China wins the gold in im­age con­trol

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Helle Dale

The Bei­jing Olympics are now part of his­tory. The ques­tion is how they will be viewed. Olympic his­tory has had some ex­traor­di­nary highs and lows, and of course Chi­nese leaders would like the just con­cluded ex­trav­a­ganza to take its place among the soar­ing suc­cesses. The cat­e­gory in which China com­peted, that of ma­jor lead­ing in­ter­na­tional na­tions and the gold medal prize, was “the re­spect of the world.” When it comes to spin con­trol, im­age craft­ing, and all of the arts of the PR busi­ness, the Chi­nese won hands down.

It would have to be con­ceded in the first draft of his­tory that Bei­jing suc­ceeded. In fact, it suc­ceeded so mag­nif­i­cently that it could be ar­gued that ev­ery Olympic Games should be held in a to­tal­i­tar­ian so­ci­ety where for a brief pe­riod of time at least, gov­ern­ment con­trol can pro­duce an il­lu­sion of per­fec­tion. The China that the thou­sands of vis­i­tors ex­pe­ri­enced and mil­lions of tele­vi­sion view­ers saw was one of shin­ing sports venues, clean air, no poverty, ex­cit­ing his­tor­i­cal sights, great ath­letes, and gra­cious hosts.

And it was not just the im­ages. The Chi­nese in­deed had the grat­i­fi­ca­tion of see­ing leaders from the world over travel to Bei­jing to watch their ath­letes com­pete, a sign of in­ter­na­tional re­spect for the coun­try. Pres­i­dent Bush’s de­ci­sion to be the first Amer­i­can pres­i­dent to travel to an Olympic open­ing cer­e­mony out­side the United States cer­tainly has to be ques­tioned in that con­text — and of course it pro­vided some em­bar­rass­ing im­ages of the pres­i­dent from the beach volleyball arena, while Rus­sian tanks were rolling into Ge­or­gia with bril­liant tim­ing.

Nor is there any deny­ing that the Chi­nese medal count was im­pres­sive — though the scor­ing by cer­tain in­ter­na­tional judges to please their hosts did have some­thing to do with it. While the United States won the over­all medal count of 110 (to China’s 100), the Chi­nese are un­der­stand­ably em­pha­siz­ing that they cap­tured more gold medals than any­one else 51 (to the United States’ 36).

Of course, some of their ath­letes did not ex­actly look like they filled the age re­quire­ments for their dis­ci­plines, bring­ing back mem­o­ries of the old days when women ath­letes from the East Bloc coun­tries looked sus­pi­ciously as though they had been hor­mon­ally en­hanced. And the Chi­nese medal haul was like ev­ery­thing else in the Olympics — the re­sult of cen­tral plan­ning, along with the “sci­en­tific” ap­proach to hu­man de­vel­op­ment. The state chooses the ath­letes at ten­der ages, dic­tates their dis­ci­plines, iso­lates them from their fam­i­lies in train­ing camps, and de­cides who they can see, what they can know and even what they can eat.

In some ways, it is hard for demo­cratic so­ci­eties to com­pete with a coun­try like China. What demo­cratic so­ci­ety, you would have to ask your­self, could get away with spending $44 bil­lion of tax­payer money on the Olympics? By com­par­i­son, the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment, which will host the Lon­don Olympics in 2012, an­tic­i­pates spending a mod­est $18 bil­lion, re­ly­ing in­stead on the in­nate pluck, charm and in­ge­nu­ity of the Bri­tish to carry the day (which un­doubt­edly it will). And what open so­ci­ety could get away with bull­doz­ing in­con­ve­nient and un­sightly slums, shut­ting down fac­to­ries and traf­fic for weeks to clear the air of pol­lu­tion, si­lenc­ing dis­sent, us­ing com­puter gen­er­ated im­ages in the open­ing cer­e­mony, and con­trol­ling the move­ments of vis­i­tors? Of course, none could, which is why “per­fec­tion” is not quite within the reach of so­ci­eties where the gov­ern­ment is ac­count­able to the peo­ple, not the other way around.

No doubt the Chi­nese leader- ship must be think­ing that if the 2008 Olympics do not change the im­age of their coun­try world­wide, noth­ing ever will. But in re­al­ity they are wrong.

Pre­vi­ously, the im­age etched in minds around the world was that of Tianan­men Square 1989, with the fig­ure of the lone pro­tes­tor stand­ing in the path of an on-com­ing tank, the very em­blem of in­di­vid­ual courage in the face of over­whelm­ing re­pres­sion. The Vic­tims of Com­mu­nism Memo­rial on Mas­sachusetts Av­enue, a replica of the Lady Lib­erty statue erected by stu­dents in Tianan­men Square, is a daily re­minder to Wash­ing­ton com­muters of the events of the sum­mer of 1989.

For the mo­ment, the im­age of the bird’s nest arena and the ath­letic per­for­mances will hold the world’s imagination. But what would re­ally change the im­age of China in the 21st cen­tury would be to em­brace democ­racy, re­spect hu­man rights, abol­ish harsh pop­u­la­tion con­trols, and al­low the ob­vi­ous tal­ents, strengths and in­ge­nu­ity of the Chi­nese peo­ple to flour­ish freely. Now that would earn China a place on the world scene like noth­ing we have ex­pe­ri­enced in the past three weeks.

Helle Dale is di­rec­tor of the Dou­glas and Sarah Al­li­son Cen­ter for For­eign Pol­icy Stud­ies at the Her­itage Foun­da­tion.

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