National Security & Defense

The Road to Beijing: On Holding the Olympics in a Police State

Outside the Forbidden City in Beijing. (Kevin Frayer/Getty)

Editor’s note: Last week, the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2022 Winter Olympics to Beijing. In light of that announcement, we are republishing Jay Nordlinger’s preview of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, from the June 2, 2008, issue of NR.

The Beijing Olympics are approaching: They will begin on August 8. They were scheduled to begin earlier, on July 25 — but the government’s meteorologists counseled that the start be delayed, increasing the chances of fair weather. Everything must be perfect for the Beijing Olympics: They are China’s “coming-out party,” as everyone says.

The Olympics are, indeed, a pivotal moment for China, and its Communist government (if the two can be separated). Other countries are facing an important moment too, where their China policies are concerned. These Olympics have raised the question, What is China? and a correlative question: How is the world to regard and treat it?

Beijing tried very, very hard to secure the 2000 Olympics, losing out to Sydney by a hair. They poured billions of dollars into “Olympic construction.” They launched a campaign for public hygiene, using the slogan “Mobilize the Masses for a Fly-Free City!” They offered members of the International Olympic Committee an array of inducements. As a Beijing official put it, “We look upon the International Olympic Committee as God. Their wish is our command.”

They even relaxed their chokehold on people in their domain. They stopped monitoring foreign journalists so closely. And they released a political prisoner or two. In other words, they allowed for an “Olympic Pause” — the name given to the Nazis’ temporary loosening in the 1930s, when the Games were held in Berlin.

China lost out for 2000, but they put in another bid for the 2008 Games, and won. Their argument was that this was their due; that they could no longer be denied. As one official lectured, “The Olympic Games belong to the whole world. The fact that the Games have not yet been held in China is a failure of the Olympic movement.” Pressed on the issue of human rights, he huffed, “There is no excuse for denying the dreams of 1.3 billion people to hold the Olympics in Beijing.”

Understandably, the Chinese Communists hate any comparison of their Games to the Berlin Games. But such comparisons are inevitable, for anyone taking an honest look. When the Olympics are held in police states, similarities occur.

As a rule, Americans are taught that the ’36 Games were a failure for the Nazis, given the fabulous performance by Jesse Owens: The black American trackster won four gold medals. And that was supposed to have refuted Nazi race theories. Unfortunately, the Games were a huge success for the Nazis — enhancing their legitimacy, cementing their power. And Leni Riefenstahl made that stirring film, Olympia.

In his book Hitler’s Games, Duff Hart-Davis relates that Berlin was turned out nicely and benignly. This created the illusion that Nazi Germany was “a perfectly normal place, in which life went on as pleasantly as in any other European country.” Of course, Beijing has been engaged in the same Potemkinization — as was perfectly predictable.

The Communists are cracking heads precisely because of the Olympics  which is a point that the most unflinching observers keep making. The question is whether Beijing will somehow be held to account.

When Beijing was competing for the 2008 Games, Chinese human-rights types — dissidents and their supporters — were split. Most were against the granting of the Games to Beijing; but some were for, arguing that the Games would force China to open up, just a little. There was much talk of the “spotlight”: The spotlight would be on China, and would it help or hurt? Those opposed to the Beijing Games said that the spotlight had been on China before — for other sporting events and international conferences — and that this had caused the government to tighten its grip all the more. The government’s reasoning (in this view)? Foreigners are coming, and we have to look sharp, so no trouble-making is allowed. All undesirable elements must be swept away. We have to show a happy, wholesome, united front.

One Chinese-American journalist said at the time, “The Communists create an atmosphere, a mood, in which they can do anything.”

Back when Beijing was lobbying for the ’08 Games, they made all sorts of promises. One official said the Games “are an opportunity to foster democracy, improve human rights, and integrate China with the rest of the world.” That was the line, taken by all supporters of Beijing 2008. This same official said, “By allowing Beijing to host the Games, you will help the development of human rights.”

And how is China faring? The Communists are cracking heads precisely because of the Olympics — which is a point that the most unflinching observers keep making. Even the minor courtesy of an Olympic Pause has not been implemented. The question is whether Beijing will somehow be held to account.

Darfur and Tibet

For years, there was very little protest in the West over the coming of the Beijing Games — just some isolated cries, here and there. But one issue sort of aroused the world at large: Darfur. Beijing was the major backer of Khartoum, and Khartoum was responsible for genocide. The actress Mia Farrow attacked what she called the “Genocide Games” (meaning, Beijing ’08). She put particular pressure on Steven Spielberg, the universally beloved director, who was advising Beijing on the theatrical elements of the Olympics. “Does Mr. Spielberg really want to go down in history as the Leni Riefenstahl of the Beijing Games?” Farrow asked.

Spielberg, citing Sudan, withdrew from the Olympics. The theater is now mainly in the hands of another famous director, Zhang Yimou — and he may well show Riefenstahl-like skills.

In March of this year, another issue aroused the world at large: Tibet. China cracked down there, as it periodically does. And, like Darfur, Tibet is a popular cause, attracting celebrities. Many who otherwise have little interest in atrocities committed by Communists take an interest in Tibet — it probably goes with an interest in Tibetan Buddhism.

So, virtually all the protest against China has centered around Tibet and Sudan. It has not centered around the brutalities that Beijing inflicts on the Chinese people every day: arbitrary arrest, torture, murder, the repression of religion, the laogai (gulag), the denial of human and civil rights, the organ harvesting, etc. It was two relatively peripheral issues, Tibet and Sudan, that got the world cross with Beijing. But at least the regime’s behavior has not been ignored altogether.

They were the victim of bad timing, were the Chinese Communists. Their head-cracking in Tibet began just two weeks before the start of the Olympic Torch Relay — which they had dubbed the “Journey of Harmony.” Tibet was still holding the world’s attention.

The torch was lit in Olympia, of course, where Liu Qi, president of the Beijing Organizing Committee, addressed a crowd. He was interrupted by protesters — Chinese officials are not used to being interrupted by protesters, ever. Three members of Reporters Without Borders, an invaluable group, unfurled a banner showing the traditional Olympic rings as handcuffs. There were other demonstrations as well.

Incidentally, Tibetans in Europe organized a counter-relay, called the Tibetan Freedom Torch Relay. When they had their torch-lighting in Olympia, officials from the Chinese embassy in Athens were present, filming the participants. That is standard practice for Beijing, carried out on foreign soil with no interference, and with barely a murmur.

In the ‘People’s Republic of China,’ it is never the right time for people to voice their political views  unless those views perfectly conform to the official line.

As China’s torch — the Olympic torch — made its way to various major capitals, pro-Tibet demonstrators got themselves noticed. In London, Paris, and elsewhere, they committed what China’s official press called “vile misdeeds”: They tried to douse the torch, for example. Everywhere, the relay was unsmooth. As one torch-bearer said, “Nothing is happening as it was meant to.” Especially galling to Western audiences was the special Chinese security squadron, running along with the torch. They behaved like goons and thugs. Their official name was the “Sacred Flame Protection Unit.” They presented themselves to the world as Chinese brownshirts.

In London, a Chinese official said, “This is not the right time, the right platform, for any people to voice their political views.” That took real effrontery to say: In his country, the “People’s Republic of China,” it is never the right time for people to voice their political views — unless those views perfectly conform to the official line.

Back in the PRC, people did not see interruptions of the torch relay — because, whenever there was such an interruption, Chinese television went blank. When interruptions were reported, they were explained as the work of a few “hooligans,” “separatists,” and “splittists” — people who hate China and are trying to blacken its name. The government takes many opportunities to inflame Chinese nationalism, one of the strongest and ugliest forces on earth.

Measures Benign and Cruel

Beijing has done everything it can in preparation for the Olympic Games — again, everything must be perfect. There must be nothing untoward. Some of the government’s measures are benign; some of them less so. Among the benign measures: a new airport terminal, huge and impressive. When it opened, the band played “Auld Lang Syne.”

A million cars have been banned from Beijing, and 200 million trees planted. This is an effort to combat the city’s pollution, which is severe. They have prohibited tobacco for the Olympic period: You can’t smoke on public transport or in indoor workplaces — a real sacrifice for a heavily smoking nation. There will be anti-spitting patrols. Citizens have been admonished to be polite to foreigners. And government workers have been warned to watch their morals: These men are not to have their energies “dissipated by wine and women.”

The name of the Propaganda Department has been changed to “Publicity Department” — for the benefit of English speakers (only). Chinese scientists have been tinkering with the weather, as they are wont to do. They practice “rain mitigation,” and they are doing their best to ensure that no rain, or less rain, falls on the Olympics. And, in order to make way for improvements, and to make Beijing sightlier, the government has razed whole neighborhoods, once filled with traditional huts. There is not much thought to the people displaced.

#related#Westerners marvel at what the Chinese authorities can accomplish, and the speed with which they can accomplish it. They are even envious. An American acting as a senior adviser to the Beijing Olympic Committee said, “The ability to get things done here is really staggering. In Los Angeles, it would take endless discussions to build any structure. Here they decide to do it, and kaboom! It happens.” Yes, dictatorships are known to be good at that sort of thing.

In anticipation of the Games, this dictatorship has given the cop on the beat a little instruction in English. They have published a manual called “Olympic Security English,” for home study. The Christian Science Monitor obtained a copy. A practice dialogue headed “How to Stop Illegal News Coverage” goes like this:

P(oliceman): Excuse me, sir. Stop, please. 

F(oreign journalist): Why?

P: Are you gathering news here?

F: Yes.

P: About what?

F: About Falun Gong [an outlawed, viciously persecuted quasi-religious group].

P: Show me your press card and your reporter’s permit.

F: Here you are.

P: What news are you permitted to cover?

F: The Olympic Games.

P: Falun Gong has nothing to do with the Games. . . . You should only cover the Games.

F: But I’m interested in Falun Gong.

P: It’s beyond the limit of your coverage and illegal. As a foreign reporter in China you should obey China law and do nothing against your status.

 F: Oh, I see. May I go now?

P: No. Come with us.

F: What for?

P: To clear up this matter.

“Come with us,” indeed.

The authorities have done their considerable best to sweep away “unharmonious” elements, including beggars, migrant workers, and so on. China must show a happy, carefree face. The authorities have also rounded up hundreds of stray cats, and some pictures of this roundup have appeared: dismaying.

According to a report in Time magazine, “thousands of websites have been shuttered while government controls and blocking of sites outside China [have] intensified significantly in recent months.” Irene Khan, head of Amnesty International, is quoted as saying that China’s ongoing “crackdown” has “deepened, not lessened, because of the Olympics.” As for press controls, they are numerous and strict. Nothing must be disseminated that, in the government’s words, “endangers China’s national security, reputation, and interests.”

They have been rounding up Falun Gong with renewed energy, arresting almost 2,000 of them, according to the group. In addition, they have been rounding up Uighurs — the disaffected Turkic minority — lest they get Tibet-like ideas (or rather, act on them).

And they have arrested heroic dissidents — China’s best people — such as Hu Jia. He was arrested and sentenced (to three and a half years) precisely because he had criticized the ruling party’s Olympic maneuvers. As the party press put it, “Hu spread malicious rumors and committed libel in an attempt to subvert the state’s political power and socialist system.”

In an article he wrote with Teng Biao, a lawyer, Hu had a message for visitors to the Beijing Olympics: “You will see skyscrapers, spacious streets, modern stadiums and enthusiastic people. You will see the truth, but not the whole truth, just as you see only the tip of an iceberg. You may not know that the flowers, smiles, harmony and prosperity are built on a base of grievances, tears, imprisonment, torture and blood.”

Other Chinese who have been arrested, or who have been “disappeared,” because of their writings about the Olympics include Yang Chunlin, Gao Zhisheng, and Wang Dejia. Each one of them makes an amazing, appalling, and inspiring story. Why do some people risk so much against a vastly powerful machine — namely the CCP, the Chinese Communist Party?

Important and Vexing Questions

After the Tibet crackdown, a discussion began about what democratic leaders should do: Should they boycott the Games, or the opening ceremony, in a symbolic gesture? (Virtually no one suggested the pulling out of teams.) There was also the question, Does attendance at the opening ceremony equal an endorsement of the Chinese government? A Human Rights Watch official said, “Attendance has been turned into endorsement, and endorsement without significant progress in exchange is wrong.” Several European leaders have decided not to go. But President Bush is going, in a display of foreign-policy “realism” for which he gets little credit.

The International Olympic Committee is quite unhappy that trouble is being made — not by Communist China, but by critics of its behavior. IOC president Jacques Rogge fumed, “Politics invited itself into sports. We didn’t call for politics to come.” “Politics” is a funny word to use in this case: Objection to crushing people is “politics”? A regard for basic human rights is “politics”? Rogge said, “Tell them that we will rebound from this current crisis” — meaning, protests for Tibet. “The Olympic brand is strong,” he said, and corporate sponsors are showing “great solidarity and support.” Funny, “solidarity” used to mean, for example, standing with Lech Walesa and the Polish trade unions against the Communist government that ruled them. Now it means . . . not spoiling the CCP’s “coming-out party.”

If anyone is more concerned than the Chinese Communists that the Beijing Olympics come off without disturbance, it is Western businessmen, who have invested millions.

In his reaction to the pro-Tibet protests, Rogge reminded athletes of the Olympic rules. They may respond freely to reporters’ questions. But “the venues of the Games are not a place for proactive political or religious expression.” And “sanctions and penalties will be applied in any cases considered to be a breach of IOC policy.” Free World teams seem eager to maintain “peace.” For example, the British Olympic Association has said that any athlete who talks about “political” issues will be expelled from the team. What would Gladstone, Disraeli, or Churchill say?

A sports daily in Italy reported that China has put the Bible on its list of items that cannot be brought into the country. Whether Bibles will be confiscated remains to be seen. What is sure is that Beijing is taking few chances with religion. The IOC requires a religious center at the Olympic village. And, as The Economist reported, China has broken with traditional Olympic practice and “not invited foreigners to serve as chaplains.” Instead, the staff at the center “will belong to China’s state-approved churches.”

If anyone is more concerned than the Chinese Communists that the Beijing Olympics come off without disturbance, it is Western businessmen, who have invested millions. The New York Times editorialized that, “given [China’s] mighty economic power, nobody really wants to antagonize Beijing.” That is a major understatement. Corporate sponsors were appalled at the harassment of the Olympic Torch Relay. One company (Samsung) said nervously, “We believe the Olympic Games are not the place for demonstrations, and we hope that all people attending the Games recognize the importance of this.” The Wall Street Journal reported, “It appears that most sponsors have made the decision to refrain from criticizing Beijing rather than risk angering the Chinese government” — another prize-winning understatement.

Indisputably, the Games mean a great deal to China — to the Chinese people, not merely to the ruling party. Several thousand children have been named “Aoyun,” meaning Olympics. And China has come a long way from the days of most widespread oppression. Democratic governments have to figure out how to make their points to the Chinese government — if they have points — while respecting the sensitivities of the Chinese population.

In the last months, it has become clear that how you stand on the Olympics is a reflection of how you stand on China in general. Soft-liners are soft, hard-liners are hard. There is a school of thought that says nothing, nothing must ever be done that offends the Chinese Communists. Of boycotting the opening ceremony, one typical U.S. columnist says, “It would be a deadly insult and humiliation to an insecure government that would not forgive or forget.” Another columnist warns of “inflaming Chinese nationalism and making Beijing more obdurate.” You can read such sentiments in every newspaper and every magazine in the West.

The problem is, almost everything seems to offend the Chinese Communists. It is as easy to offend the Chinese Communists as it is to offend the Muslim radicals. And we are constantly warned, If you irk the Chinese, you will cause an explosion. (By the way, why does no one ever say that the belief that the Chinese are a bunch of temperamental toddlers, liable to throw a tantrum at any moment, is condescending or racist?)

Beijing authorities are deeply nervous about what may occur at the Games. Hu Jintao, the Chinese No. 1, was quoted in the People’s Armed Police News saying, “Without security guarantees there cannot be a successful Olympic Games, and without security guarantees the national image will be lost” — lost. The mayor of Beijing, Wang Qishan, said, “We have to have a good Olympics, otherwise not only will our generation lose face but also our ancestors” — our ancestors. David Pryce-Jones and others tell us about shame and honor in the Middle East; the shame-and-honor equation in China is powerful as well.

There are several things to watch. For example, will the PRC delay or block the broadcast of the Games, if there are protests? There is concern about that. Also, how intrusive will the PRC be into the lives and affairs of visitors? The U.S. State Department has already warned Americans traveling to the Games:

All visitors should be aware that they have no reasonable expectation of privacy in public or private locations. All hotel rooms and offices are considered to be subject to on-site or remote technical monitoring at all times. Hotel rooms, residences and offices may be accessed at any time without the occupant’s consent or knowledge.

Why are the Olympic Games being held in such a place?

A big question is, What will President Bush do while in China? Will he meet with dissidents, as President Reagan did in the Soviet Union? Will he extract concessions, in exchange for his attendance? In other words, what good will he wring out of these Games, and what good will the rest of us wring out of them?

When I wrote about Beijing 2008 in 2000, before the IOC made the decision to give the Games to China, I canvassed dissidents for their opinion. I have canvassed them again. The consensus is: The Games should probably never have been granted to this state to begin with. But now that they have — take advantage of them. There is a window of opportunity, not to be missed. Jianli Yang says, “If we do nothing, this will definitely strengthen the hands of the Communists. They will be emboldened, knowing that they can get away with whatever they want.” If, on the other hand, America and others press the Communists for reform, the Games may prove a help, even a boon.

In 1993, Wei Jingsheng was a pawn in China’s Olympic game. He was released nine days before the IOC voted (on the 2000 Olympics), after 14 and a half years in prison. Today, he says that if the Communists have the kind of Games they want — smooth police-state sailing — they will get another 20 years: another 20 years in power. By the same token, “Chinese democratization will be delayed for another 20 years.” But if the West can use this “window” to push for freedom and democracy — that is something else.

So, let us root for “something else.” The CCP thinks the Olympic Games will be the best thing that ever happened to them. The rest of us must hope for a massive, glorious backfiring.

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