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China Balances Host Role with Delicate Diplomacy During Olympics

August 22, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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Atlantic Monthly veteran writer James Fallows, who has spent a year reporting from China about everything from Beijing's pollution to the tightly controlled media, discusses the country's future following its turn in the Olympic spotlight.

RAY SUAREZ: James Fallows, welcome to the program.

Looking back over the spectacle that’s unfolded since that grand opening ceremony, have these Olympics done what China wanted them to do?

JAMES FALLOWS, Reporter, The Atlantic Monthly: I think that, on balance, China has to be happy with the way things have turned out here. A lot of things that could have been big, deal-breaking problems for the Olympics, starting with the air and starting with some kind of big demonstrations or disruption that got a lot of international attention, those things have not happened.

Athletically, of course, the Chinese teams have done very, very well. So while not everything has gone exactly as most of the Chinese audience would have wanted, especially the withdrawal from the hurdles of Liu Xiang, the national hero, I think, on the whole, this has been a big success from China’s perspective.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, how does this differ from the national hopes and anxieties that an American might have felt about the Atlanta games going well, or an Australian about the Sydney games, or an Italian about the games in Turin? Was there something more riding on this for China?

China's preparedness for the Games

James Fallows
The Atlantic Monthly
And while I will not use and have not used in any writing, until this second, the cliche "coming-out party," there was a sense that China was going to be tested.

JAMES FALLOWS: Sure. Of course, from China's perspective, the issue was this was the first time China had held this kind of international event. There's been diplomatic conferences here over the years. But in terms of a large-scale blowout of this sort, it really was unprecedented for China.

And while I will not use and have not used in any writing, until this second, the cliche "coming-out party," there was a sense that China was going to be tested. What you heard in all the sort of pre-games publicity here for even a year or so was, "Are we ready? We are ready. We'll deal with the air. We'll deal with the logistics. We'll get the subway lines going."

And so, in a way, there's a kind of nonchalance that London can have about the games next time, because they've had Olympic Games before. The U.S. has had lots of Olympic Games and the Italians, too.

So the fact that this hasn't ever happened made that much more pressure for the Chinese, probably that much more relief that this turned out well, and that much more pressure on poor Liu Xiang, who, again, was the only athlete they've ever had in track and field who won a gold medal.

RAY SUAREZ: You mentioned that worry, "Are we ready? Yes, we're ready." Well, were they? Did they manage with the air? Did they manage with the transportation, the logistics, the security?

JAMES FALLOWS: I think the test or the standard on the "are we ready" front was that things worked well enough so that everybody would have to say, on balance, it's been a well-run Olympics. The air was a really, really close run thing.

On the morning of the opening ceremonies, the air was looking as bad as it had been for quite a while, and probably for the next 36 hours after that, too.

But then due to whatever intervention you want to credit, whether it was the weather rockets or the People's Liberation Army or divine intervention, there was a huge thunderstorm, a cold front. And since then, the air has been good enough that nobody's complained about it.

The logistics, again, have not been perfect. I think people who are not able to read any Chinese might sometimes find themselves getting lost. Many, many, many of the venues have had swaths of open seats because of problems in allocating tickets.

There basically has been no food to buy in any of these places, except potato chips and ice cream, which is a whole different topic. But it has worked will enough. The public has been friendly enough.

And for the political aspect, the government has been tight enough in controlling demonstrations before they occur that they've avoided the sort of incidents that I, frankly, was thought would be the main threat to their harmonious running of the game.

Imperfect Games logistics

James Fallows
The Atlantic Monthly
I saw Venus and Serena Williams play tennis with basically nobody there in a doubles match. I saw Michael Phelps in a heat with half of the stadium empty.

RAY SUAREZ: I want to take a closer look at both the empty seats and the protests. First, those seats. Sometimes in a wide shot of a competition, you'd see an amazing number of empty seats and wonder why, in a country of 1.3 billion people, there weren't full houses for everything.

JAMES FALLOWS: This is one of the mysteries of the Olympic Games that people have discussed. In my own experience, I've been now to five different events, which has been great. One of them was a full house, which was the U.S.-China baseball game a couple days ago, but I saw Venus and Serena Williams play tennis with basically nobody there in a doubles match. I saw Michael Phelps in a heat with half of the stadium empty.

And this was especially because, for the last year, everybody inside China where I've been has been told there's no tickets, they've all been sold, you've got to queue up, you know, at 4:00 in the morning to try to get some, and we put them on sale next week.

And so what has happened to them -- the main hypothesis is this, that a whole lot of them have been given out to organizing groups, whether sponsors from international companies, whether provincial governments, the Chinese Central Committee, the IOC, you name it.

And one way or another, they just didn't get passed around. It's a real shame, because so many people would have liked to see so many events. But I think that's one of the few actually embarrassing points for the organizers of how many big events played before empty houses.

RAY SUAREZ: And about the protests, the Chinese Olympic Organizing Committee had set aside protest zones, which, by all accounts, were empty during the length of the games. And they managed to swoop down on anyone about to unfurl a banner or take off an over-shirt to reveal an embarrassing T-shirt, even.

Has that suppression left a sour taste in the mouths of visitors from around the world where that kind of thing wouldn't happen?

JAMES FALLOWS: I think a lot of people have to -- who come from other countries have to have noticed how carefully things have been locked up here.

I'll tell you what I expected. It is just a given about the Chinese security forces that they will overreact to anything that looks like a protest, a demonstration, any kind of threat to public order.

What I thought would happen is they'd overreact when something happened during the games. In fact, they overreacted strongly enough before the games happened that nothing --practically nothing was able to get under way.

I've heard about a few incidents where people have been able to get Tibetan flags out or some other protest subject. And they were immediately rounded up by the police.

The most sort of blatant thing the authorities have done is to declare these three zones for authorized protest and then grant absolutely zero of the requests for people to protest there and arrest some people who tried.

I mean, it really is incredible, but it's a sign of how on the divide between being deft and delicate in the eyes of the world and just cracking down and making sure that order is maintained, there's one way that the government will go.

A confident China

James Fallows
The Atlantic Monthly
So it is one of the real quandaries of the system here of why they don't seem to care how these things are perceived around the world. I guess it is just a matter of priority of values, or hierarchy of values.

RAY SUAREZ: The Chinese went as far as to arrest two elderly ladies who wanted to complain about the amount of demolition that went on to build the Olympic venues, and now they're being sent for re-education. Do the Chinese not worry about the public relations problems that come from that kind of thing?

JAMES FALLOWS: You know, evidently they must not worry about it enough, must not worry about it enough to avoid these really, really crude gestures.

There was another incident where, after a long, long time of promising open access to the Internet for the international press, when they got here, the government for a while decided to close it down. And then they changed that policy.

So it is one of the real quandaries of the system here of why they don't seem to care how these things are perceived around the world. I guess it is just a matter of priority of values, or hierarchy of values, that it always, even in prosperous China, even with so many things being so open here, maintaining order and containing any kind of what's seen as a threat will take precedence over just about anything, even looking good and jovial.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, along with the concerns about being seen to throw a great worldwide party, the Chinese also wanted to succeed on the field of competition. That's gone well, too, hasn't it?

JAMES FALLOWS: It certainly has. The Chinese government has had a program over the last -- you know, a long time -- to develop that's specifically focus on winning Olympic gold medals.

And as of now, it seems to be a lock that they will end up at the Olympic Games with the most gold medals of anybody. The U.S. will probably have more medals overall, but there is a real emphasis on finding sports that are medal-rich, although perhaps not as medal-rich as Michael Phelps in swimming, and develop people who are the national champions.

I think the counterpart with the U.S. would be, the U.S. has a whole lot of its people involved in sports of some kind. Same thing for Australia, same thing for France. And there's always a deep pool of people. China has a shallower pool of people who are selected quite early in life for these selective training camps. And they've done very, very well.

And I think it's good from the world's perspective that China has done as well as it has, because a confident-feeling China is probably a better result from these games than if it feels somehow victimized or denied its time in the limelight.

China's ambition to win

RAY SUAREZ: It's interesting that the Chinese have concluded that gold is the only color medal that matters. They've really put a lot of their energy into not just win, place, and show, but win, period.

JAMES FALLOWS: If you look at the press here, both English-language and Chinese-language, the headlines are, you know, "Five More Golds in Chinese Hands." I mean, it is -- this is a natural tendency in any nation, whoever is leading the gold medal chart, will feel good about that.

But I think there's more emphasis on it here than there is in many other countries. I don't have any big sweeping cultural explanation for that, but just as an observed fact, it seemed to be very much the case and very much on people's minds.

RAY SUAREZ: Does this signal China's arrival as a world athletic power? Can I assume this is not just something that's being done for the Beijing games and will evaporate by London in 2012?

JAMES FALLOWS: They are obsessed with gold medal victories, and that's fine, and I think they're treating them as athletic achievements as opposed to something much, much more than that.

RAY SUAREZ: It sounds like you're describing a kind of positive nationalism, an optimistic, forward-looking, and proud-of-itself China.

JAMES FALLOWS: I've been saying all along that, despite all of the complaints about the way the Chinese state is run in X, Y or Z way and how the Olympics are run, it's in the world's interest to have China feel good about this whole event, both in the way it pulls off as an event and also how their own athletes feel.

Because historically -- and I'm talking about the last century or so -- the times when China has been most of a trouble to itself and to the world is when it's feeling like a loser, when it's feeling victimized, when it's feeling somehow inferior. That makes for a worse and more difficult country, in addition to being bad for the Chinese people, than when it's feeling more confident.

So based on readings as of August 2008, as you and I talk, it seems to me that this has been good for China in a positive way and most of the decals you see on people's face, you know, "I Love China," and the cheers, and "Zhongguo, jia you," that is, you know, "Let's go, China," those seem to me more positive than they do exclusive or putting down. And so I say bring them on.

RAY SUAREZ: Yes, bring them on, sure, but make sure you have plenty to eat before you go to an Olympic event?

JAMES FALLOWS: Yes, make sure you eat before you go there and you don't try to sneak anything in, because it will be confiscated in the way in. And then it's chips and saltines for the next five hours.

RAY SUAREZ: James Fallows, good to talk to you. Thanks for joining us.