By Simon Jenkins (THE GUARDIAN, 25/07/08):
Forget the sport. As the Beijing Olympics goes critical for its August 8 opening, the political essence of this bizarre event becomes ever clearer. What is not clear is who will win, China or its critics. It could be a photo-finish.
The International Olympic Committee originally chose China for two reasons: it knew it could rely on the Chinese regime to deliver on its stupefying budget; and it knew China would have a public relations interest in complying with the IOC’s increasingly fantasist self-image.
China wanted the games for different reasons. As a dictatorship, it saw cost and control as no problem. The games would draw favourable world attention to its introverted and curiously insecure oligarchy. As the Xinhua press agency declared at the time of the award, getting the Olympics was “another milestone in China’s rising international status and a historical event in the great renaissance of the Chinese nation”. No nonsense there about sport.
Matters have moved on. China is spending a colossal sum of money, reputedly $40bn, on just a fortnight of sport. The Olympics area of Beijing has been destroyed and rebuilt with stadiums, office blocks and avenues: monuments to the cosmopolitan, modernising zeal of the Chinese communist party. Salivating western architects have lined up for work without a moral qualm. They include, appropriately, the genial son of Albert Speer to do the masterplan.
The message of the torch tour and the “1,000 jogging policemen” was that anything can happen when authority loses control. That will not be repeated. Tibet is virtually inaccessible. Activists of the emergent civil rights movement – concerned with anything from land reform to HIV/Aids – have been thrown into jail. Any domestic criticism has been suppressed, and the signers of a petition demanding “an Olympic spirit” in human rights silenced.
Foreigners have been evicted from the neighbourhood of the Olympic site. The Chinese press remains censored, and woe betide any visiting journalist who steps out of the tightly drawn line. The American network NBC, with exclusive rights to the games, is owned by General Electric, which has extensive commercial interests in China. Spitting has been banned and 100,000 troops brought in to ring the city.
Britain’s IOC member, Sir Craig Reedie, hilariously declared that the IOC’s contract is “with the host city, it does not become involved in politics”. Why then the IOC’s frequent references to human rights? It is all humbug.
Tourists have understandably stayed away. The 119 Olympic five-star hotels are only 78% full, booked almost entirely with games officials financed by some taxpayer somewhere. According to the Beijing authorities, tourist four-star hotels are just 45% full, with overall visitor numbers currently 20% down on the same month last year. Given the number of official visitors, this must mean a total collapse in private tourism.
This should surprise nobody. It is an open secret that both Athens and Sydney did not gain but lost on their tourist account through hosting the Olympics. Normal visitors avoid Olympic cities for fear of crowds. The related downswing in block bookings can take years to return to normal. Australia admitted as much with its subsequent travel slogan, “Where the bloody hell are you?”
People who say the games make money, except for builders and consultants, are talking rubbish. They are the greatest public spending hit on Earth. Nor for nothing are Britain’s Olympics officials taking their bonuses in six-figure salaries, rather than waiting for Lord Coe’s promised “profit”. They are outrageously paying tens of millions of pounds to “cost-cutting” consultants – all beyond the reach of meaningful audit.
The Chinese have shrewdly taken the view that the popularity of the games is not an issue. What matters is the avoidance of nasty incidents broadcast to the world. Hence the clampdown on visas, even for bona fide tourists. If you want to go to China at present, say you work for the BBC, the IOC’s greatest cheerleader, with a reported 150 staff on the junket of their lives. Over three-quarters of the tickets have been allocated to Chinese, to ensure there are no embarrassing empty seats on camera, as there were at Athens four years ago.
At this point in the argument, China can justifiably crow. It has given two fingers to the IOC. It has pressed an army of builders into ensuring it delivers the project on time. It has reneged on its pledge, which the IOC formally announced, that the games would “help the development of human rights in China”. Why should they?
As the China pundit Mark Leonard has pointed out, the undoubted liberalisation of the Chinese economy and lifestyle in recent years has been paralleled by “an increasingly sophisticated control of the public sphere … not western-style democracy but a hi-tech model of deliberative dictatorship”.
But if China is winning the sprints, it has yet to get the marathon in the bag. The spotlight that is planned to bathe Beijing in Olympic glory is not as biddable as in the past. The security operation designed to turn China into a giant television studio is itself receiving adverse publicity.
The political cliche that dictatorship cannot censor every blog, mobile phone and digital camera holds true. China may discourage the world’s public from coming to the games with its visas and repression, but it cannot ensure that no rogue journalists get through, least of all when tens of thousands of them are in town. This is, after all, the media event of the year.
Tibet has already garnered enough global publicity from the Olympics to incur the envy of every oppressed minority. After a decade in which Beijing has won only sycophancy from the world’s political, financial and media community, it is now enduring much hostile comment – and for no other reason than the staging of the games.
For all the nonsense talked of the “Olympic legacy” – usually an unusable out-of-town wilderness – the true legacy of Beijing will be not sporting or architectural but political. The games are essentially of minority sports, which is why the IOC have always built them up as celebrations of world chauvinism, and why China (and now Britain) must be seduced with glory into spending so much money on them.
If electronic communication can ruffle the well-oiled feathers of the communist/IOC apparat, if brave Chinese can defy those who oppress them in the name of world harmony and if journalists can break loose from their freebies and do a proper job, then the decision to go to China might be vindicated. Soft power will have scored a win. We might hear less of the thesis that you can buy off freedom with bread and a $40bn circus.
These are big ifs, but by no means impossible. Whether it needed so much money and effort to reveal the true nature of the Beijing regime to the wider world I cannot say. That question is still open. But it makes me wonder what murky side of Britain may be exposed in the same glare in 2012.