Countdown to Beijing

By Victor D. Cha
Wednesday, August 8, 2007

One year from today, Beijing will host the opening ceremonies for the 2008 Summer Olympics. For two weeks we will be treated to athletic performances that animate dreams and inspire the world, set against the backdrop of one of the world's most ancient and celebrated civilizations. That, at least, is the way Beijing would like to sell the Games. For better or worse, they will mark a critical crossroads in China's development as a responsible global player.

The Olympics have historically been a political event. Fascist and communist regimes tried to use the Games in Berlin in 1936 and Helsinki in 1952 to demonstrate the superiority of their political and social systems. The U.S. and Soviet boycotts of the 1980 (Moscow) and 1984 (Los Angeles) Olympics, respectively, were hardly the first time the Games were used politically. Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon did not participate in 1956 (Melbourne) because of the Suez crisis; Germany was banned from the 1920 Games for its actions in World War I; and South Africa faced bans because of its apartheid policy, to cite a few examples.

Moreover, this will be only the third time since 1896 that the Summer Games are held in Asia, where a tradition of sports diplomacy is arguably more prominent than in other regions. Not only did a ping-pong ball play a key role in Sino-American rapprochement, but the two Koreas have promoted reconciliation by fielding united sports teams, and beating Japan in sports has long been viewed as requital for its historical aggressions.

When the world's most populous country hosts the biggest sporting event around, it is about more than sports. China will seek to portray the Games as Beijing's coming-out party, showcasing its rapid economic growth and prosperity, as the 1988 (Seoul) Games did for South Korea. Beijing has been transformed in preparation -- from building a new airport to razing traditional "hutong" neighborhoods. A million cars will be banned from the city and 200 million trees will have been planted to absorb carbon dioxide. Just as the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 closed the book on wartime Japan, the Beijing Games will end China's past century as the "sick man" of Asia and open a new chapter as a modern, advanced nation. The symbolism of China's first astronaut in space carrying the Beijing Olympic banner could not have been a stronger statement of the nation's aspirations.

The Olympics, however, are generating pressures on the regime to change its behavior, not just its image. Beijing must find a way to join its controlled and closed political system with the classical liberal ideals of individualism, open competition and respect for human dignity embodied in the Olympics. It will also have to deal with intense international scrutiny of its behavior by journalists, nongovernmental organizations and socially responsible corporate actors.

It is hard to imagine sweeping changes in China along the lines of what took place in South Korea, where the 1988 Games played a key role in the authoritarian government's decision to relent to democratization pressures. Recent Chinese cooperation on North Korea, Iran and even climate issues are directly related to Chinese national interests, not an embrace of Olympic ideals. Movement on trade, currency reform and product safety would reflect Beijing's interests in avoiding trade wars.

The test of whether the Olympics change China will come over human rights and responsible foreign policy, particularly in Africa. China has felt the pressure -- and responded by releasing a prominent democracy activist shortly before the International Olympic Committee awarded Beijing the Games. It has also, for the first time, codified the state's constitutional responsibility to safeguard and respect human rights. These are encouraging steps.

China's Africa policy has come under scrutiny as it continues to sell arms and buy oil from the Sudanese government without attempting to stop the genocide in Darfur. Despite protesting attempts to link Chinese behavior in Darfur with corporate and institutional participation in the Games, China is quietly making changes. It did not block a U.S.-sponsored U.N. resolution calling for sanctions on Sudan's oil industry, it appointed a special envoy for Darfur in May, and it backed the third phase of the Darfur peace plan and an African Union-U.N. peacekeeping force.

The question is: Will the 2008 Games be like the 1936 Games in Berlin, where the goal was to validate a flawed domestic system before the world? Or, in the coming year, will we see whether Beijing is ready to mark the Games as a watershed for China's constructive role in the community of nations?

The writer, a professor at Georgetown University, was a White House Asia adviser from 2004 to 2007. He is the author of the forthcoming book "Sports Diplomacy in Asia and the Beijing Olympics."

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