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Guest post by Jordan Hirsch

In mid–March, several days of peaceful demonstrations against Chinese rule exploded into violent rioting in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. On March 17th, as China engaged in the bloodiest period of its crackdown against the protestors, International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge circulated an internal memo to IOC officials, outlining a communications strategy. “China’s involvement in Tibet strictly concerns its social and political policy,” Rogge stated in the memo. “It is not related to the country’s hosting of the Games, nor to its relationship with the IOC.” Most importantly, Rogge ruled out any direct IOC involvement either in condemning China’s response or mediating an end to the conflict. The IOC would remain silent.

Will The Olympics Bring Change in China (or Should They)?But certainly the Olympics and politics go hand–in–hand. Countries compete to host the Olympics for obvious political reasons: to kindle national pride, gain international prestige, and stimulate their economies. The kidnapping and murder of eleven Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists in the 1972 Munich Games, and the years of Olympic boycotts from 1976–84 clearly evince the political nature of the Games. And, doubtless, the IOC has made politically driven decisions in selecting host countries. It rejected China’s 1993 bid for the 2000 Games only four years after the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Even the Olympic Charter seems to call for the promotion of liberal political ideals, including “the establishment of a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity,” a rejection of any “discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, sex, or otherwise,” and the use of sport to inculcate “value of peace, justice, mutual understanding, and international friendship.”

When the IOC granted the 1988 Summer Games to South Korea, then under a repressive military dictatorship, critics accused it of once again awarding the Olympics to an authoritarian regime that consistently violated human rights.

The critics were right about South Korea’s authoritarianism, but the Seoul Games ultimately contributed to South Korea’s rapid and largely peaceful transformation to democracy in 1987. Indeed, the Seoul Games seem to demonstrate that the Olympics can help to initiate progressive political change. As the Beijing Olympics approach and world leaders remain at odds over how to respond, then, what lessons can the international community draw from the history of Seoul 1988?

South Korea’s bid for the Olympics in 1980 served a number of political purposes for the ruling regime. The country had enjoyed rapid economic growth in the 1960s and ’70s, yet the prosperity had not brought with it political liberalization. When South Korean President Park Chung–hee was assassinated in 1979, another military junta, led by General Chun Doo–hwan, assumed power and continued the repressive policies. But South Koreans—especially students—vigorously opposed Chun’s new dictatorship, and began protesting at college campuses across the country. In May 1980, as South Korea prepared its Olympic bid, South Korean students and citizens flooded the streets of the city of Kwangju in a massive pro–democracy rally. The government responded with overwhelming force, with opposition leaders declaring that it had killed nearly 2,000 protestors in one week.

With a bloody stain upon its record so early in its political life, the government sought to use the Olympics to enhance its legitimacy at home and abroad.

Once South Korea won its bid for the Games, outside media descended upon the country and gave voice to dissident students and politicians. Taken by surprise and unprepared to confront the empowered opposition, the government buckled under the pressure and began making concessions.

Alongside the media attention, high–level diplomacy by the (nominally non–political) IOC proved to be the other decisive factor. By the spring of 1987, South Korea had arrived at a crucial juncture. The government had suspended debate over constitutional reforms, and the country nearly ground to a halt as South Koreans from all ages and classes united in protest.

IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch made a high profile visit to Seoul to mediate between the two sides. According to historian Richard Pound, Samaranch, a former Spanish diplomat, “had never been shy about injecting himself and the Olympic movement into world events.” Only two days after Samaranch’s visit, the South Korean government made its famous June 29th Declaration, agreeing to all of the opposition’s demands and giving way to the first democratic elections in South Korean history.

Much like South Korea, China has invested heavy political capital in the Games, taking the unprecedented steps of inviting over fifty world leaders to the opening ceremonies and crafting the longest tour of the Olympic torch in history. This is leverage that the international community has over China, especially in light of China’s still unfulfilled promises to expand media freedom.

Yet the differences between China and South Korea remain stark. China, as an incipient superpower, enjoys far larger economic and political clout. Significantly the Chinese regime is far more ideologically entrenched than were the South Korean generals and can invoke a long history of struggle for popular justice and [against] foreign intervention.”

What’s more, despite its success, Samaranch’s intervention in South Korean affairs raises questions about whether the IOC should engage in diplomacy. Under Samaranch’s model, the Olympics might become a vast political spotlight, shipped purposefully to oppressive regimes to bear international pressure upon them and induce economic and political liberalization. Such an agenda–driven Olympics, without any pretense of political abstinence, might provoke a backlash against the Games from non–Western countries and rob the Games of their universal respect—the very element that empowers their potential for moral leadership in the first place.

In advance of the Beijing Games in August, the IOC has focused its energies on maintaining the idea that the Olympics are “hallowed ground” not to be disturbed by geopolitics. Yet the example set by the South Korean Games establishes that the Olympics can, if unevenly, maintain the balance between its inherent contradiction: steering clear of politics, and upholding its principles of struggling against discrimination and promoting peace, justice, and cooperation.

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Attending an Olympic Games hosted by China was always going to throw up some interesting challenges for the Taiwanese team, and the China’ Taiwan Affairs office have decided to spice things up. The controversy revolves around the name that Taiwan competes under at the Olympics…

The situation is this: in 1989 China and Taiwan agreed that the latter would be referred to as Zhonghua Taipei (中华台北) which translates as Chinese Taipei. Bob’s understanding is that Zhonghua does mean ‘China’ but is not used to refer to the nation that we know today. This week however “Yang Yi of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office has suggested that Zhongguo Taipei (中国台北) is just as valid as an Olympic designator” (via Shanghaiist). Zhongguo being the name used to refer to modern China, as we know it.

The implication of the change in semantics is probably best put; it’s like changing from ‘Chinese Taipei’ to ‘China’s Taipei’.

This is not the first time that the Chinese Olympic organisers have tried to use the Beijing Games as a PR tool for implying Taiwan’s belonging to the mainland. When organising the (fated) Olympic torch relay an invitation was extended to Taiwan: the Taiwanese were very happy to be part of the international leg, which passed through London and Paris along it’s way, but were less pleased to find out that they had been scheduled between Hong Kong and Macao as part of the domestic route (which also climbed Everest and ghosted through Xinjiang). Funnily enough Taiwan refused.

These stunts are clearly lined up to reinforce the official Party line in China that Taiwan is part of the same country. This is an opinion held very strongly within the general population, who will often express a deep wish that Taiwan would ‘come back to its family’. Bob is unsure of who the PR machine is trying to convince; the Chinese population who are already on side, or the ignorant international community, many of whom may not know what Taiwan’s status is.

Bob is not unfamiliar with the complicated way in which the Chinese view Taiwan; a couple of stories come to mind from teaching in China. The first being a polite scolding from a politically aware colleague that we had better go back to Google images to find a different map of China (one that included Taiwan!).

Map of China WITH Taiwan

Map of China WITH Taiwan

Map of China WITHOUT Taiwan

Map of China WITHOUT Taiwan

The second event being a discussion of landmarks which turned to the subject of the world’s tallest buildings. The students seemed puzzled when Bob suggested that indeed China was already home to the world’s tallest building. “No” they said, “that will be in Shanghai, but it’s not finished yet”. A little confused and cautious of what to say Bob pointed out that Taip – ei was home to the current tallest skyscraper and so of course it was Chinese. At this point the students also seemed confused at whether the tower was in fact Chinese; perhaps it was a Zhonghua tower, but not a Zhongguo tower?

World's Tallest Tower in Taiwan (China?)

World's Tallest Tower in Taiwan (China?)

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Spielberg before resigning as an artistic avdisor to the Beijing Olympic ceremonies

Unless you’ve spent the whole of the Year of the Rat thus far on a desert island, you will already know that Steven Spielberg has stepped down from his position as artistic advisor for the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies. (His involvement was noted here in a previous note.)

The reason

Darfur. More specifically, the fact that the Chinese government “should be doing more to end the continuing human suffering” of the Sudanese people at the hands of it’s own government. The Chinese government have come under particularly strong criticism for failing to prevent the atrocities in Darfur because of their particularly strong economic, military and diplomatic ties with the Sudanese authorities.

What this means…

…For the opening and closing ceremonies; probably very little. By his own admission Spielberg has not even signed the contract given to him by the BOGOC almost a year ago, and according to Richard Spencer of the The Telegraph he has only been to Beijing once since his appointment. This hardly demonstrates commitment to the role. The responses of the authorities we will get to shortly, but it is worth noting that they all emphasise that preparations for the ceremonies are still running smoothly. It seems that Zhang Yimou, Spielberg’s friend and fellow superstar-director, will be capable to orchestrating the events.

…For the Olympic organisers; a bigger headache. Although anticipation has been rife for protests surrounding the Olympics, from the many parties with objections to the CCP’s policies, this is the most high profile defection from someone involved in the Games. Will this set a precedent for others? It has certainly put extra wind in the sales of groups like Team Darfur – a group of athletes who like Spielberg want China to use it’s influence to end the crisis in Sudan.

The official response

The official response has expressed regret at Mr Spielberg’s decision, promised that “excellent” ceremonies will be presented to the world despite this decision, and reminded observers that “Linking the Darfur issue to the Olympic Games will not help to resolve this issue and is not in line with the Olympic Spirit that separates sports from politics”. Pretty standard, and well put.

A slightly more contentious aspect of the statements is that “The Chinese government has made unremitting efforts to resolve the Darfur issue, an obvious fact to the international community which holds unprejudiced opinions on this issue”. For those who don’t know, China’s general rule in terms of foreign policy since the 1980’s has been one of non-intervention; not to interfere with another country’s internal affairs. This is in opposition to the Western ‘moral guardian’ role that has been fronted by the United States for over 50 years, and has lead to many interventions in a range of circumstances around the world. It seems that China is now having to weigh-up its new role as an emerging superpower.

There has also been speculation (and more speculation)over the fact that it took the authoroties two days to respond to the statement from Spielberg.

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Today the TIME China blog commented on an announcement by the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau that the city had been “awarded the Special Prize for Improvements to Air Quality and the third prize for Clean Transport”. It doesn’t mention who were on the judging panel…

Perhaps the judges were employing the same policy as teachers who reward troublesome students for turning up on time, or managing half their homework? Well done Beijing, keep working hard and perhaps the elite athletes of the world won’t boycott your Games!

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