Aug 24

Beijing Olympics a learning experience for all involved

Written by Nimrod on Sunday, August 24th, 2008 at 6:45 pm
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It is said that the Beijing Olympics was a big draw, perhaps proving the adage that no publicity is bad publicity. Did the worldwide protests before the Olympics ironically serve as a big advertisement for the Beijing Olympics? And now that a record number of people have watched the Olympics, what have they learned about China?

I have always been optimistic about people’s impression of China after the Olympics, but Joel wrote that he has less respect for China after the Olympics because of the methods China used to achieve its perfect image.

Joel wrote:

China has poured billions into trying to paint a picture of itself – an image – that looks perfect. But to us it’s just an image, like a commercial, so we naturally and automatically look past it to see if there is any real difference.

This is very perceptive and I believe is a popular viewpoint. I would question, though, how much of that “image” is simply constructed in biased and unthinking reporting.

Let me give an example: the $40 billion pricetag for the Games. It was used over and over as “proof” for pouring money into some image project that doesn’t benefit people. But is that true? Not at all. The majority of the $40 billion was spent on infrastructure in and around Beijing — not only the sports facilities which Beijing and its many universities lacked, but subways, roads, mass transit systems, inter-city rail, and housing development. That is not wasted money for “image”. That is solid investment.

Here’s another example: cleaning up pollution is “just for the Games” to look good so people don’t see how polluted China really is or China doesn’t really care about its own people living in pollution. Is that true? Again, I don’t think that tells the full story. It’s true that China hasn’t been taking environmental issues seriously enough in the past, but many measures to improve public health and safety and clean up the city and actually enforce pollution regulations are permanent. The Olympics are the impetus to start a new chapter on many “software” improvements that China desperately needs.

This goes back to my initial view on what Chinese officials really meant by their belief that the Olympics will open up China, because I’ve always thought they were genuine in this sense: to use the opportunity of the Olympics to push through a lot of improvements that wouldn’t have gotten made otherwise. It was never a promise to satisfy all the objections that people have with China, nor was that a practical possibility. China was always going to make the changes that it needs to make on its own terms.

Most people no longer doubt that China has the ability to put on a good show or make massive changes, and thereby hang with the best of them, if it so chooses. Most people now are digging deeper and shifting towards the image vs. reality question. Going beyond the superficial and seriously considering what China will ultimate become is a vast improvement over viewing China as a Cold War stereotype. That has to be a good thing, even if I think they still don’t have it quite right. 😉 If the Beijing Olympics has done anything, it is to push people to be more realistic, more grounded, and have a better grasp of China. If that means a good bit of their romanticism (e.g. respect) is lost with their pre-conceived notions about China, so be it. It’s a net positive because they come ever closer to experiencing China and all of its problems as Chinese themselves do.

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34 Responses to “Beijing Olympics a learning experience for all involved”

  1. Daniel Says:

    I heard the closing ceremony was quite spectacular. Almost like the opening. Any thoughts?

  2. skylight Says:

    Alot of people comment that they enjoyed the short performance from London 2012, the closing ceremony was a bit similar with the opening game…only on a smaller scale..

  3. FOARP Says:

    I would say that my expectations of China’s future have not been raised or lowered, but sharpened. China is capable of great projects – anyone who doubted this despite China’s great history would have had those doubts dispelled. China is also a country in which human rights are not respected by the government, anyone who doubted this has also had their doubts dispelled. The Chinese people can feel proud of the games, but everyone knows there is much more to be done.

    They say that space will be the next great patriotic project of the Chinese government, everybody remembers the peaceful (in results if not in intent) competition between the USSR and the USA in this field, as an astrophysics graduate I hope this brings forth an equally peaceful but more intense level of competition between America, Europe, China, and whoever else wants to join in. I’m sure you’ve all heard the one about human destiny being to find “The moral equivalent of war”, sport is one, but competition in science and discovery is another.

    There is still the issue of where to hold the 2018 World Cup: Australia, England, Qatar, and Russia have already put themselves forward, and as a Brit obviously I’d be happy to have them in England (with games in Scotland and N. Ireland as well – Wales is part of the English league and so gets them automatically). If, however, England does not get the nomination, I hope China puts herself forward. I also hope that no assurances about loosening human rights for the games are given – let people see China as it is. If restrictions are loosened, let the loosening be permanent. The World Cup games are played nationally – so let the benefit of the games be felt in every province as well. As hosts, China would qualify automatically – but the Chinese team will only ever get out of the group stage if the corruption in the Chinese game is reduced at least to proportions which would not shock an Italian. Team play would also have to be encouraged, and a truly Chinese concept of sportsmanship would have to emerge.

  4. Daniel Says:

    Well thoughtful post FOARP,

    Yeah, I hope team sports would be something to tackle in China. A lot of work to do but anything is possible.

    As for the moral equivalent of war…I heavily quite heartily agree with sport being one expression. Other types of competition is quite awesome as well, but then things like art, music and other leisure activities can be qutie subjective.

    I sort of am a bit iffy regarding science and discovery as another outlet for such sentiments. Competition happens in this field but I’m not sure how it could be used as another expression in place of war. In a poetic sense, the beauty of the sciences like art, belongs to the world. I see what you mean with the whole space race deal and I do believe there are such projects being pursued or on plan that holds such a degree of competition (notably weapons and hopefully energy). It’s just…iffy for me.

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  6. Joel Says:

    I agree with the general point(s) you’re making here. I’d just like to add to it, that some of us weren’t just losing romanticism with the Olympics. China’s gov had very little respect from most foreigners to start with before the Games, but some of us saw the Games as an opportunity for them to earn some, and we were willing to give them a chance. For the most part, they blew it.

    We saw the Olympics as a huge opportunity for the gov to take some major steps, and our friends to gain some confidence (and loose some sensitivity!), but we didn’t know if it would happen or not. But being friendly, we decided to wait and see. Then people got arrested, etc. (there was no visible movement on the more important issues), and yet everyone still seemed to expect that we would swoon and kowtow to the greatness of China. Yes, the reporting was often slanted as you’ve described (and deserves the criticism it gets), but at the same time there’s no doubt that these Games were in large part a massive image project on a scale not seen in our lifetimes.

    Honestly though, we’re still waiting and seeing – I’m curious to see how our friends feel in the coming months, for example.

  7. Daniel Says:

    I saw the short video of the 8minute + performance by London at the closing ceremony on ESWN.

    I’m going to try to block all the reactions towards it, not let it influence me and say honestly that I thought it was ok.

    I hope the 2016 Games goes to Rio de Janero and someday the Winter games will go to Harbin, the ice city.

  8. S.K. Cheung Says:

    Nice post. I think the world has gained a new and very positive perspective on PRC Chinese people. I also think they may have reinforced some of the preconceptions about the Chinese government. But on balance, I think the former positive easily outweighs and will be of much longer-lasting importance than the latter negative.
    I agree focus on the pricetag without acknowledging the infrastructure legacy is misplaced.
    I think the jury is still out on the pollution issue. Check back in a month, or a year.
    I think your last paragraph nails it. It will be interesting to see how China progresses from here.

  9. snow Says:


    “China is also a country in which human rights are not respected by the government, anyone who doubted this has also had their doubts dispelled.”

    Is the huge and extremely difficult job done to raise the living standard for one quarter of world’s population with unprecedented pace in recent world history not a hard evidence showing Chinese government’ respect to human rights?

    I trust most mainland Chinese, even many inside CCP, would agree that China is a country in which human rights are BASICALLY, though not YET FULLY, respected, a fair and accurate description of reality in China. It is the statement you made above, as well as many similar ones made by the western media, that discredits your otherwise reasonable and intelligent arguments on China affairs, indicating a grossly biased point of view rather than a careless and improper use of word, which has contributed to the build-up of the thick wall of misunderstanding and unnecessary antagonism between China and the West.

    The majority of foreigners who came to attend the Olympics or visit are overwhelmed by their wonderful experience in Beijing. I saw an interview to a French tourist conducted by BTV during the Olympics in Beijing in which this tourist said to the camera: I changed my mind about China after 24 hours my arrival in Beijing. The media in my country misinformed us (paraphrasing).

    I don’t think that he’d agree with you that China is “a country in which human rights are not respected.” Of course this does not mean that some other criticisms from the West may be justified by the reality in China and that the Chinese themselves know that too.

  10. Charles Liu Says:

    Has anyone seen this Olympics documentary “Dream Weaver – Beijing 2008”?

    Part 1
    Part 2
    part 3

    In retrospect I really think while China has been a good host for the world, this Olympics is really for them not us. Will everyone take a piece of the Birdnest with them? Will Beijing, or China for that matter, go back to what it was eight years ago? Will the new generation of Chinese take stock of, not 2008, but 2012, 2016?

    That’s money well spent if you ask me. Oh BTW, one of the gymnast accused of being underage was interviewed during the 2003 trial (min 9:25 of part 1.)

  11. Nimrod Says:

    S.K. Cheung,

    Good call on the pollution issue. There is certainly tension between growth and standard of living in a developing country such as China, but this article gives me great hope.


    Thanks for the comment. There are always many disappointments with China even among Chinese, but realistically, few were pining hopes on the Olympics to resolve them, especially the “major” ones. After all, how could an Olympics be the solution? It’s an important celebratory occasion, an occasion for mutual understanding, not one for major introspection or big overhauls, I’m afraid. So I guess the expectations were different. The baselines were different. Nevertheless, even for a celebratory occasion, incremental changes were made that we shouldn’t dismiss. I for one, will take what I can get. The reason? When visitors come you clean up the house — and some hosts literally sweep the dust under the rug beforehand. Then after the party, maybe you’ll vacuum it away, maybe you’ll leave the dust under the rug, but you sure won’t be pulling the dust back out to spread it. So it’s not an entirely fruitless exercise… 😉

  12. FOARP Says:

    @Snow – I think that saying you are going to allow protest, establishing protest zones, and then not allowing anyone to use them (and – reportedly – arresting those who apply to use them) is a clear sign that the government really doesn’t care about basic human rights like freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. I see no evidence to counter this, economic growth has made China stronger and richer, but it has not given the basic freedoms that ordinary Chinese people want to enjoy.

    I spent almost five years in mainland China, so I hope you’ll excuse me if I say that I do not take the paraphrased opinions of a French tourist who has been in China for less than a day more seriously than impressions I formed during that time, or the opinions of my Chinese friends and colleagues. Please note that I did not say that no one in China respects human rights, just that the government does not respect human rights in its policies.

  13. Chops Says:

    reuters: “The million dollar question on the minds of many: Will China change after the Olympics?”


    “With or without the Games, China will change at its own pace.”

    China becoming Westernized as part of modernization appears to be inevitable.

  14. Jonas Makiramdam Says:

    Beijing OLympics really rocks!!! i have watched the event throughout, from the opening until the closing ceremony and i really felt the Olympic spirit!! i have supported our country, Philippines and i’m really excited for the 2012 London Olympics!!! go PHILIPPINES!!!!

  15. CLC Says:

    Speaking of pollution, James Fallows has a long article in the June issue of the Atlantic China’s Silver Lining,why soggy skies over Beijing represent the world’s great environmental opportunity. The gist of it is that “China’s environmental situation is disastrous. And it is improving. Everyone knows about the first part. The second part if important too. ”

  16. pug_ster Says:

    @Joel, #6

    Unfortunately, the problem is that the Western Media takes advantage of every opportunity it has to promote their agenda. If they allowed these ‘Free Tibetans’ to run around the street, China would be critized about the Tibet and security situation. However, most people praised them for mostly trouble free games because them clamp down on everybody, including old ladies, and Free Tibetans.

    @Daniel #7

    Yeah, personally I would like to see the 2016 games in Rio also. There are already people in London complaining about the games costing too much makes me wonder if Londoners want to actually host these games. I think lesser established country like Brazil would certainly want to put on a good show compared to a country like the UK.

  17. Ma Bole Says:

    Soup to nuts, I thought the closing ceremony was awful – the London bit included. I’m having difficulty identifying the low point (there were so many) – the sight of 60+ year old Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page playing the sexually suggestive “Whole Lotta Love” in front of the entire Politburo (what’s the instrumental equivalent of lip-synching?) or Jackie Chan in his Olympic volunteer uniform and idiot grin. I wasn’t too impressed with the opening ceremony (too conventional and poorly filmed), but the closing ceremony was even worse. Zhang Yimou said it best (in an interview in last week’s 南方周末) when he suggested that only China and North Korea have the ability to stage such visually stunning displays. What a joke.

    For someone of my generation, the Beijing Olympics is as close as I’m likely to come to experiencing the kind of all-encompassing, oppressive atmosphere that defined the political movements of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Whew! I’m just glad they’re over. Perhaps the Game’s greatest legacy is the much improved subway system.

    I, for one, am expecting the air to return to normal soon.

  18. maotai Says:

    Ok… I am setting up a donation fund to “Free Wales” & “Free Scotland” movements. We will also need volunteers (preferably non Welsh and Scots, to show the international support ;-)) to stage sit-ins and to hold demonstrations in London during the 2012 games.

    Probably we will also need to hold the “Get out of Iraq” demonstrations but busing so many Chinese in will panic the British LOL

  19. pug_ster Says:

    Ma Bole,

    I heard from Bob Costas that the closing ceremony should never be just as or more glamorous as the opening ceremony. While it is nice, that’s what most people expect anyways.

  20. TommyBahamas Says:

    @Ma Bole: I thought the closing ceremony was awful – the London bit included.

    I totally agree with you! A term made famous by PKD’s Richard, “Craptacular” comes to mind despite the fact that Jimmy Page was one of my teenage years’ greatest guitar heroes. However, I was very impressed with the Opening Cermony — although like the closing, the opening too was poorly filmed.

    I gotta say, it has been a fabulous 2 weeks for me —especially to see my Mainland chinese friends so proud, their morale boosted and genuinely happy about sharing one of the greatest culture of mankind.
    One of my friends jokingly said to all of us gathered in a bar to watch the closing ceremony to the effect, “You all had better think twice about planning on going to the London 2012 games, the bombings or toxic gas will either kill ya or at least the riots will make it a very unpleasant and fearful experience for you.”
    Another replied,” Oh come on, You are worse than the western media!” Everybody just laughed and continued to criticize the closing show on the bigh screen.

  21. S.K. Cheung Says:

    To Ma Bole:
    “what’s the instrumental equivalent of lip-synching?” – ? air guitar? 🙂

  22. Daniel Says:

    I finished watching the closing ceremony from a recording. (NBC version). I guess it had a bit too much singing and so-so theatrics, but hey, it was time to say goodbye.

  23. Chops Says:

    guardian uk
    ‘The Olympics minister, Tessa Jowell, today criticised the British media for running too many negative stories about China that failed to recognise the progress the country had made.

    “You can get big headlines back home for slating the repressive regime – and there are some aspects that that are profoundly repressive – but there is a great risk of going too far,” she warned in an interview with the Guardian.

    But Jowell called on China to make permanent relaxed controls on the internet and foreign journalists one of the legacies of the Games, which end on Sunday.

    The minister, who is in Beijing to attend the handover of the Olympic torch to London, praised the “wondrous” opening ceremony and the “monumental venues”, but said the long-term impact of the Games on China is still to be judged.

    The host took several steps towards a more open media in the run up to the Games, unblocking several previously restricted websites, such as Amnesty, the BBC Mandarin service and Reporters Without Borders.’


  24. Wukailong Says:

    @maotai: “Ok… I am setting up a donation fund to “Free Wales” & “Free Scotland” movements. We will also need volunteers (preferably non Welsh and Scots, to show the international support ;-)) to stage sit-ins and to hold demonstrations in London during the 2012 games.”

    I’m in! And unlike the Chinese, I’m serious about the Free Scotland movement. 🙂

  25. FOARP Says:

    @Wukailong – . . . . and I volunteer to go round Scotland and Wales demolishing cultural icons, imprisoning independence advocates, reducing local government to a meaningless level of autonomy, and shooting dead anyone who tries to escape.

  26. maotai Says:

    LOL you are a couple of hundred years late. The English did all that and more. There are probably no more than 60,000 people who speak Gaelic and probably about half a million for Welsh.

    That is cultural genocide for you!

  27. Wukailong Says:

    How about Northern Ireland?

  28. FOARP Says:

    @Maotai – The last of the Highland clearances happened a bit after the Napoleonic wars – that is, almost 200 years ago, and oppression in Wales ended long before that. Scotland and Wales both have active independence movements, language programs etc. Scottish and Welsh politicians play an active role in British politics – look at the Labour party, which has almost continually been led by someone born in either Wales or Scotland since 1983. Not only the current Prime Minister, but also the current Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Secretary of State for Defence, and the Secretary of State for International Development, were all born in Scotland.

    Now, it would be wrong to say that there is not a significant minority in both Scotland and Wales who want independence from the UK, but if the majority of either of those countries ever votes for independence I’m sure that the British government will give it effect. There is no oppression of independence movements, or national languages and culture in the UK. It is worth pointing out that although it can be claimed that the Welsh language and Scots Gaelic was discouraged by official policy in the 18th and 19th centuries, the spread of English preceded the union. James the 1st could already speak English when he became the king of England in 1603, as could most lowland Scots, and the history of old English in Scotland precedes the formation of either England or Scotland into what we would understand as countries.

    @Wukailong – As for Northern Ireland, the involvement of Northern Irish Catholics in national government is less than it should be because Sinn Fein members refuse to swear the oath of allegiance necessary to take seats in the House of Commons, but the SDLP currently sits in parliament and supports the Labour party. Loyalist parties supported by the majority protestant population have also been part of government in coalition with the Conservative party, and people from the protestant community have played an active role in British politics as part of the Conservative party (Brian Mawhinny being a prime example). It is also interesting to note that the initial decision to deploy the army to Northern Ireland was taken by Jim Callaghan, a politician of Irish Catholic descent, when he was Home Secretary, he later went on to serve as Prime Minister from 1976 to 1979.

    From the collapse of the old Northern Irish parliament in 1972 until 1998 there was no local government in Northern Ireland, as no agreement could be reached between the loyalist and republican sides. The current assembly has undergone long periods of suspension as the DUP and Sinn Fein have often fallen out with each other and refused to share power, but it is working at the moment.

    So, protest if you like, but you can visit all parts of the UK and decide for yourself what the situation is like there, you can speak to the people there and ask them what they think, you can read newspapers supporting all sides of the argument, nobody keeps people in the rest of the UK from knowing what the situation in Scotland, Wales, England or Northern Ireland is like.

  29. S.K. Cheung Says:

    To FOARP:
    thanks for the summary. Just learned a lot about British history in your one post. It’s something we don’t get taught in school in Canada (it’s also possible that I wasn’t paying attention).
    I think your last paragraph aptly contrasts the UK experience with the whole Tibet business. In the UK, you can ask the question without being thrown in jail. How refreshing!

  30. FOARP Says:

    @SK Cheung – Don’t take my word for it. You don’t really learn this kind of history in the UK either, too political and controversial. Do they teach the story of Wolfe climbing the plains of Abraham and defeating the French in Quebec?

  31. S.K. Cheung Says:

    To FOARP:
    can’t recall the specifics, but I learned (and have long forgotten) all the Upper and Lower Canada stuff, battles between English and French in Quebec, War of 1812.

  32. maotai Says:

    I have been to the UK and in fact stayed a couple of months so I was being tongue in cheek about the matter. I for one have the confidence that in another 50 years (and not 200) China will have a more mature political approach to its domestic issues. As it has taken >200 years for a black man to be a US presidential nominate and your Scottish examples, one day there will be people born in Tibet in the highest offices of China. China is at a different stage of nation and political development so different measures must be used. Mind you I am not saying that the Chinese should use all the 17th/ 18th century methods the Western powers used to subjugate but even the precedents set over the last 50 years will be enough 😉

    One must break eggs to make omelette. There will be “broken eggs” along the way and China will do what it has to do for the peace, prosperity and progress for its people.


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