I spy a little Olympic crack in China’s wall
Monday, 11 August 2008

Simon Jenkins

When China won the contract to host the Olympics, the official Xinhua press agency declared it “another milestone in China’s rising international status and a historical event in the great renaissance of the Chinese nation”. Nobody watching Friday’s start to $40 billion of public expenditure, in what is still one of the world’s poorest nations, could be in any doubt of that. Let us hear no more about the Olympics being about sport.

Ever since their refounding at the end of the 19th century the Olympics have been about politics, whether they were Hitler’s chauvinist parade of 1936 or the current International Olympic Committee’s wishy-washy vacuities about harmony and peace. It is not swimming, running and jumping that have brought 80 world leaders to Beijing. It is national pride. Not since 1936 have the Games been so overtly political as now.

This does not make the Olympics a bad thing. Sport has often been politics by other means, nowhere more so than in authori-tarian oligarchies desperate for the public acclaim of sporting success.

Any visitor to China attests to how much has changed over the past 30 years. Freedom is more widespread, wealth more accessible, travel more open. The expectation that China should be like the West, because it is getting rich like the West, is as facile as the thesis that capitalism necessarily leads to liberty. Of all liberal fallacies, none is more curious than the assumption, applied to countries such as Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, that they can become democracies at the flick of switch.

Much of the abuse hurled at the duplicity of China in recent weeks should be hurled at the cynicism of the IOC. When he gave the Games to Beijing, Jacques Rogge, the IOC president, claimed this would “help the development of human rights in China”. He thus gave the lie to Sir Craig Reedie, Britain’s member on the IOC, who ridiculously declared that its contract was “with the host city; it does not become involved in politics”.

The IOC gave China the Games because it knew that only the wilder shores of politics could possibly fuel its bizarre four-yearly extravaganza. Only politics would induce any country to part with the billions required to meet the IOC’s surreal building, town planning and ceremonial specifications. The modern Olympics makes Nero’s Colosseum seem a bauble and the Field of the Cloth of Gold a village fete. As London is finding, the extravagance of this 16-day venture defies all reason.

An illustration of this is the mendacity that surrounds the Games’s promotion. The BBC, eager to justify its 300 junketeers in Beijing, regularly hyped the “four billion television audience” for the Games. This is the global reach of stations carrying the feed. The actual numbers watching a festival of mostly minor sports can only be guessed, but is certainly small compared with such world sports as football, boxing, tennis and golf.

The tourism gain is equally illusory. The number of foreign tourists to the Olympic Games is trivial, overwhelmed by the army of taxpayer-supported officials and hangers-on. According to the tourism authorities, four-star hotels are just 45% full, with visitors 20% down on the same month last year.

The last Olympic venues, Athens and Sydney, lost tourists. Visitors and tour operators avoid host cities for fear of crowds and a related downswing in three-year block bookings takes time to recover. Australia admitted as much when it later advertised itself with the slogan, “Where the bloody hell are you?”

Lord Coe and Tessa Jowell, the Games minister, keep hyping the British Games as “making a profit”. They never give figures. The only profit is to a tiny circle of architects, consultants and construction companies. An Olympic Games must be the most expensive public gesture, in billions of dollars a day, that any nation can undertake in peacetime, a political spectacular masquerading as sport.

The IOC was drawn to China as the one big country to which it still had a quid pro quo to offer: international respectability. The IOC knew that China might be induced to spend huge sums, not by virtue of political reform, but to cloak the absence of such reform.

To China the deal seemed a good one. The last great dictatorship on Earth must have regarded paying for the Games as a cheap admission fee compared with taking a gamble on free speech, regional devolution, the rule of law and contested elections.

So far the deal has held. Beijing has delivered the IOC the requisite extravaganza. Its sportsmen and women, many barely out of childhood, have risen to the occasion, supplying countless smiling faces to bedeck the IOC’s mission statement of joy and the brotherhood of mankind.

The IOC seems to have found in Chinese communism a shared language and nostalgia for the drilled utopianism of the mid-20th century. A large area of old Beijing has been razed and rebuilt with stadiums, office blocks and avenues, monuments to the modernising zeal of the party. Morally emasculated western architects have lined up for work, led by the son of Albert Speer as master planner.

Above all the Chinese have proved that the Olympics are about control. Lose control, as did the world torch tour and its “1,000 jogging policemen”, and you cannot deliver concord and good publicity. Instead, control has required the Chinese to arrest untold hundreds of human rights activists. It has rendered Tibet virtually inaccessible. Anyone concerned with protest, such as the signers of a letter pleading for “an Olympic spirit” in human rights, has been thrown in jail or removed from the capital; 100,000 troops have been brought in to ring the city.

I have not found any Chinese commentator to suggest that the Olympic Games has led to liberalisation, indeed the reverse. That need not render the outcome of the Games a political failure. The juices of soft world power never run smooth.

In the credit balance can be placed months of publicity for the plight of the Tibetan people, to which the condition of the Uighurs of Xinjiang can now be added. After five years of cloying sycophancy from the West - reminiscent of the talk of the “tiger economies of the Pacific rim” in the 1990s - China’s image is now more qualified and complex.

Alongside greater familiarity with the Chinese as people has come a welcome awareness that they are not one people. They are, like Europeans, many and with diverse ambitions and loyalties, illustrated in the 56 ethnic groups displayed at the opening ceremony.

Just as the Games have required a reinforcement of control, so they must have encouraged liberal elements within the Chinese establishment in the view that progress on the world stage cannot, after all, be wholly divorced from certain forms of freedom. There is no such thing as unqualified admission to the club of liberty.

The tools of authority may have been strengthened to curb dissent over the Games fortnight and are unlikely to be eased when they are over. But the Games have clearly been a political trauma for China. They have revealed the inner workings of the regime to the world and that may nudge it in a direction that all who know and admire the country so desire. For such a boon, the Chinese people have had to part with $40 billion. Perhaps one day they will regard it as money well spent.
Simon Jenkins edited The Times from 1990-92, going on to contribute a twice weekly column until 2005. He now writes weekly for The Sunday Times.

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