall medal count of 110 (to China's 100),
the Chinese are understandably emphasizing that they captured more
gold medals than anyone else 51 (to the United States' 36).
Of course, some of their athletes did not exactly look like they
filled the age requirements for their disciplines, bringing back
memories of the old days when women athletes from the East Bloc
countries looked suspiciously as though they had been hormonally
enhanced. And the Chinese medal haul was like everything else in
the Olympics - the result of central planning, along with the
"scientific" approach to human development. The state chooses the
athletes at tender ages, dictates their disciplines, isolates them
from their families in training camps, and decides who they can
see, what they can know and even what they can eat.
In some ways, it is hard for democratic societies to compete
with a country like China. What democratic society, you would have
to ask yourself, could get away with spending $44 billion of
taxpayer money,on the Olympics? By comparison, the British
government, which will host the London Olympics in 2012,
anticipates spending a modest $18 billion, relying instead on the
innate pluck, charm and ingenuity of the British to carry the day
(which undoubtedly it will). And what open society could get away
with bulldozing inconvenient and unsightly slums, shutting down
factories and traffic for weeks to clear the air of pollution,
silencing dissent, using computer generated images in the opening
ceremony, and controlling the movements of visitors? Of course,
none could, which is why "perfection" is not quite within the reach
of societies where the government is accountable to the people, not
the other way around.
No doubt the Chinese leadership must be thinking that if the
2008 Olympics do not change the image of their country worldwide,
nothing ever will. But in reality they are wrong.
Previously, the image etched in minds around the world was that
of Tiananmen Square 1989, with the figure of the lone protestor
standing in the path of an on-coming tank, the very emblem of
individual courage in the face of overwhelming repression. The
Victims of Communism Memorial on Massachusetts Avenue, a replica of
the Lady Liberty statue erected by students in Tiananmen Square, is
a daily reminder to Washington commuters of the events of the
summer of 1989.
For the moment, the image of the bird's nest arena and the
athletic performances will hold the world's imagination. But what
would really change the image of China in the 21st century would be
to embrace democracy, respect human rights, abolish harsh
population controls, and allow the obvious talents, strengths and
ingenuity of the Chinese people to flourish freely. Now that would
earn China a place on the world scene like nothing we have
experienced in the past three weeks.
is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign
Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Washington Times
The Beijing Olympics are now part of history. The question is how they will be viewed. Olympic history has had some extraordinary highs and lows, and of course Chinese leaders would like the just concluded extravaganza to take its place among the soaring successes. The category in which China competed, that of major leading international nations and the gold medal prize, was "the respect of the world." When it comes to spin control, image crafting, and all of the arts of the PR business, the Chinese won hands down.
Helle C. Dale
Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
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