For The Calgary Herald
Wednesday, August 06, 2008
Two days from now, 08-08-08, the Beijing Olympics begin. In North America, 888 is just a toll-free prefix, but in China it is a lucky number, especially where money is involved. Looking at things from the perspective of the Chinese government, however, 2008 has been anything but lucky.
In January, just before Chinese New Year, now called the Spring Festival, China was hit by the worst snowstorm in half a century. Spring Festival is when people travel to their ancestral homes to be with their families. In 2007, according to the BBC, some two billion journeys were made; this year the disruption was equally enormous.
On March 5, in Xian, a man hijacked a bus full of Australian tourists. Two days later, Chinese security officials claimed to have prevented the bombing by Uighur terrorists of a plane flying from Xinjiang to Beijing. Three days after that, the annual March 10 demonstrations commemorating the failed uprising of 1959 spiralled out of control in Tibet.
Firm action by the People's Liberation Army then provided a shot in the arm for a wide range of international organizations whose objections to the award of the Olympics to Beijing had long been ignored.
On March 24, the Olympic torch was ignited in Athens, attended by noisy protesters as well as pious Olympians. Other protesters showed up in London, Paris and San Francisco. In the last-named, they were met for the first time by counter-demonstrations by overseas Chinese assisted by the Chinese government.
April was no better.
The Dalai Lama continued his foreign tour, meeting with several world leaders. China had to recall an arms shipment headed for Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe when South African stevedores refused to unload it.
In May, as food and fuel prices began to spike and the stock market declined, Chinese people began to express views that perhaps Olympic spending was a bad idea when people could not afford food.
Then on May 12, a major earthquake hit Sichuan. This diverted criticism for a while. Eventually it brought attention to the tendency of the government to jail people such as Liu Shaokun for posting Internet pictures of collapsed schools.
But the biggest change came in June.
Way back in 2001, when Beijing was awarded the Games, the thought was to encourage changes the IOC approved.
For Beijing, on the other hand, winning the Games was both evidence that China had joined the great powers of the world and an opportunity to prove it. These were heady days when devil's bargains were struck between the IOC and the Chinese government over air quality, access for journalists, increasing commercial ties, adding to the GDP and all the rest.
The great lesson learned from the events of last spring was that the world could embarrass the Chinese regime, which is the one thing no bureaucratic tyranny can tolerate. The focus immediately changed from showing the world Chinese political strength and other achievements to preventing additional loss of face.
Thus starting early in July, with the visit of Vice-President Xi Jinping to Hong Kong and the Middle East, a new line was established: the Olympics were a sporting event, not a political one.
The Chinese press dutifully followed their instructions and have been making the case that, since China is still part of the Third World, the earlier expectation that China would host the greatest Games in history should be revised.
Of course, this is just the opposite of what was said in 2001, which means a number of things.
First, the criteria of success have changed. The government now will consider the Games a success if nothing more disruptive than Monday's attack on police in Xinjiang happens.
Second, primary responsibility now lies in the hands of the Public Safety Bureau, not the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games.
Where BOCOG was interested in welcoming outsiders and ensuring that local businesses were able to profit from all the wealthy foreigners, the PSB operates on the assumption that if no one shows up, nothing can go wrong.
This is why they have ordered large numbers of local businesses in Beijing to shut down and have tightened visa restrictions.
The change also explains the on-going dance between the IOC and the PSB over Internet access to such subversive sites as the BBC and Wikipedia.
What changed the Olympics from a prospective PR triumph to a security lockdown was not temporary bad luck, but chronic bad government.
Barry Cooper, PhD, is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary.
© The Calgary Herald 2008