Politics and Games Was Beijing 2008 a Mistake?

While the world complains about human rights violations, air pollution, censorship and the despotic rule of the Chinese regime, China is celebrating a dream come true. Many in the West are convinced that awarding the Olympics to Beijing was a mistake. Are they right?

By SPIEGEL Staff


The Olympic opening ceremony in Beijing: political games
Getty Images

The Olympic opening ceremony in Beijing: political games

A picture is worth a thousand words, but it rarely gives the whole story. These days, a wide range of images are coming out of Beijing. These include crowds of flashy dancers organizing themselves into enormous life-like figures, but also goose-stepping soldiers parading the Chinese flag through the Beijing National Stadium, dubbed the "Bird's Nest." We see images of the city smothered in a thick yellow-brown layer of smog, but the cameras never show that the sky can sometimes just be blue. Our televisions flash images of policemen marching in martial formations beneath the Olympic stadium, despite the fact that you'd be hard pressed to actually find them there these days. Apparently, these are images designed to match -- and shape -- opinions. In reality, they're all about clichés.

Ironically enough, the most spine-chilling images to come out of the 29th Olympic Games so far have been provided by Chinese state television itself. On Friday morning, the broadcaster transmitted images of foreign dignitaries arriving in front of the monumental Great Hall of the People on an eerily empty Tiananmen Square. The movements of an honor guard in front of the entrance's huge columns were filmed using a wide-angle lens, which made the images reminiscent of the Nazi propaganda films directed by Leni Riefenstahl. These images, at least, say that it was a mistake to award the Olympics to Beijing. They hearken back to Berlin in 1936. And they say that, once again, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is helping a dictatorship polish its reputation worldwide.

Even eight hours after the Olympics began playing on television screens across the globe, the ominous images failed to get much brighter. Instead of coming across as a joyful celebration of the world's youth, large portions of the opening ceremony seemed more like a monumental festival thrown by a country celebrating its shining self-image. The images were not those of a country opening up to the world, but rather dazzling symbols of age-old greatness and modern-day power. Organizers dug deep into the costume collection of a 4,000-year-old culture to create teeming cascades of closely coordinated actors, and even China’s minorities were given airtime under the spotlights. But, behind all of this, skeptics could see a repeat performance of old-style communist ceremonial pomp -- only using 21st-century props.

Was it a mistake to award the games to China? Should a country that oppresses minorities, operates forced labor camps and suppresses freedom of speech be allowed to bask in the warm glow of the Olympic flame? Were the IOC's assurances that the country would open up -- the grand promise of betting on the emergence of a bit of democracy on the road to these Olympics -- nothing more than a devious ruse aimed at securing an appearance on the world’s greatest advertising platform? This seems to be the general consensus of many in the West, and there are definitely majorities in countries -- including Germany, the UK, Belgium, Greece, Italy and Spain -- that welcome the fact that their own political leaders have decided -- more or less as a public protest -- not to attend events in Beijing. But that still doesn’t make them right.

A Matter of Cultural Interpretation

Whether deliberately or not, by hosting the Olympic Games, China has allowed more freedom in public than it has at any other point in its history. There are over 20,000 accredited foreign journalists in the country, thousands of athletes and officials, tens of thousands of tourists from Western democracies and a few daredevil protesters who have used the occasion to scale power poles and unfurl “Free Tibet” banners in the heart of the Chinese capital.

Athletes also protested last week, wrote open letters, communicated appeals from abroad to China. All over the world, experts are talking openly about these issues. On talk shows and in parliamentary debates worldwide, China is the hot topic, and some of this finds its way back to the country. Encounters between locals and visitors in Beijing will also have an effect. Chinese society is changing, and this process consists of many tiny adjustments, thousands of fragments that can coalesce to form a new mosaic.

Simple images fail to accurately portray this situation. This explains why so much of what we see appears to be so stereotypical. It also shows that, when faced with such a daunting array of contradictory material, the media has chosen to admit defeat. Western -- and German -- television frequently shows images of pagodas, despite the fact that there are hardly any left among the skyscrapers' shadows. When it comes down to it, China might not be terribly eager to open up to the rest of the world, but the reverse is also true: By constantly reproducing its favorite images of the country, both positive and negative, the world has also insulated itself from the real China.

Take, for example, the throng of sports reporters and special correspondents from around the world, many of whom are traveling to China for the first time. Being so new to the country, they tend to misinterpret their first impressions. This unfamiliarity has even led some German newspapers to report that Beijing has somehow been transformed into a city of fear during the games. At the Main Press Center on the Olympic Green, the rumor mill is working at full speed, and even the tiniest novelties are put to use in hectically typed headlines.

Is it really newsworthy that American bicycle racers wore respiratory masks when they arrived in Beijing? Is it important that a swimmer has circulated a nude photo of herself in Beijing to protest against the fur industry? And are the pole climbers sincerely interested in fighting for the Tibetan cause, or could they also be partially motivated by a desire for their own 15 minutes of fame, which has become so easy to win these days in Beijing?

Appearance and Reality

These days, Beijing seems a little strange. To improve the air quality, half the cars are not allowed on the streets, which has resulted in smoothly flowing traffic on the beltway instead of the customary gridlock. Volunteer workers are stationed at every corner and intersection, rushing forward to greet all foreigners and put their broken English to the test. They have been told to keep their eyes and ears open to spot terrorists trying to secretly infiltrate the city. Of course, it’s easy to write these harmless stewards off as government thugs -- as long as you never speak with them. But the fact is that these workers -- all 400,000 of them -- are proud. They want to be part of the Olympic family and part of the dream now coming true in China.

On the one hand, no one doubts that, in the months preceding the games, the Chinese security apparatus thoroughly scanned the entire city. Video cameras have been installed on every corner and the security level is high. These days, it's safe to say that any country would take similar precautions. On the other hand, the mood in Beijing has in fact been predominantly one of cheerfulness. People throw small Olympics parties brimming with local and national pride. Children’s choirs sing in neighborhood centers, and small red flags can be seen fluttering all over the city.

But if you're inclined to ask what might be wrong with this picture, one place to look might be Tiananmen Square. In a free country, there's no doubt that a place like this would be an Olympic venue, a place to hold colorful celebrations with people from around the world, a place crowded with large screens, beer stands and all kinds of booths. But, these days, the square is empty.

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