Big Brother versus YouTube

For China, the Olympics are no longer a sporting event – they are a battle to define how the country is seen by its citizens and the world

This article was published in the Spectator on 16 July, 2008.

‘For years we couldn’t wait for the Olympics to start. Now we can’t wait for them to be over.’ That is how a Chinese friend described the horrible limbo in Beijing as a control-freak state tries to anticipate and eliminate any possible challenges to its glorious coming-out party on the 8th of the 8th, 2008. It is clear to any visitor to the Chinese capital that while China hopes to clean up the medals tables, the sporting contest is at best a sideshow to the real Olympic competition – the battle to define how China is seen by its citizens and the world outside.

For the Chinese people the Olympics are the final proof that China has reclaimed its rightful place in the global premier league; putting behind it two centuries of humiliation at the hands of foreign invaders. For the world outside, the Games are meant to embody an official narrative of China as a ‘harmonious society’. The organisers had promised the trin-ity of a ‘green Olympics’, a ‘high-tech Olympics’ and a ‘people-centred Olympics’, designed to show off China as a beacon of economic prowess and modernity that has traded pariah status for global respectability. But as China ricochets from one PR disaster to the next – with stories about sweatshops combining with Tibet and Beijing’s choking pollution – the authorities are now trying to manage expectations downwards with a focus on the more modest goal of a ‘safe Olympics’, flooding the city and its environs with security forces primed to thwart potential terrorist attacks.

The Chinese Communist Party combines a laser-like focus on detail with awe-inspiring ambitions for the big picture. Where other Olympic cities like Athens or Sydney were kept desperately busy just completing building work on stadiums and transport links, Beijing’s concern extends from controlling the weather to micromanaging the behaviour of its citizens. Last year, when the Chinese government hosted the tenth anniversary of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation – an alliance of autocrats which Beijing and Moscow have formed with five central Asian republics – the authorities treated the occasion as a dry run for the Games. They seeded clouds to prevent rain; sent police along the major streets removing washing lines and unseemly clutter; and declared a public holiday to decrease congestion. The organisers of the Olympics are going even further – wiping out entire neighbourhoods to accommodate Olympic buildings, closing factories to reduce pollution, running ‘public education campaigns’ against spitting, appointing 1,500 ‘civilised bus-riding supervisors’ and holding ‘queueing awareness days’. Visas for foreigners have been curtailed to stop human rights protesters from entering the country; Chinese activists imprisoned or kept under surveillance; security checkpoints set up on roads around Beijing; and foreign governments bullied to attend the opening ceremony (more on this later).

The awesome preparations show how ludicrous it is to suppose that sports and politics can be kept apart. The truth is that in China almost everything is political – it is less than a decade since the Communist Party allowed people to get married without asking the permission of their local party secretary – and anyone who studies the history will realise how central sports have been to the construction of the Chinese nation. For Sun Yat-sen – the founder of modern China – sports were seen as a literal solution to China’s plight as the ‘sick man of Asia’; Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists talked of ‘training strong bodies for the nation’ in order to defeat Japan; Mao Tse-tung continued the tradition by putting a military man in charge of his first national sports commission in 1952; Chou En-lai used ping-pong diplomacy to engage Richard Nixon in the 1970s; and China’s original bid for the 2000 Olympics (which was blocked on human rights grounds) was designed to heal the damage from the Tiananmen massacre. During each of these episodes, politicians have micromanaged every aspect of China’s sporting progress (Chou En-lai even personally put together the national table-tennis team and coached it in diplomatic etiquette, urging its players to put ‘friendship first, competition second’).

But in spite of all the preparation, the Beijing authorities have sometimes been dazzled by the blinding lights of prime-time exposure. Although the authorities provoked the attention, they often did not know how to handle it. That is because for most of the last few decades, Beijing’s foreign policy was driven by a determined quest to keep a low profile. Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s opening and reform policy, declared that China must ‘hide its brightness’, avoid controversy and focus on growing its economy. He feared that China would be seen as a threat by the rest of the world and that other countries would gang up to prevent its rise. But with the Olympic Games, Chinese strategists have moved from seeking invisibility to actively trying to shape their country’s image through a mixture of charm and steel.

The most fashionable theory in Chinese think-tanks is the American academic Joseph Nye’s theory of ‘soft power’ – the idea that a country can assert itself not only through the ‘hard power’ of military and economic coercion, but the attractiveness of its ideas, its culture and the political institutions it builds. Beijing has tried to build up its own soft power by sharing its development expertise while stressing its commitment to multilateralism and peaceful integration (in contrast to Washington’s neo-liberalism, unilateralism and imperial urge). And it has used a battery of public diplomacy techniques – from international TV stations to cultural institutes – to promote a ‘Chinese Dream’ as an alternative to the American Dream. The Olympics is the most dramatic ad for this new China.

When its charm offensive fails, Beijing has been adept at bullying foreign governments to temper their criticism. When I was in Beijing in May, French diplomats were reeling from a ‘Skip France’ campaign organised by the Beijing municipal authorities. According to their account, Chinese tourists who wished to travel to France were told that tickets were not available and visa applications dropped from 300 a day to just ten. Chinese foreign policy experts explained to me that the goal was to punish Nicolas Sarkozy for saying that his attendance at the Olympics would depend on the human rights situation in Tibet. It worked. Last week, Sarkozy announced he would attend the opening ceremony to ‘deepen [France’s] strategic partnership with China’.

China has found Western NGOs (non-governmental agencies) less compliant than their national governments. When, on 8 August 2007, the Beijing Olympic Committee started the official countdown to the Games with a giant clock in Tiananmen Square, the limelight was stolen by an unofficial event launched by a group of Canadian activists. These protesters had climbed on to the Great Wall of China and unfurled a banner saying ‘One World, One Dream, Free Tibet’. In the last few months there have been campaigns by activists for human rights, supporters of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, persecuted peasants and environmentalists. Of all the campaigns, the most visible one was the ‘genocide Olympics’ campaign over China’s role in Sudan which attracted support from Mia Farrow and Steven Spielberg.

But to the surprise of outside observers, criticism from Western NGOs seems to have bolstered rather than undermined the regime’s popularity at home. Although discontent is simmering below the surface – there were 87,000 protests last year alone – Chinese citizens and intellectuals are more focused on in-equality and corruption than the concerns of the Western campaigners, which they interpret as support for ‘separatism’, ‘cults’, or a desire to keep China down. Moreover, China’s government has successfully mobilised the swelling patriotism of its citizens in campaigns against Western interference, such as the boycott of the French supermarket chain Carrefour.

Many in the West had hoped that giving the Olympics to China would – in the words of the Beijing Olympic Bid Committee’s Liu Jingmin – ‘help the development of human rights’. Some predicted that repressive laws would be lifted, political prisoners freed and the media given new freedoms. But human rights activists tell a different story about crackdowns on protesters in Tibet, the imprisonment of activists such as the land rights campaigner Yang Chunlin, housing rights campaigners Ye Guozhu and Wang Ling, and the celebrated anti-Aids activist and blogger Hu Jia. They also claim that the run-up to the Games has seen a growing phalanx of people held under house arrest because of vague crimes such as ‘separatism’ or ‘subversion’. As Amnesty International says: ‘It was hoped that the Games would act as a catalyst for reform but much of the current wave of repression against activists and journalists is occurring not in spite of, but actually because of the Olympics.’

The outside world tends to talk about how revolutionary economic reforms have gone hand in hand with political stagnation. But the Olympics shows that China has modernised its politics as much as its economy – just not in the direction of liberal democracy. The state has largely withdrawn from people’s everyday lives, giving Chinese citizens unprecedented freedoms to consume and organise their professional and personal development. But this growing freedom in the personal realm has been matched with an increasingly sophisticated control of the public sphere. In the 1980s, many Chinese intellectuals supported multi-party elections and the separation of the party from the government. But since Tiananmen, political reform has taken on a new meaning. While there are still prominent thinkers – such as the political scientist Yu Keping – who believe in the country’s incremental embrace of democracy, many modern intellectuals argue that China would be better to avoid elections altogether and instead focus on introducing the rule of law while making the one-party state more responsive. The last few years have seen the party use opinion polls, focus groups and public consultations to put the one-party state in touch with public opinion. What is emerging is not Western-style democracy, but a high-tech model of ‘deliberative dictatorship’ that has increased the legitimacy of the one-party state, and lessened calls for genuine democracy.

But though the Olympics will strengthen the Beijing government’s standing at home, it is likely to weaken it abroad. Maybe the big story of the 2008 Olympics will not be of Beijing’s ‘Big Brother’ watching its citizens, but rather the story of thousands of journalists and fans watching Big Brother, and recording its every move on mobile phones, cameras and blog-posts. In an interesting new book, Owning the Olympics: Narratives of the New China, the academics Monroe Price and Daniel Dayan claim that the development of new technologies such as digital cameras and the internet site YouTube could turn the surveillance society against itself. In the past, we have defined surveillance as the powerful monitoring the powerless; the use of information technology by state institutions to monitor individuals. But increasingly, the availability of new technology allows individuals to monitor the state institutions themselves. The authors use the phrase ‘sousveillance’ – French for monitoring from below – to capture a new phenomenon where the powerful can be filmed and held to account for their actions in the court of public opinion. Sousveillance famously made an appearance with the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, the hanging of Saddam Hussein in 2006 and the protests in Burma in 2007. But the Beijing Olympics could take this to an industrial scale. The Beijing authorities could see all their painstaking attempts to show a kinder, gentler image to the world overturned by some rogue footage of an overzealous security official responding to protesters captured on a mobile phone or digital camera.

The stakes for the Beijing authorities could not be higher. The Olympic genie will never be put back into the bottle. Beijing will find that its actions on the world stage continue to be held up to minute scrutiny long after the Games are over. They will need to get used to prime-time attention. Moreover, with George Bush on the way out and the promise of an American Renaissance under President Obama, global public opinion and journalists are on the look-out for a new bogeyman to blame for the world’s ills. In the last few months the media has grown accustomed to criticising China for its policies on Burma, Sudan, Tibet, Zimbabwe and climate change. If the authorities in Beijing are not careful they could find that these charges stick, and that China unwittingly fulfils a new global role; not as a modern harmonious society but as an all-purpose rogue state.


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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