Supporting Article

China and the Olympics

Prospects for Change


The fundamental question underlying much public discussion regarding China always seems to be, what is the best way to change China? Can we facilitate change by engagement or by punishment? The discussion surrounding selecting Beijing to host the 2008 Olympics is no different, yet it ignores the fact that China is already rapidly changing due to internal dynamics, and that external actors have important but distinctly secondary roles in the drama of China’s ongoing transformation.

Much opposition to a Beijing Olympics is rooted in outdated notions of China as a communist monolith. Some see the Olympics as merely a platform for the Party to trumpet its ideology and achievements. To be sure, the Party will try to use the Olympics to enhance its weak legitimacy, but other levels of society are celebrating the decision for different reasons. All sectors of a dynamic society will be actively seeking to gain advantage. As Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote in the New York Times (7/14/ 2001),

. . . there is a growing sense that Chinese Communism has become a facade for a society that no longer operates according to Marxist tenets. . . . The Olympics in Beijing may be a triumph for China, but by intensifying the pressures for change the games are quite unlikely to be a triumph for China’s waning Communism.

It is important to distinguish between social change and opening up (which is certain) and political transformation in the near future (which is highly unlikely). The main impact of hosting the Olympics will not be the event itself, but the process set in train by key deadlines. Investment, trade, and tourism are driving incentives, but the resulting dynamics will include the further opening up of Chinese society to the outside world, with two-way exchanges, visits, and joint projects in many fields. All of China knows that significant changes are required to host successful games, and public expectations will grow for more openness. The Olympics will accelerate that pace of openness.

Many critics highlight China’s nationalistic response, and some Chinese are emphasizing China’s return to its rightful place in the world as a great power, which tends to make outsiders nervous. However, the views of other Chinese citizens show a positive effect: “This proves that if China learns the rules of the game and abides by the international rules, it can win respect and influence.” The Olympics decision encourages the blend of nationalism and patriotism that has an internationalist component to it, something we should encourage. In the opinion of a graduate student in Beijing, “Ninety per cent of Chinese young people aren’t rabid anti-Western nationalists, but are patriots who want a strong but constitutional, democratic China.” The Olympics decision reinforces those in the system who would argue that it pays off to continue to pursue the goal of being a “responsible world power” within the existing world system. It also provides a strong incentive for Beijing to avoid threatening Taiwan, while using the Olympics as a reconciliation mechanism.

There is a related point that has been overlooked by most commentators: the decision is primarily a win for Beijing City—at potential economic cost for the rest of China. One report cited the crowd in the capital as shouting “Bei-jing, Bei-jing!” They were not shouting “Long Live the Communist Party.” It is fair to assume that the excitement and pride felt by Beijingers is not necessarily shared (at least to the same degree) by the people of Shanghai or Harbin. When Beijing lost the bid to host the 2000 games (chosen in 1993) the people of Shanghai quietly celebrated, fearing they would never get their subway finished. The central leadership will have to work hard to continue meeting the needs of the provinces.

So where do we as American Christians (especially those who live in China or have close ties to China) fit or play into all of this? Is there a “correct” response? Should we intensify our criticism and decry the decision? There are some obvious practical alternatives. Beijing City will be looking for foreign investment in its infrastructure projects and foreign expertise in many related fields from real estate to sports medicine, so opportunities for positive engagement and influence will increase throughout the decade.

But wouldn’t we be even better off thinking in more incarnational terms, particularly as we relate to our Chinese friends and colleagues. A group of Americans found themselves in downtown Beijing on the night of the announcement and subsequent celebration, joining with the Beijingers in high-fives and cheering, and were moved by the response:

The Chinese were so thrilled that foreigners were celebrating with them and for them.... They soaked up every word of congratulations and rejoiced in every sign of encouragement and thanked us deeply for the support.... As goodwill ambassadors, we made this celebration extra special for several thousand Beijingers on this clear, warm evening that they will never forget.

Does that not seem to be a tilling of the soil for the planting of the gospel?

Image credit: Beijing Bird's Nest by Megan Eaves via Flickr.

Kay Danielson

Kay Danielson (pseudonym) has lived and worked in China for over 25 years. She currently works in the field of cross-cultural training and consulting. View Full Bio


Carol Hamrin

Carol Lee Hamrin, Ph.D., serves as a research professor at George Mason University and a senior associate with the Global China Center. She served under five U.S. administrations as the senior China research specialist in the U.S. Department of State and in 2003 received the Center for Public Justice Leadership... View Full Bio