There may be no better window on the complexity of China’s postmodern era (houxin shiqi) than that offered by its two successive bids (1993 and 2001) to host the International Olympic Games. Long before the international media frenzy and national celebratory commotion generated in 2002 by the signing of Yao Ming to a National Basketball Association contract with the Houston Rockets, most Chinese were well aware that sport, while a significant reflection of national character, is a business, the globalization of which in the 1990s drew China into a popular cultural media that transcends the nation-state. The Olympics bids were advanced in a decade of new-found as well as government-sponsored nationalism, a great deal of which was fostered through the symbolic abduction of the United States as national enemy; it was the era of China’s long march to post-Tiananmen respect as Hong Kong and Macao were both ‘returned to the motherland’, and as China applied for admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO), lobbied for most favoured nation (MFN) status and permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) with the United States, and sought to stage the first Olympics of the second millennium.
The CCP recovery strategy depended upon world recognition of China’s legitimacy in each of these three areas as it went all out to recover the international respect China had lost in the internationally televised slaughter of innocent citizens. The domestic ideological thrust of the Jiang Zemin regime was socialist spiritual civilization, a critical feature of which was nationalism (aiguo zhuyi). As Zhang Xudong observed, ‘for this occasion, which combined sports and politics, economics, and aspirations for recognition, nationalism found its most popular channel of expression in the 1990s’.
Nationalism and recognition were integral to both of these bids and, although certain members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) were concerned that there was danger in giving the 2000 games to Beijing, they did not, and the United States did not, comprehend the volume of popular support for the government’s campaign. In the wake of the success of Beijing’s hosting of the Eleventh Asian Games in 1990 and the reassertion by Deng in 1992 of the correctness of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’, China aggressively bid to host the 2000 games. The nation was captivated by the effort, because throughout the 1990s national pride was implicated in all of China’s international relations but none more intensively than in its effort to be selected the host city of the summer Olympic games. The government’s domestic and international lobbying for the games resembled state-choreographed jingoism, with CCTV (Chinese Central Television) televising rallies of thousands of enthusiasts at the Temple of Heaven and as many as 50,000 supporters bussed to the Great Wall. (The orchestration of these nationalistic performances would later be regarded as a warm-up for the staged protests in May 1999 at the US Embassy in Beijing, in which students were bussed in from their campuses on the outskirts of the city to fulminate against US imperialism and the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.)
Under the official banner, ‘A More Open China Awaits the 2000 Olympics’, the sprint up to the final vote in Monte Carlo was fierce, as the Olympic bid committee, led by Zhang Baifa, Vice-Mayor of Beijing, executed strategic political moves such as the loan of terracotta warriors from the tomb of Qin Shihuangdi to the Olympic Museum in Lausanne and the nomination of Juan Antonio Samaranch, the IOC President, for the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, in an attempt to pull away from the other finalists (Berlin, Istanbul, Manchester and Sydney). Arguments in favour of China’s bid ranged from the nativist culturalism of the antiquity of Chinese civilization, to the demographic immensity of its 1.2 billion population, to the gigantism of its economic growth. Political positioning by competing site countries, long a feature of IOC culture, was quite energetic as the US House of Representatives and the European Parliament in Strasbourg passed resolutions decrying China’s deplorable human rights record and urging the IOC to reject that nation’s bid.
By most accounts, the politicking in 1993 for the 2000 games was more intense than usual, with wild claims of corruption in the IOC (most of these later confirmed when the international Olympic scandal was revealed in 1999) and anecdotal stories of the Chinese government’s offer to pay for all costs of the participating nations including roundtrip transit to Beijing. Then, quite unexpectedly, on 14 September 1993, Wei Jingsheng, the former electrician of the Beijing Zoo and renowned democracy advocate imprisoned in 1979, was set free. Also released were two prominent democracy activists, Zhai Wenmin and Wu Xuecan, both jailed since 1989 for their involvement in the Tiananmen protests—a dramatic yet risky sign of humanitarian goodwill intended to influence the deliberations of the IOC just over a week before their announcement.
In the end, all argument and effort and even threat—Zhang Baifa commented on Australian television that ‘they’ve passed a resolution objecting to our Olympic bid; on the other hand, we could boycott the US in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta’—was to no avail as Sydney was selected over Beijing by two votes (45 to 43). In October, Tiananmen Square was overrun by college students, amassed to lend their voices in support of the government’s failed bid. In the eyes of the diverse domestic constituencies favouring China’s hosting of the games, the United States and Britain were the parties responsible for the defeat, preventing China from receiving what it considered a much-deserved international respect for its economic achievements. Indeed, quite a number of the nation’s students and young intellectuals, most notably Zhang Xiaobo and Song Qiang, were especially provoked to a maniacal xenophobia by this event, as they revealed in their 1996 anti-Western diatribes, Zhongguo keyi shuo bu [China Can Say No] and Zhongguo haineng shuo bu [China Can Still Say No], charging the United States in particular with engineering the rejection of China’s bid and blocking its entrance into the WTO.
This same conflictual confluence of native pride and international turmoil was visible in China’s 2001 follow-up bid for the 2008 Olympics, which, considering the closeness of the 1993 vote and the greater distance in time from the Tiananmen Massacre, made China the ‘front runner’ in the race against its competitors Istanbul, Osaka, Paris and Toronto. But China’s strategic advantage was undermined by its domestic political complexity: rivalrous factionalism, profound urban/rural tensions, division between centre and regions, and a general crisis of popular faith in the government—a consequence of the recession of the state and its ideology, the growing space between rich and poor, unbridled corruption (local, regional, and national), the lack of effective channels for legal redress of grievances, the slowing growth of the national economy, and rising unemployment. Yet in this instance national pride trumped the play of these many contentious issues, especially because most Chinese perceived opposition to their attainment of proper international recognition. Consider this denial of recognition in light of centuries of Chinese humiliation at the hands of Western powers, and one will appreciate the febrile intensity with which many citizens of China awaited the IOC announcement.
Thus, most Chinese reacted enthusiastically to the official announcement on 13 July 2001 that Beijing received 56 votes and had been selected to host the 2008 summer games. It represented perhaps the most important in a series of events in which China’s pride as a nation on a par with the other prominent nations of the world had been incontrovertibly established: the ceding of Hong Kong (1997) and Macao (1999), the spring 2000 United States Congress vote granting permanent normal trade relations to China, the imminent admission of China into the World Trade Organization, and ultimately the selection of Beijing as the site for the 2008 summer Olympics. As a Beijing university teacher put it in the first moments following the IOC’s decision, ‘The world has recognized us’.
Nonetheless, in the spring and summer of 2001, there was considerable reason to reject Beijing’s bid, optimistically shrouded in the motto ‘New Beijing: Great Olympics’, in favour of Paris, which had finished ahead of it in the preliminary review. In February of that year, at about the same time that the IOC’s site selection committee was conducting its final review of Beijing, the Chinese government detained six academics and business-people, native Chinese who were either citizens or residents of the United States, on charges of espionage. One of them, Li Shaomin, was arrested on 25 February in Shenzhen but was not seen again until he appeared before Beijing’s Number 1 Intermediate People’s Court on charges of espionage twelve hours after the IOC decision had been made. He was immediately convicted and deported. Another, Gao Zhan, a Chinese sociologist and a permanent legal resident of the United States, was also detained in February, but not permitted to see a lawyer until 12 July, just over twenty-four hours before the IOC vote.
There were other more striking human rights concerns, all brought to the forefront by domestic and foreign critics of the Beijing bid. In the first six months of 2001, the Chinese government executed nearly 1,800 people and sentenced another 2,690 to death under the aegis of another of its reiterative ‘Hard Strike Campaigns’ (yanda yundong) against criminals convicted of murder, robbery, drug offences (drug dealing and distribution as well as drug use), corruption and violent crime. In late June 2001, twenty-five such unfortunates were executed in Kunming in Yunnan Provincial Stadium, while at least a dozen were killed for similar crimes in Guangzhou on 9 July. Again, within mere weeks of the announcement of the IOC’s decision, fourteen members of the Falun gong spiritualist movement died while incarcerated in a state labour camp. Critics further alleged, as they had in 1993, that of all the finalists, China least exemplified the defining charter of the international Olympic movement of the democratic honouring of diversity and brotherhood in sport. In international competitions in the late 1990s, a great number of Chinese athletes were found in flagrant violation of amateur athletics rules, particularly the use of performance-enhancing drugs. In fact, in a surprise announcement just days before the opening of the 2000 games in Sydney, forty athletes and officials were dismissed from the Chinese national team (including all but one of the fabled world-record-setting runners trained by Ma Junren), after testing positive for erthyropoietin (EPO), a banned substance capable of accelerating the production of red blood cells.
Most, if not all, of these issues were raised in the world media, as well as vociferously protested by Tibetans in Moscow for the IOG vote, as well as other groups in Hong Kong and the United States. Moreover, some IOC members and a few journalists cited the negative example of South Africa in support of rejecting the Chinese bid for the 2008 games. When South Africa made a bid to host the games in the 1980s, the IOC insisted that it could not be considered as long as apartheid was a foundation of the state. China, these critics pointed out, was an authoritarian state that practised human slavery as well, though certainly not on the order or in the manner of 1980s South Africa. What was good for South Africa, a rogue nation, was good for China, another rogue nation.
George Orwell once wrote in a savage critique of socialism that ‘some brothers are more equal than others’. Herein lies the difference between the South African and the Chinese bids. International commerce is the foundation of this inequality: many foreign corporations (US and European) were divesting their holdings in South Africa at the time of that nation’s bid, while today such corporations are investing in China with legendary largesse. Corporate Olympic sponsors certainly must savour the prospect of an even deeper exploration of a market with which they have become familiar in the ten years since the last IOC consideration of Beijing’s eligibility. And the Olympics and the multinational committee that governs it, as the world learned in 1999–2000 IOG bribery scandals, are about money, both legal and illegal.
A cynical gloss of the IOC decision and of the Chinese bid may be read in this way. The hopeful reading has it that the hosting of the Olympic Games permits the International Olympic Committee and the Chinese Communist Party to reform themselves in spectacular, very public ways that may very well precipitate even greater fundamental changes. To be sure, China and the IOG stand to gain much international respect from a successful hosting of the Olympics and it is possible that neither is quite aware of what their pursuit of this objective will demand of them. What is certain is that both have been tarnished by corruption, and the practices of both have fallen demonstrably short of their foundational ideals. When the IOC proclaimed that the ‘Olympic Games in Beijing would leave China and sport a unique legacy’, it was commenting allusively on the mutual entailment of its and China’s political fates, something confirmed by IOC Vice-President Dick Pound when he opined that:
human rights problems remain an issue but it is more of a challenge and an opportunity for the Olympic movement to make a contribution to some of its own goals—which is to put sport at the service of mankind everywhere and maybe bring about some change.
(Reuters 2001)
Also, China is the third of the East Asian nations to be honoured by selection of a capital city to host the Olympics. Japan (Tokyo) hosted them in 1964 and South Korea (Seoul) in 1988. Both of these selections came in critical phases in the domestic political and economic development of these countries. Japan and South Korea laboured assiduously to display their astonishing domestic accomplishments before the world and in the years following the Olympics even more was obtained: in 1968 Japan became the third largest industrialized nation and in 1993 South Korea had become a democracy. Juan Antonio Samaranch, among others, was cannily aware of such parallels and, citing South Korea’s present vigorous multiparty democracy, said, ‘There is a unanimous feeling in international politics that the change in the country [Korea] came through the 1988 Olympics. Maybe it [China] would undergo a similar development as South Korea by winning the Olympics’ (Reuters 2001). This is no small matter, particularly because China’s political and economic history since the Tiananmen Massacre has very closely resembled that of South Korea from 1972 to 1987, and it is increasingly evident that the Chinese state is modelling itself after Japan.
Mindful of the challenges China faces, challenges that are unlikely to be resolved but made more prominent, the government casts its cash ($23 billion) like the feverish roll of dice towards the transformation of virtually every aspect of Beijing’s urban infrastructure, so that national pride in the achievements of socialism with Chinese characteristics may be brilliantly displayed on the international stage. It is inevitable that China will continue to be affected by the more complete integration into the world represented by the Olympics; however, the costs of it ‘joining the world on the cosmopolitan tide’, of resolving the exigencies of nation and world may well be more prohibitive than either Party or people can fathom.
See also: posters and education; World Trade Organization debate
Barmé, Geremie R. (1999). In the Red: On Contemporary Chinese Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.
Brownell, Susan (1995) Training the Body for China: Sports in the Moral Order of the People’s Republic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
——(2001). ‘Making Dream Bodies in Beijing: Athletes, Fashion Models, and Urban Mystique in China’. In Nancy N.Chen, Constance D. Clark, Suzanne Z.Gottschang and Lyn Jeffery (eds), China Urban: Ethnographies of Contemporary Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 123–42.
Reuters (2001) Beijing Wins Olympics for China. Available at http://www.rediff.com/sports/2001/jul/13olyl.htm
Tong, Lam (2000). ‘Identity and Diversity: The Complexities and Contradictions of Chinese Nationalism’. In Timothy B.Weston and Lionel M.Jensen (eds), China Beyond the Headlines. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 147–70.
Zhang, Xudong (2001). The Making of the Post-Tiananmen Intellectual Field: A Critical Overview’. In Zhang Xudong (ed.), Whither China? Intellectual Politics in Contemporary China. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1–75.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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