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China's Olympic Nightmare
ELIZABETH C. ECONOMY is C. V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. ADAM SEGAL is Maurice R. Greenberg Senior Fellow for China Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.See more by Elizabeth C. EconomySee more by Adam Segal
On the night of July 13, 2001, tens of thousands of people poured into Tiananmen Square to celebrate the International Olympic Committee's decision to award the 2008 Olympic Games to Beijing. Firecrackers exploded, flags flew high, and cars honked wildly. It was a moment to be savored. Chinese President Jiang Zemin and other leaders exhorted the crowds to work together to prepare for the Olympics. "Winning the host rights means winning the respect, trust, and favor of the international community," Wang Wei, a senior Beijing Olympic official, proclaimed. The official Xinhua News Agency reveled in the moment, calling the decision "another milestone in China's rising international status and a historical event in the great renaissance of the Chinese nation."
Hosting the Olympics was supposed to be a chance for China's leaders to showcase the country's rapid economic growth and modernization to the rest of the world. Domestically, it provided an opportunity for the Chinese government to demonstrate the Communist Party's competence and affirm the country's status as a major power on equal footing with the West. And wrapping itself in the values of the Olympic movement gave China the chance to portray itself not only as a rising power but also as a "peace-loving" country. For much of the lead-up to the Olympics, Beijing succeeded in promoting just such a message.