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The Price of Success: China and the Olympics

Pranjal Tiwari
Date Published: 
October 01, 2008

By the time this issue goes to print, the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing will have come to an end, no doubt with a spectacular closing ceremony. Politics have always followed the modern Olympic Games in some manner, from the actions of Black September in 1972 to more recent controversies over gentrification, and labor issues around major sportswear corporations. The 2008 Olympics, however, were guaranteed to be especially politically sensitive, given the current and historical framework of US- and Western power and its relationship with China. Indeed, there was an increasing level of geopolitical significance in the months, weeks, and days leading up to the Games' opening ceremony.

Just before the Olympics began, George Bush used a speech he gave in Bangkok to rebuke China on the issue of human rights. "America stands in firm opposition to China's detention of political dissidents, human rights advocates, and religious activists," he said. Bush was also urged by then-presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton not to attend the opening ceremony due to human rights concerns.

Around the same time, it was also revealed through the press that UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown would not be attending the opening ceremony in Beijing. Though official statements hinted that he had never planned on attending in the first place, Brown's previous statements regarding China, and his meeting with the Dalai Lama in May 2008 left little doubt as to the reasons behind the decision.

It is perhaps easy to dismiss these as relatively minor - and of course hypocritical - public remarks on the part of elites, the kind that have become almost routine in recent years. However, the significance of such high-profile statements becomes clearer once we consider the incredible importance that was attached to organizing these games on the part of the Chinese government. Like the celebratory language that accompanied China's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) back in 2001, hosting the world's most important international sporting event was trumpeted by Chinese elites as a another sign that China was now finally able to participate equally in the world's major international institutions. Hosting the Olympics and entering into the WTO were, moreover, held as potent examples confirming the narrative that is often presented by the state around economic development and China's increasing adoption of capitalism - that after centuries of humiliation and injustice at the hands of colonial powers, the country is finally realizing its rightful place as a world power.

The importance given to hosting the Olympics in China, then, cannot be overstated. And it would be wrong to totally confine this sense of importance as being limited to elite sectors. While perhaps not buying into the whole narrative emanating from the state, many ordinary people definitely attached a genuine sense of optimism and hope for a better future to the fact that China was hosting the Olympics - a sign, perhaps that the country was perhaps moving away from a painful past and towards engaging with the world in a different way.

The buildup to the Olympics, then, was sure to be a sensitive time. And while statements from Western elites are one thing, actual events in the world leading up to the Games could hardly have been much worse from the organizers' point of view. With major riots and subsequent crackdowns in Tibet, often large protests against the Olympic torch relay in cities around the world, increasing turmoil in Zimbabwe and a highlighting of China's role in that region by COSATU dockers, major reports on the poor environmental conditions in Beijing, and the most extensive bombings and attacks by separatists in Western China in recent memory (these coming just days before the opening ceremony), there was a real sense that powerful forces were trying to spoil or sabotage the Olympics, and ruin China's big moment in the spotlight. The sense of persecution that was around this was voiced by one student, referring to protests in the UK against the Olympic relay:  "Look at what the US and UK have done to Iraq. Will these people protest over the London Olympic Games [in 2021]?"

Once the Games began, however, the world's media seemed to turn their attention to the competition; the occasional story about restriction of press freedom and protests was sufficiently dwarfed by the athletes' record-breaking performances. Mission accomplished - though of course the real tragedies around these Olympics have not been a result of their being "spoiled" by external forces, but rather, through the very success of their taking place, and the normal, "business as usual" nastiness that comes with organizing such events.

As we have seen in other parts of Asia, in the US, and around the world, internal repression against "undesirable" elements is predictably ramped up in the host cities of major international meetings, conferences, summits. When Thailand hosted the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in 2003, Human Rights Watch quoted one activist as saying that the assembled leaders would not be bothered by "stray dogs, homeless people, or human-rights activists." In the case of Beijing, one of the main targets of repression has been the population of migrant workers. In February 2008, for example, it was reported that major operations were underway to expel large numbers of migrants from Beijing to improve the "security environment" ahead of the Olympics. The irony, of course, is that it is mostly these workers who were responsible for the construction of stadiums and other Olympic-related infrastructure. Ai Weiwei, a designer of the Bird's Nest Stadium turned critic of the Games, notes, "It was these workers...who laid every brick and tile of the modern urban landscape. For the sake of appearances, even the small shops they frequented have been shut down, along with many street markets, video outlets, and clubs."

Ai's latter point brings up the fact that massive and rapid gentrification is another feature of the smooth running of such events. According to the Geneva-based Center on Housing Rights and Evictions (CHRE), the Olympic Games alone have displaced more than 20 million people in the past 20 years, as host cities and nations "relocate" homeless, poor, and other local populations to make way for infrastructure such as stadiums and related accomodation. Even more shocking, a full 1.5 million people had already been displaced as a result of the Beijing Olympics by June 2007, according to CHRE.

Clearly the levels of gentrification and repression required to host a spectacle such as the Olympics in such a massive and populous city as Beijing are staggering. But rather than buy into the suggestion that such repression and gentrification are unique features of China, it is worth repeating that what we have seen in Beijing is part and parcel of "success," a pattern seen across the world in the wake of such elite spectacles, and more quietly in the everyday workings of the neoliberal era.

Much as we are urged to separate politics from sport, the two are inseparable in the case of the Olympics, and it would be naive to view something like the Olympics out of the context of today's global political and economic institutions. In fact, the Games and the manner of their organization can perhaps be seen as a microcosm of our world today - where a pre-fabricated model is imposed upon the vast majority of people by a narrow decision-making elite.

Even in a less abstract sense, it would be an act of callous indifference to separate the Games from reality when we are informed by human-interest stories that top-competing Olympians often consume up to 12,000 calories a day to maintain their level of performance, while the majority of the world is enduring a major crisis of food - one that has forced the average Haitian to subsist on a daily intake of just 460 calories. So as the closing ceremony's fireworks fade and the clean-up work begins, this Olympics may indeed be remembered as a "successful" event, and may even have proven that China can compete in and be a part of the current world stage. But in the sober light of the morning after, we may be forced to ask, just what kind of world are we all a part of?