China's Olympic diplomacy
  • Thu, 08/21/2008 - 12:00

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By Zhang Quanyi
Column: Global SurveyPublished: August 21, 2008

Shanghai, China — The Olympic Games provide a great opportunity for athletes to show off their skills and compete for world championships. At the same time, they provide a unique diplomatic opportunity for the host nation. This has been true in the past, and this year’s Summer Olympic Games in Beijing are no exception.
China has certainly made the most of this unique opportunity, especially through the opening ceremony on the evening of Aug. 8. With more than 80 world leaders seated in the Bird’s Nest National Stadium – including U.S. President George W. Bush, Russian Prime Minister Vladmir Putin, Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and Australia Prime Minister Kevin Rudd – as well as over 90,000 other spectators and a global television audience estimated at more than 1 billion, China had the perfect chance to present its message to the world.

The state spared no expense or effort in crafting the perfect message for this perfect moment. The evening program presented China’s glorious past, its unique culture, and its present power, as well as its view of its place in the world.

An army of 2,008 drummers pounded out the countdown to the games with energy and precision that astonished the audience. This was a declaration to the world that China had reached its goal in holding this world-level event – a dream held for 100 years. The powerful drumbeats obliterated the history of humiliation China has experienced in its confrontations with the world for more than a century.

The program then proceeded to show China’s rich cultural tradition and heritage, depicting the height of the nation’s glory. Using highly imaginative techniques, performers depicted ink drawing on a giant scroll, Chinese music played on ancient instruments, graceful dancers in elegant Tang Dynasty costumes, dynamic martial arts demonstrated by well-built men, and a fabulous display of fireworks. The lighting of the torch was particularly unique, mimicking a Chinese moon myth and at the same time expressing modern man’s ambitions to explore space.

The ceremony was intended to impress the world with China’s rich, ancient cultural heritage, and depict it as a civilized state with advanced science and technology. It also aimed to create an impression that China has always been a peace-loving country – and is therefore not a threat to the outside world.

China also used the opening ceremony to express the country’s willingness to integrate into the world community – depicted by dancers walking all around a giant suspended globe, and by the theme song “You and Me,” sung by Chinese pop star Liu Huan and British singer Sarah Brightman.

Despite the beautiful themes and scenes of the Olympics opening ceremony, however, the reality leading up to the games has been quite different. Discord and difficulties have troubled the run-up to the games, both within and outside China.

On the day of the opening ceremony, according to Western media, thousands of people around the world took part in human rights protests against Beijing. Demonstrators took to the streets of cities including Washington, London, Brussels, Berlin, Kathmandu, New Delhi, Bangkok and Hong Kong, on issues ranging from the crackdown in Tibet to Beijing’s support for the military junta in Myanmar.

Within China, the months leading up to the Olympics were plagued with one unhappy incident after another. Worst among them were the two natural disasters that hit the country. Early in the year, massive snowfall in the south and southeast killed more than 100 people and damaged transport and electric lines for weeks, causing over US$10 billion in damages.

Then the devastating 8.0 magnitude earthquake hit Sichuan province on May 12, causing around 70,000 deaths and numerous injuries, leaving 5 million people homeless, and causing losses of around US$20 billion.

On the international level, China’s efforts to project a peaceful image were marred due to a crackdown on pro-independence Tibetan protestors in Lhasa on March 14. As a result, the international Olympic torch relay encountered an anti-China wave in a number of Western and Asian cities. Some Western leaders threatened to boycott the Olympics over the incident – though in the end, most of them attended the opening ceremony.

In reaction to this anti-China sentiment, Chinese nationalism raged at home. Western stores and companies were boycotted and young people used the Internet to express their anger at the rest of the world. The Chinese government succeeded in cooling this fiery movement, however, calling on citizens to be calm and rational.

Far from the capital there were troubles within China too. According to Chinese media, farmers in both Guizhou and Yunnan provinces had confrontations with police and local government officials over perceived injustice. A bomb exploded in Kunming, capital of Yunnan province, causing two deaths and 14 injuries. On Aug. 4, just four days ahead of the Olympics, Uighur extremists killed 16 policemen and injured 16 more in the border town of Kashgar in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. And on Aug. 10, in the remote Xinjiang town of Kuqa, a series of terror attacks killed 11 people.

China never anticipated such a series of tragedies while preparing for the Olympic Games. When it was awarded the right to host the 29th Olympic Games in 2001, it was like a dream come true. It was already the second attempt; China had been working to get the games since 1991, when it initiated a three-year “long march” to win the right to host the 2000 Olympic Games. When China lost that bid by two votes, it was a severe disappointment.

Since winning the bid for the 2008 games, China has put tremendous effort and resources into its preparations. According to government statistics, the games cost US$1.9 billion. This includes the cost of building 12 new venues, renovating 11 existing venues, constructing eight temporary venues and renovating 45 stand-alone training sites. It does not cover auxiliary facilities such as the Olympic Forest Park and the Olympic Village.

China also paid much more than expected in terms of pain, sorrow, anger and disappointment on the way to the Olympics. But when Chinese President Hu Jintao declared the opening of the Beijing Olympic Games, in addition to those inside the National Stadium, tens of thousands of Chinese thronged the streets, waving national flags and cheering in a huge outpouring of patriotism and national pride.

China paid dearly in order to host the Olympic Games; therefore, it has earned this moment of pride in its achievement.


(Dr. Zhang Quanyi is associate professor of political science at Zhejiang Wanli University. He has a doctorate degree in law from Shanghai International Studies University, and a master's degree from the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Birmingham in Britain. Dr. Zhang has published numerous articles on international relations and political psychology. His research interest revolves around generation of a world state. He can be contacted at ©Copyright Zhang Quanyi)