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China Aims to Boost Global Standing Through Olympics

August 8, 2008 at 6:20 PM EDT
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Years of preparation for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games culminated Friday as world leaders converged in China to watch the Games' opening ceremonies. Analysts examine what the event means for China's place on the global political and economic stage.
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MARGARET WARNER: It has been a day of pomp and pageantry, unmatched in the annals of the Olympics and cheered on by an unprecedented number of world leaders ever to show up for a sporting event.

President Bush headed the list. Among those joining also in the warm greetings were Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and French President Nicholas Sarkozy. They met at a lunch hosted by Chinese President Hu Jintao hours before the lavish opening ceremonies Friday night.

For more on what this Olympic moment represents for China, we get three perspectives.

Victor Cha is director of Asian studies at Georgetown University. He served as director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council earlier in the Bush administration. His forthcoming book is “Beyond the Final Score: The Politics of Sport in Asia.”

Orville Schell is director of the center on U.S.-China relations at the Asia Society. He’s written widely on China and produced many documentaries on the country, as well.

And Minxin Pei is co-director of the China Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He travels to and writes frequently about China, as well.

Welcome to you all, gentlemen.

Affirming China's political role

To Victor Cha, the big day has finally arrived. After all the controversy on everything from human rights to air quality, what kind of an achievement is it for China just to have gotten to this point?

VICTOR CHA, Director of Asian Studies, Georgetown University: I think in, their own minds, it's a very big achievement. I mean, given all of the criticism and all the concerns that were expressed around the world in the run-up to the games -- and we're not just talking a few months, we're talking seven years since they were awarded the games -- probably the leadership, as well as the organizers, are tonight breathing a huge sigh of relief that they've carried off the opening ceremonies in such a spectacular and fault-free fashion.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree that they're breathing a sigh of relief and this is really big deal for them, Minxin Pei, to have all these world leaders there?

MINXIN PEI, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Absolutely. I think the opening ceremony, in particular, is about political respect. Never in Olympic history has there been so many leaders from various parts of the world attending the opening ceremony.

This time, China hit the world record books, 86 heads of state from various countries. So I think the government must feel very, very happy about this picture-perfect opening ceremony.

MARGARET WARNER: And when you say political respect, in whose eyes?

MINXIN PEI: The eyes of the Chinese leadership and the Chinese people, because China has risen -- so-called risen economically. But whether China has been accepted by the international community as a world power and accorded the amount of respect Chinese people and the Chinese government believe that they deserve, I think nothing is more convincing than having practically half of the world's leadership showing up at the ceremony.

MARGARET WARNER: Orville Schell, do you see it that way, that this is an affirmation for China, in its eyes, of political respect?

ORVILLE SCHELL, Asia Society: I do. And I think the last seven years have been a long and somewhat tortured odyssey towards this moment. And there's been a tremendous amount of ambiguity in China's request -- sort of quest for the respect of the world.

So I think tonight, the fact that it went off well was not only important for China, but I think actually is important for the world, because if China feels spurned or humiliated or injured, which it certainly has had a large modicum of over the last century-and-a-half, it tends to be very sort of retracted and it tends to hunker down and not interact well with the world at large.

So I think this is a very symbolic moment. And I think everybody hopes that these games will go well and that China will then be able to relax.

It's interesting, in the reports coming out of China, one thing that's mentioned was that the opening ceremony reflected the confidence of China. Now, there may be a deficit of confidence, but, in fact, confidence is exactly what the Chinese would like to project in the next three weeks.

Meeting world expectations

MARGARET WARNER: And yet, Victor Cha, you wrote a long piece for -- I think it was the Washington Quarterly this summer, the title of which was "Beijing's Olympic-Size Catch-22." What did you mean by that?

VICTOR CHA: Well, I think it rises to the question of political change in China and how much the Olympics can create change. And the essential argument was that, you know, as everybody has said, this is China's big coming-out party. And they've sought this to show the world what a great country they are and what a great power they are.

The problem is, when you seek the Olympic limelight, as they have sought it, you pay the price for that limelight, which is a great deal of pressure for political change. And if you don't make those changes, whether in domestic or foreign policy, it undercuts the purpose of the games, which is to project China's confidence, its image around the world.

So I think Minxin's point about political respect, absolutely. I think these opening ceremonies accord China the political respect they seek, but it also accords to them a great deal of responsibility now. Now that they are being accepted in this role, there are higher expectations of China now, both in their foreign policy and their domestic human rights that will long outlast these Olympics.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree, higher expectations, Minxin Pei? And, in fact, even in the run-up to these games, were they having to meet some of those world expectations?

MINXIN PEI: It's uneven. Clearly, the expectations for China's performance both in its domestic affairs and its role on the international stage have been raised, but when you look at China's actual record, you see an uneven level of performance.

China does its best to meet those expectations, but then China's own political system, China's national interests always come in the way. So after the Olympics, we really do not know. Probably in the immediate aftermath, China will again try its best to meet these expectations, but in the long run this is a very uncertain process.

Changes in Chinese foreign policy

MARGARET WARNER: Orville Schell, first, pick up on this question of the risks for China in setting these high expectations, though I'm also interested in what you think is going to happen in the future, but I hope to get back to that.

But what risks are there -- China has set such a high bar for itself, everything from the medals it's going to win to how well -- you know, how clean the air will be. Can they meet -- if they don't meet them all, is that a risk?

ORVILLE SCHELL: Well, I mean, they doubtless won't meet them all, and that's understandable. But one remembers sort of the very agonizing progress of the torch around the world, dogged at every world capital by protests, and how humiliating that was for China.

And I think, you know, we'll doubtless see some protests in China during the next few weeks. And the question is, how will they handle that? You know, how comfortable will they be able to be with the few sweet disorders in the dress?

China is a controlled society. And when things start going wrong, they tend to clamp down. And I think, of course, after the games, we're still going to have Darfur, Zimbabwe, Burma, you know, Ahmadinejad and Iran. China is very reluctantly sort of emerging as a leader on the world stage, precisely because it has a very strict notion of sovereignty.

It doesn't want to intrude into anyone else's affairs, which prevents it from being a leader, in large measure, because it doesn't want anyone intruding in its affairs.

MARGARET WARNER: And yet President Bush yesterday, when he was speaking in Burma -- and he was critical of China -- but he also said he thought China had stepped up to the plate in some areas, certainly on North Korea and Taiwan. Do you think that's the case? I mean, and do you think the Olympics had anything to do with that?

ORVILLE SCHELL: Well, I think they have stepped up. You know, they've played a role in Burma and Darfur with Sudan. The problem is that the role that they play they can't really take credit for, because if they do it will make it look as if they were intruding in other people's affairs.

I think they leaned very hard on Mugabe in Zimbabwe, and he got stuck in Hong Kong, and they wouldn't let him come to the games. And I think they forced him, in essence, to talk to the opposition.

So they are playing a role. The question is, how can it play this role of being a real world citizen if it feels so uncomfortable about this notion that we're all in this together and everybody's affairs, in a certain sense, are everybody else's affairs?

MARGARET WARNER: Do you see any change in that Chinese perspective?

VICTOR CHA: Well, I think that that's why -- yes, I do. And I think that's why the Olympics have been so important, because it really concentrates all this pressure on the Chinese at a particular moment when they have sought this moment in the sun.

And I would agree with Orville that we've seen some changes in terms of their foreign policies, precisely because of all this pre-Olympics pressure in policy towards Sudan, Darfur, some in Burma, in other cases.

Where we haven't seen it, obviously, is in terms of the domestic human rights situation, where there's a big contrast between what they've been trying to do overseas to show everybody and what they're doing at home.

But I think my basic point is that the -- every step that the Chinese take in terms of political change, whether in foreign policy or press access, increases expectations around the world about China to do more.

So it will be very difficult for China to go back to the pre-Olympic days once we're passed these two weeks. And that's why I think they're on this sort of slippery slope of change. The leadership, in many ways, have bit off more than they can chew with these Olympics.

Will China ever be the same?

MARGARET WARNER: And, Minxin Pei, does it also create different expectations among the Chinese people?

MINXIN PEI: Only to a small extent, I think, in terms of the environment, in terms of government efficiency. Probably, they will hold the Olympics as a standard.

However, in terms of real political change, I'm more skeptical, because I think the Chinese government has not shown real desires for fundamentally changing its domestic political system. And on certain key domestic issues, such as the issue of Tibet, we really do not know whether post-Olympics China's Tibetan policy will change dramatically.

But I do agree that China will continue to change. That's not because of the Olympics, but, I will say, in spite of the Olympics, because within China economic development, social change will continue at a very rapid pace with or without the Olympics.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Orville Schell, that gets -- I mean, that's part of this final question to you is, I mean, do you think China will ever be the same? Once the show is over, can it pull down the curtain and go back? Or do you think that in Chinese society now there is expectation of more change?

ORVILLE SCHELL: Well, you know, what's so interesting about China -- and I think what bedevils all of us who followed it -- is that, at the same time, you have enormous quotients of change.

But, on the other hand, you have an awful lot of sort of land forms that stay the same: the structure of the government, the way things work, certain mindsets, some are cultural, some are political. And so we have this kind of very contradictory situation where we have change without change.

And I think, also, it's very unclear where China is headed. There really is no vision of the future, except an economic vision of more. And so it's not like this incredibly energetic and dynamic country has a clear destination, many stars to steer by, even founding documents which it seeks to adhere to.

So it's all a little bit uncertain. And if you look behind the veil, you really do see a tremendous amount of fragility and a tremendous amount of irresolution. In fact, I don't think there's any country of consequence in world that's more unresolved than China is.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Orville Schell, Victor Cha, and Minxin Pei, thank you.