For a country which is frequently described as “immune to criticism”, the People’s Republic of China – or rather, its governing elite – is remarkably sensitive. This week, for example, it emerged that the head of the BBC’s Cantonese- and Mandarin-language service has suddenly had her invitation to next week’s Beijing Olympics opening ceremony withdrawn.
A small thing, perhaps, but it is indicative of the truth of Amnesty International’s observation that the nearer the Games approach the more the Chinese government appears to be flouting various undertakings it had made to the International Olympic Committee when the Games were awarded to Beijing seven years ago.
Yesterday, even the head of the IOC’s press commission seemed to be embarrassed by developments: Kevin Gosper said that he was “startled” to be told that the organisers had reneged on their commitment to allow visiting journalists full internet access – for example to sites which might be critical of the government of the PRC. Mr Gosper admitted to reporters that, “the ground rules on censorship have been changed… this certainly isn’t what we guaranteed”. So, do you think that the president of the IOC, Jacques Rogge, might complain? Well, no: it appears that Mr Rogge had agreed to China’s demand that it be released from its agreement not to censor – only without telling, let alone consulting, his own press chief.
This, we should remember, is the same Jacques Rogge who declared only two years ago that: “It is clear that the staging of the Olympic Games will do a lot for the improvement of human rights in China.” As Amnesty International’s document People’s Republic of China: The Olympic Countdown – Broken Promises pointed out earlier this week: “In fact the crackdown on human rights defenders, journalists and lawyers has intensified because Beijing is hosting the Olympics. The authorities have stepped up repression of dissident voices in their efforts to present an image of ‘stability’ and ‘harmony’ to the outside world.”
Actually, buried in its dismal catalogue of the way in which the PRC is extending its use of punitive administrative detention – officially described as “Re-education through Labour” – Amnesty International does manage to find one example of a recent move towards a less harsh system of justice. Its report observes that: “In January 2008 the authorities declared an intention to promote and extend the use of lethal injection as a more ‘humane’ method of execution across China.” Somehow, I don’t think that’s what Jacques Rogge would have had in mind when he declared that the Chinese would act to improve its human rights as a result of being declared Olympic hosts.
It was, of course, inevitable, that the more the Games drew near, the more difficult it would be for the IOC to make any kind of fuss about China’s actions – even supposing that its delegates really cared very much about the Communist regime’s human rights record in the first place. The IOC’s chiefs are completely trapped: all they want now is to make it seem as if their decision to award Beijing the Games was the right one, so the last thing they will do is engage in a public slanging match with the Chinese authorities.
In a way this is a great shame. For all its apparent retreat from old-style communism, the Chinese government still uses the language of Stalinism when engaging in political dispute, to almost comic effect. Thus this week its Foreign Ministry spokesman responded to the news that President Bush had a pre-Olympiad meeting with a handful of former Chinese dissidents, by declaring: “These people have long since been engaged in anti-China splittism activities and hostile sabotage activities under the banner of so-called ‘human rights and religion’… By arranging such a meeting, the US side has rudely interfered in China’s internal affairs and sent a seriously wrong message to the anti-China hostile forces.”
As I say, this seems to demonstrate that the Chinese government is far from impervious to criticism. If they were as confident and self-assured as they are widely imagined to be, then they could simply ignore such a meeting, which is mere window-dressing – and certainly won’t stop the USA sending its athletes to take part in the usual way, with gold medals the sole object of the exercise.
Perhaps, however, such statements by Chinese official spokesmen are not really intended for our consumption, but designed to whip up their own people into an ever more frenzied nationalism. Like the governments of the Soviet Union in its later years, crude nationalism and the violent stigmatisation of real or imaginary enemies are among the only remaining ways for an undemocratic regime to continue to assert its necessity and its proximity to the popular will.
In this sense, the Olympic Games actually do sit very well in Beijing. While the slogan of the 2008 event is “One World, One Dream” – and the Opening Ceremony will be a gigantic paean to what the regime doubtless describes as One-Worldism and One-Dreamism – the truth is that there is no greater global demonstration of the power of nationalism than the Olympic Games.
That is why the athletes compete in their national colours, and that is why about as much time is devoted to the playing of national anthems in ceremonial prize-giving ceremonies as is spent running around the track. Expect the atmosphere in the stadiums to become distinctly intimidating – if not actually martial – when Americans are up against Chinese athletes in the final stages of the events.
Grotesque as this spectacle of clashing nationalisms is bound to be, I have to admit that it will also be absolutely unmissable: World War Three, but with hurtling athletes in place of thermonuclear missiles.