Beijing Bags It

7 minute read

How familiar it all looks. A three-deep phalanx of police block access to Tiananmen Square until a crowd of thousands, led by young toughs using bicycles as battering rams, breaks the line and surges through. By midnight, tens of thousands of cheering Chinese pour into the political epicenter of Beijing, defying orders to leave. Gangs of bare-chested teenagers climb lampposts to lead the masses in sloganeering. A potentially grim scene for any government. Yet every once in a lucky while, history repeats itself not as tragedy but as fun. Nearly everybody is waving a red flag. Chanters yell: “Long live China.” And nobody is howling for the downfall of the Communist Party, as all did the last time ordinary Chinese crashed their way into the square back in 1989.

The ecstatic anarchy that erupted in Beijing late Friday night, after the International Olympic Committee awarded the city the 2008 Summer Games, was the greatest overnight boon to the Communist Party since the end of the ultraleftist Cultural Revolution a quarter century agoand the leadership was quick to exploit it. Immediately after the announcement of Beijing’s victory, the entire politburo stood before the nation for the live television broadcast of a “mass cultural gathering” that featured pirouetting schoolchildren singing ditties like New Beijing Love, New Olympic Dreams. Then President Jiang Zemin hitched a ride to Tiananmen Square for the most populist performance of his career. He appeared on the rostrum overlooking the crowdnear the same place Chairman Mao Zedong had reviewed a million Red Guards, the shock troops of the Cultural Revolutionand waved his arms like a conductor as the masses sang along with a revolutionary hymn that boomed from loudspeakers. The roar of support was deafening. “Seeing him was like a dream; I will treasure this night forever,” said Xu Zhenyi, a bicycle repairman who clutched a special victory edition of the state newspaper, the People’s Daily.

Nobody on the square had seen the likes of it. Parties in China don’t just happen, especially Communist Party parties. The last big one came two years ago when the republic turned 50 and the government was so worried that celebrations would turn against its leaders that it declared downtown Beijing off-limits to anyone without an invitation and urged ordinary people to sit home and watch a fireworks display on television. This time, for hours after Jiang’s surprise appearance, students sat in groups painting red stars on their faces, families held midnight picnics on the flagstones and groups of strangers spontaneously grabbed hands and danced in circles like children.

Chinese see the Olympics as the coming-out party for a once-great civilization hit by a bad couple of centuries, starting with the Opium War and stretching through the 1950s when 20 million people starved to death. Now, they want a bit of credit both for the astonishing riches their hard work has produced and for their country’s reemergence as a world power. Playing Olympic host, along with China’s expected acceptance into the World Trade Organization, are two markers of the country’s triumphant arrival. If some of that credit rebounds to a Communist Party that is deeply corrupt and unwilling to allow even the trappings of democracy, so it goes. “Chinese people might dislike their government,” says author Wang Xiaodong, “but when they consider China’s place in the world, their interests are the same.”

Beijing won the Games easily. In voting that could have gone four rounds, the capital captured an outright majority of 56 ballots in the second. Paris, a top rival, polled a paltry 18 votesfour behind the other front-runner, Toronto. French politicians immediately acted like sore losers, and pointed to the problems that have dogged China’s bid from the start. “I am saddened for Paris, but ashamed for the Olympics,” said centrist parliamentarian Alain Madelin, who added that China deserves a gold medal for violating human rights.

Civil liberties are China’s Achilles’ heel. By winning the Games, it will face more scrutiny on this front than ever. The chairman of Beijing’s bid committee, Wang Wei, also raised expectations by promising that a Beijing Games would “improve all facets of life in China, including education, health and human rights.” But the way China conducted its bid belied such talk. Just two weeks before the vote, the party celebrated its 80th birthday by ordering all cinemas to show propaganda films with titles like Wedding Ceremony at the Execution Ground. The fixation on killing fields extended beyond celluloid: China has executed 1,700 people this year in a crackdown on crime, more than the rest of the world combined for the past three years, according to Amnesty International. And Beijing recently ordered newspapers to avoid reporting corruption scandals, religious practices or the private lives of leaders. “The real question in China is the survivability of the party,” says Marc Blecher, a professor at Ohio’s Oberlin College, “and if it’s threatened, the Olympics become low priority.”

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So the party runs a risk. When Jiang climbed the rostrum over Tiananmen Square for his maestro performance, he forever linked his party with the Olympics. The flip side of that joyous celebration in the capital last week is that Chinese could blame their leaders if they blow the Games. That has raised expectations that the government may modify its behavior to ensure successand its own survival.

Chinese well remember the disastrous boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980 after Russia invaded Afghanistan. A bit of military adventurism with China’s nemesis, Taiwan, seems more unlikely between today and 2008. Now that Beijing will play host to the world, it might also have to tone down its anti-Western rants against “hegemonic” powers like the U.S. And, if leaders are again faced with massive demonstrations, expect them to look harder for a compromise before issuing the shoot-to-kill order. None of these constraints will lead to sudden democratic reform, but University of California professor Richard Baum suspects the Olympics could give society more room to maneuver: “Not a panacea, but progress nonetheless.” That careful diplomacy may already be in evidence: the day after the announcement, a Beijing court found U.S. academic Li Shaomin guilty of spying for Taiwan at a one-day trial but ordered him expelled.

Whatever progress Beijing may make assumes, of course, that it can complete $20 billion in stadiums on what is now farmland, a $12 billion water-treatment system that is still a blueprint and an air-cleanup program to purify an atmosphere so filled with soot that the skies periodically rain mud. Beijing has no history of building such facilities effectively. Its most high-profile construction project of the past decade, Oriental Plaza in the city center, was so rife with corruption that an investigation brought down Beijing’s party chief and nearly the whole city leadership. The I.O.C., for its part, is still reeling from a vote-buying scandal connected with next year’s Salt Lake City Games. “The Olympics are about construction contracts, and this is a perfect marriage of two corrupt organizations,” says British author Andrew Jennings, a longtime critic of the Games. But the stadiums, the politics, the potential corruptionall that will play out over the next seven years. For now, Beijing celebrates. “Here’s to the Olympics and here’s to China,” said reveler Wang Yifei as he clinked an overflowing bottle of Beijing beer with fellow celebrants on the night of the vote. Then he added, “And here’s to human rightsto our right to make lots of money in the new China.”

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