Owning the Olympics: Narratives of the New China

Owning the Olympics: Narratives of the New China

by Monroe Price

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"A major contribution to the study of global events in times of global media. Owning the Olympics tests the possibilities and limits of the concept of 'media events' by analyzing the mega-event of the information age: the Beijing Olympics. . . . A good read from cover to cover." —Guobin Yang, Associate Professor, Asian/Middle Eastern Cultures &

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"A major contribution to the study of global events in times of global media. Owning the Olympics tests the possibilities and limits of the concept of 'media events' by analyzing the mega-event of the information age: the Beijing Olympics. . . . A good read from cover to cover." —Guobin Yang, Associate Professor, Asian/Middle Eastern Cultures & Sociology, Barnard College, Columbia University

From the moment they were announced, the Beijing Games were a major media event and the focus of intense scrutiny and speculation. In contrast to earlier such events, however, the Beijing Games are also unfolding in a newly volatile global media environment that is no longer monopolized by broadcast media. The dramatic expansion of media outlets and the growth of mobile communications technology have changed the nature of media events, making it significantly more difficult to regulate them or control their meaning. This volatility is reflected in the multiple, well-publicized controversies characterizing the run-up to Beijing 2008. According to many Western commentators, the People's Republic of China seized the Olympics as an opportunity to reinvent itself as the "New China"—-a global leader in economics, technology, and environmental issues, with an improving human-rights record. But China's maneuverings have also been hotly contested by diverse global voices, including prominent human-rights advocates, all seeking to displace the official story of the Games.

Bringing together a distinguished group of scholars from Chinese studies, human rights, media studies, law, and other fields, Owning the Olympics reveals how multiple entities—-including the Chinese Communist Party itself—-seek to influence and control the narratives through which the Beijing Games will be understood.

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Owning the Olympics

Narratives of the New China


Copyright © 2008 Monroe E. Price and Daniel Dayan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-07032-9

Chapter One

"One World, Different Dreams"

The Contest to Define the Beijing Olympics

Jacques deLisle

"One World, One Dream"-Slogan of the Beijing 2008 Games

"Same Bed, Different Dreams"-Chinese Colloquialism

The Olympics are as much about stories-many of them political-as they are about sports. The ancient Games famously included an imperative to warring city-states to cease hostilities, an affirmation of a Greek identity coextensive with civilization, and other matters beyond athletics. Political narrative also has been central to the modern Games. Particularly in the television age, the host nation, journalists, and others have sought to define the plotline of each Olympiad. Many recent Games have been entangled with weighty political themes: Nazi Germany's rise (Berlin 1936), Middle East conflicts (Munich 1972 and Melbourne 1956), the Cold War (Helsinki 1952, Moscow 1980, and Los Angeles 1984), and host states' political rehabilitation (Tokyo 1964, Rome 1960, and arguably Munich) or arrival on the world stage (Seoul 1988 and arguably Tokyo).

Politics and narrative are again prominent in the Beijing Games. The host regime is determined to assure a positive story, especially on politically charged issues. The 2008 Olympicshave produced propaganda and mobilization efforts on a scale unseen in China since the beginning of the post-Mao Zedong Reform Era. Regime efforts, along with genuine popular enthusiasm, brought huge crowds to the streets the night Beijing won the right to host the Games (MacLeod 2001c; Pan and Pomfret 2001; People's Daily 2001). Starting years earlier and accelerating as 2008 approached, Beijing authorities covered the city with billboards and banners urging citizens to welcome the Olympics and make Beijing an impressive host city. Major, mostly state-linked Chinese companies touted-loudly, even by Olympic sponsorship standards-their support for the Games (China Daily 2005a; Xinhua 2004b). Olympics-related content grew pervasive in state media and on ubiquitous television screens in public spaces. A giant countdown clock was erected at Tiananmen Square, the political heart of China, with satellite versions elsewhere. Much fanfare attended milestones such as the 500- and 365-day marks. The one-year point brought more than a million to central Beijing and a countdown by a chorus of thousands led by film star Jackie Chan and accompanied by fireworks. China even sought out Steven Spielberg and China's most internationally famous film director Zhang Yimou for the Games' opening and closing ceremonies (Coonan 2006; Deutsche Presse-Agentur 2007b).

This agenda has been especially urgent and these regime efforts have been especially ardent because the 2008 Games offer potential redemption from the failure of Beijing's bid for the 2000 Olympics. When the International Olympic Committee (IOC) denied the PRC's quest to host the Games of the XXXVII Olympiad, it brought outrage, anger, and embarrassment among China's leaders and ordinary citizens (Tyler 1993b; E. Rosenthal 2000).

The 2008 Games also provide a compelling opportunity to press very different-but equally political-counternarratives. For many of the concerns that motivate international civil society organizations, foreign governments, and others, and that generate friction in international political and economic relations, China is uniquely important. On human rights issues, China combines massive scale with a notoriously poor record in matters ranging from political dissent and democratic participation; to religious, media, and reproductive freedoms; to self-determination for ethnic minorities; to social justice. On environmental questions, China's sheer size, rapid industrialization and weak regulation have made the PRC a rival to the United States in greenhouse gas emissions, home to many of the world's most polluted cities and waterways, and a source of environmental harms throughout East Asia and beyond.

For those concerned with these global issues, and for those-both foreign and Chinese-who focus on China's practices and policies, the 2008 Olympics offer exceptional conditions for bringing international attention to these matters and pressure on the PRC. The Games demand extraordinary openness in China's restrictive political and media environment and shine a rare spotlight on Chinese circumstances that still receive disproportionately little global coverage and consideration.

For outsiders seeking to change China and Chinese reformers as well, the Games offer extraordinary opportunities to advance their broader agendas through linkage to the Olympics-whether deeply resonant or shallowly ad hoc. The Games present mirror-image opportunities-as well as risks-for a regime seeking to enhance its stature at home and abroad. On both sides, multiple actors pursuing diverse agendas and seeking to define the story of the 2008 Games can draw upon Olympic ideals in ways that range from invoking to resonating to hijacking. While struggle for control of the 2008 Olympic narrative is dramatic, confrontational, and centered on the fortnight when the world comes to Beijing, more significant effects likely will be more subtle, diffuse, and long-term.

The Regime's Main Narrative: Prosperous, Orderly, Normal, and Globalized China

The Chinese regime's preferred narrative began to emerge years before the Games. It includes several strands that are broadly, if not fully, consistent with one another and Olympic ideals. First, the Olympics offer an opportunity to present China as a developed, prosperous and therefore powerful country. China's economic prowess and modernity pervade Chinese discussions of the Olympics. President and Party General Secretary Hu Jintao and other current top leaders have explicitly linked Beijing's ability to host the Olympics to the regime's central policy of promoting economic development. A year before the Games, a Politburo Standing Committee member declared that the "rapid economic and social development" China had attained under policies of "reform and opening up to the outside world" had given China the "capability and conditions to host" the Games and display China's "splendid accomplishments." When Beijing's bid for the 2008 Games was still pending, Hu's predecessor Jiang Zemin similarly cited China's and Beijing's "healthy growth" and "steady [economic] development" as a "powerful material guarantee for hosting the Games." In his 2002 New Years message, Jiang ranked winning the right to host the Olympics alongside China's WTO entry as the preceding year's key milestones in China's pursuit of prosperity through international openness and engagement (Xinhua 2006b; Renmin Ribao 2000; Chen J. 2007).

One of the official concepts of the Beijing Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games (BOCOG) underscores the desire to showcase China's economic advancement, promising a "High Tech" Olympics. So too does the original-and still ubiquitous-slogan of the bid committee, "New Beijing, Great Olympics." The same idea animates unofficial discussions in Beijing that express hope the Games can dispel foreign misperceptions that the capital's residents wear Mao suits, rely more on bicycles than cars, or otherwise trail the modern world (author's interviews, 2007).

Material foundations for the "developed and prosperous China" image are in place. They are the product of three decades of post-Mao economic reforms and near-double-digit annual growth, the skewing of development to major eastern cities, and the regime's formidable ability to mobilize resources for favored projects.

China's new wealth has transformed Beijing. Almost all of the city's gleaming office and residential towers, international hotels, and luxury shopping malls are less than twenty years old. The most impressive ones are of more recent vintage. The notorious traffic jams of foreign-branded, joint-venture-produced vehicles are a phenomenon mostly of the last decade. Like many arriviste metropolises, China's capital has sprouted would-be iconic architecture. New facilities for the Games are massive and designed to impress, with a price tag of over $3 billion and a scale that recalls the sensibilities of the emperors who created the Forbidden City. Many of Beijing's older architectural treasures-including the Imperial Palace and the Temple of Heaven-have undergone extensive restoration timed for the 2008 Games. Major infrastructure projects, including subway lines, roads, a rail link to the airport and its new world's-largest terminal, and environmental improvement projects are part of the pre-Games construction agenda as well-at a cost of $40 billion (Financial Times 2007a; Abrahamson 2005; Japan Economic News-wire 2005).

When reality inconveniently has fallen short of image, Chinese authorities have turned to Potemkin village tactics to hide, or distract attention from, the incompleteness or the deleterious side effects of China's breakneck modernization. For an IOC visit during Beijing's unsuccessful bid for the 2000 Games, buildings along the guests' route received fresh coats of paint and slogans welcoming the Olympics. Decrepit athletic facilities were patched up. Peddlers, homeless people, and beggars were kept out of sight. Traffic restrictions were imposed, and coal-fired furnaces were shut off (despite the impact on production and the comfort of city residents) (Associated Press 1993; Cater 1993; United Press International 1993). Although reforms responding to vote-buying scandals limited IOC visits eight years later, Beijing deployed similar tactics in its successful quest to land the 2008 Games. Authorities "greened" the city through planting trees and painting brown winter grass. They cleared the air by ordering factories to close and reprising earlier restrictions on residential coal heating. They again signaled enthusiasm with numerous banners and enthusiastic citizens (including a bicycle rally of 10,000 in central Beijing) (Byers 2001; Japan Economic Newswire 2001; Kuhn 2001).

To the extent that intervening years of economic growth, real estate development, and Olympics-related construction have not solved such problems (and have worsened some of them), means redolent of the 1993 and 2001 efforts to land the Games are in the repertoire for the 2008 Games. Some have been clearly and explicitly adopted-for example, limiting pollution and traffic congestion. Others are not officially acknowledged but certainly will be in the mix-for example, removing or hiding those whose presence or advocacy reveals persisting poverty and rising inequality, including Beijing-based dissidents, provincial petitioners who come to the capital seeking redress for their grievances, and migrant laborers who work in countless construction projects and other more marginal jobs in the city. Less certain is whether such measures, some of which worked reasonably well for brief site visits, can succeed when 30,000 journalists, and half a million participants and spectators, stay for two weeks.

The hosts' use of the Games to display China's modernity and prosperity fits a pattern of the Olympics as grand spectacle and, more importantly, reprises prior Olympics' roles as national "coming out parties." The Beijing Games here resemble the Seoul Games of 1988 or perhaps the Tokyo Games of 1964. The Seoul Olympics came shortly after Korea's ascension to the ranks of lower-middle-income countries-a group the PRC has now joined (World Bank n.d.). Although Japan decades earlier had become a developed, industrialized country, the 1964 Games underscored its recovery from postwar economic devastation. The parallel to the Seoul Games has become a cliché in foreign commentary and informal discussions in China. (The analogy unsurprisingly occupies a much lower profile in orthodox Chinese commentary. PRC authorities are unsurprisingly averse to outsiders' speculative suggestions that the Games also might portend political change similar to Korea's democratization. And, like Chinese leaders before them, they are hardly inclined to celebrate the former vassal state as an appropriate model or worthy predecessor for China in any significant international endeavor-with the limited exception of Korea's rise as one of several "tiger" economies from which post-Mao economic reforms drew lessons.)

For China, the link between prosperity and development is reinforced by promises of more concrete economic effects. Official sources tout the Games' contribution to "the nationwide struggle" to achieve the Reform-Era goal of a "well-off society." Olympics spending may add as much as 1 percent annually to Beijing's economic growth. The impact of Olympics-driven infrastructure improvements will extend far beyond 2008 (Xinhua 2001c; Xu 2007). The rapid growth of Beijing's economy, population, and need for infrastructure means the host city faces less danger of common Olympic hangovers of white-elephant projects and popular resentment of vast expenditures on Olympics-related projects to the neglect of other needs. A mid-course retrenchment-directed by Premier Wen Jiabao and prompted by concerns about excessive and inefficient spending and doubts about the future utility of the Games' venues-promised to reduce such risks further (Xxz.gov.cn 2007; Ling and Lee 2007).

The Games are also expected to spur upgrading of Beijing's service industries. Unlike resident expatriates and experienced visitors who have become accustomed to many frustrations, the foreigners who will come for the Games are expected to demand-and thus Chinese authorities, determined to win favorable press, are pushing to provide-services that meet international standards. Sectors targeted for improvement range widely, including hospitality, transportation, media, and health care (China Daily 2006b; Xinhua 2005b; China Daily 2007e).

A second central theme in the official narrative is to portray China as politically stable and orderly. All host governments, and the international Olympic authorities, want to avoid Games marred by poor organization or political disruption. This is a core (if not explicit) Olympic value, reflected in the factors considered in the site-selection process, the insistence that the Olympics are about sport (not politics), and the related mantra that the Games should not be politicized. Commitment to political order and control looms especially large for Beijing in 2008, as top Chinese officials have noted (Xinhua 2001a). The harsh measures to relocate migrant workers, provincial petitioners, and development-besieged poor urbanites are as much about securing order as showcasing prosperity.

PRC leaders also have been sensitive to the influence of Chinese dissidents, who have embarrassed the regime abroad and who, properly handled, might aid the regime's Olympic pursuits. In the most notable example, Wei Jingsheng, China's internationally best-known dissident, was released from prison during the quest for the 2000 Games, in part to burnish the regime's image and respond to foreign human rights critiques. Wei was soon jailed again, having irked authorities by criticizing to foreign media the regime's attempts to trade political prisoners for the Games, and meeting with the U.S. State Department's chief human rights official to urge continued pressure on the PRC (Tyler 1993a; Tempest 1994).


Excerpted from Owning the Olympics Copyright © 2008 by Monroe E. Price and Daniel Dayan . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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