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HONOLULU (Aug. 7, 2008)—There’s no question that the 2008 Olympic Games opening in Beijing this week represent a “coming out” party for China, but coming out as what?

Will it be a more open and progressive China, or one that is even more comfortable with a system of state control and repression?

That’s the essential question about the massive sports extravaganza and its role in providing “face,” or pride, for Chinese authorities, political economist and East-West Center China researcher Chris McNally told a group gathered at the Center in Honolulu on Aug. 6.

 

(Click here to listen to an audiocast of McNally’s talk.)

 

China’s interest in making the Olympics a symbol of its stride onto the international stage as a recognized first-rank player inevitably involves conflicts with an enduring obsession with stability and social order, McNally said. Will China be able to pull off this balancing act?

“It will be good to come out of this with people liking China a little more, but some are doubting that this is going to happen,” noted McNally.

People watching the Olympics on television and reading about the games in the media will see a modern, bustling, efficient China, no doubt. The 40-billion-plus dollars worth of world-class architecture and physical infrastructure ensure that. But at the same time, an overpowering desire to protect social order and make the games an orderly success might undermine the image China hopes to project, McNally said.

“People will see a modern China, but they will see that this is really sort of an authoritarian ‘nanny state,’” he said.

China has gone out of its way to demonstrate that it has liberalized social controls in the days leading up to the Olympic games. But that message is not always getting across. President Bush, for instance, used a speech leading up to his appearance at the opening ceremonies of the Olympics to once again chide China for its record on human rights.

“China’s authoritarian system has not opened up, at least for the Olympics,” McNally said. That may have been Bush’s point in speaking up to his hosts on the very eve of the Games.

“The problem with the ‘just let China evolve’ approach is that it isn’t leading to the political change that was envisioned,” McNally said. “Instead of producing political reform or liberalization, the result seems to be a Chinese regime that is forcefully forestalling political opposition or dissent.”

He recounted familiar incidents, including the massive move of millions of migrant workers out of Beijing for the games, the installation of a huge intelligence and surveillance system (which will remain in place long after the Olympics have gone) and the mobilization of citizen “watchers” who are to be ever alert for any sign of disruption, from ordinary protest to terrorist activities.

“There is a bit of a Potemkin Village effect for any foreigner going to Beijing for the Olympics,” McNally noted.

In short, the overriding desire for order and peaceful games has moved the needle, at least in the short term, closer to authoritarianism rather than away from it. The thousands of journalists on hand for the Games will be sure to notice this.

The big question, will this heavy hand be the lasting legacy of the Games, or will the Olympics plant the seeds of long-term change in China?

On this question, McNally believes that change will be incremental, but most probably persistent.

“You have a paranoid, insecure regime that is trying to keep everything under wraps, but I don’t think this is sustainable,” he said.

China is changing. The economic success of the past several years has led to citizen demands for personal freedoms, which cannot be ignored. Chinese citizens even today enjoy vast new freedoms to move about the country, seek jobs and lives of their own choosing and have access to information (both official and unofficial, through the world’s biggest network of Internet users and bloggers) that make a retreat to the past impossible, McNally suggested.

In this seismic shift, the Olympics represent a step, but potentially an important one. The temporary focus on order will give way to the larger changes that the Games represent.

McNally quoted a friend who echoed a statement attributed to Chairman Mao, that a long journey begins with a single step. The Games will have been a step in a journey of a thousand miles toward a more open environment in China, gradually chipping away at the closed and repressive order the Chinese Communist party is perpetuating.

Ironically, therefore, excessive security-driven actions during the Olympics, as witnessed through the media by the rest of the world, may actually speed up reform, rather than set it back.

“By denying the Communist Party its absolute moment of glory, the dissonance created by the Olympic Year will accelerate the ongoing values transformation in China, which at some point in the future might erode the regime’s popular support,” he said.

Christopher A. McNally is a research fellow and political economist at the East West Center in Honolulu. He can be reached at [email protected]

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The EAST-WEST CENTER is an education and research organization established by the U.S. Congress in 1960 to strengthen relations and understanding among the peoples and nations of Asia, the Pacific, and the United States. The Center contributes to a peaceful, prosperous and just Asia Pacific community by serving as a vigorous hub for cooperative research, education and dialogue on critical issues of common concern to the Asia Pacific region and the United States. Funding for the Center comes from the U.S. government, with additional support provided by private agencies, individuals, foundations, corporations and the governments of the region.

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Click to hear an audiocast of McNally’s presentation