Beijing Olympics: A Game to Unite, or a Game to Divide?

May 15, 2008

The Olympic Games is an event that should promote the spirit of mutual understanding, friendship, and fair play among athletes from around the world—it is a event designed to unite. However, less than three months before the start of the Olympic Games in Beijing, a different game has been in play around the world—a divisive game between those who are using the Olympics as an occasion to advance their specific political agendas and those in the broader global community—millions of Chinese included—who support the Games and their intended goals. So far, the game to divide is winning. The disruptions to the Olympic torch relay have turned journeys that should have been inspiring into struggles between angry crowds. Some Western political leaders have begun to bail out from attending the opening ceremony. It is possible that by the time the Olympic Games are over, the game to divide will have succeeded. Sadly, few in the West seem to realize the colossal cost that would entail.

Potential troubles around Olympic Games have long been predicted by analysts in and outside China. The existence of various overseas groups hostile to the Chinese government or critical of some Chinese policies, such as on Tibet, is nothing new. To some degree, they provide useful reminders of the complexity of China’s development and the long march China has yet to travel to truly achieve her goal of a prosperous, harmonious, and fully democratic society. However, the chorus of condemnation for the Chinese government’s response to the Lhasa riots (rather than to the riots themselves) by Western media and politicians were profoundly disturbing to many in the Chinese community. They were particularly appalled at the scene in Paris of protestors fighting with Jin Jing, a disabled sportswoman in a wheelchair, carrying the Olympic torch.

These strong emotions and feelings in and outside of China run the risk of exacerbating tensions between East and West. They may also encourage the rise of a stronger nationalistic sentiment in China to mirror the hostility Chinese see coming from the West. The Beijing Olympic Games is seen by many Chinese as a symbolic moment of restoration and integration of China into the international community as an equal and confident member. This sense of Chinese hope and its intended positive message to the world seem to be lost amidst the current turmoil surrounding the torch relay.

While the Chinese government has been trying to mollify public sentiment in China by providing positive images of the torch relay, Chinese internet users have been able to read and watch a fuller picture of what has been happening in the West – which has generated widespread public resentment toward Western media and politicians. The danger of nationalism and renewed East-West tensions would escalate if most Western political leaders boycott the opening of the Olympic Games. The signal of rejection would be felt strongly by the Chinese nation, likely resulting in a popular response. The potential rise of a more narrow and anti-Western nationalism would be an unwelcome but likely outcome and one that could endure for years, and would limit the Chinese government’s ability not only in pushing for openness and reform domestically but also in cooperating on major issues internationally.

Today, the world faces many challenges that require the joint effort of the entire international community: reducing poverty, confronting climate change, fighting terrorism, and preventing a potential global economic recession, among others. China’s development over the last 30 years has allowed it to play an important critical role in addressing these issues. A successful Olympic Games would not only allow the world to understand China better, it would also provide China with the opportunity to understand the global impact of its development and to see the potential of what it can do better in fulfilling its global responsibilities.

In a global age when mutual understanding and empathy is needed more than any time in history, the Olympic Games can and should play a role in uniting the global community—and not used as a political tool. The game to divide in the name of democracy runs the risk of destroying the Olympic Games and dividing the global community, which would be a disaster for all. It is not too late for Western political leaders to show wisdom and courage by embracing the game to unite and condemning the game to divide, and for the media to show professionalism and responsibility by more balanced and objective reporting on China. The choices are clear and the stakes are high.

Lan Xue is a Professor at the School of Public Policy and Management at Tsinghua University in Beijing, currently on sabbatical as a Visiting Fellow at the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School, and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution