The Beijing Olympics were the most spectacular and exciting games ever staged, but Aidan Kirrane questions whether China has got over its image problems with the WestThe Olympic flame in Beijing has been extinguished, the spectators have flown from the Bird’s Nest stadium and Michael Phelps has packed up his Speedo LZR swimsuit, his eight gold medals and left the Olympic village.
As China deals with its post-games hangover, thankful the competition passed without major incident, how do we in the outside world now perceive China?
The Chinese government saw hosting the games as an opportunity to display China as a nation worthy of a place on the podium with the world’s other superpowers, both on and off the track.
It wanted to dispel the idea of China as an archaic nation intolerant of personal liberty and freedom of speech, epitomised by the infamous footage of the student facing up to the tank in Tiananmen Square.
However, the criticism and controversy that dogged the Beijing Olympics only reinforced many people’s negative notion of the host nation.
China was condemned before the games for its human rights record in Tibet and its position on Darfur. This led to Stephen Spielberg resigning his role as coordinator of the opening ceremony as well as being the reason behind the protests that marred the parade of the Olympic torch through cities such as London and San Francisco.
Beijing’s carbon footprint would have given one of Ian Thorpe’s size seventeen’s a run for its money
Talk of athletes boycotting the games in protest of China’s treatment of Tibet also circulated while Beijing’s carbon footprint would have given one of Ian Thorpe’s size seventeen’s a run for its money.
It must be said that China did much to improve itself in the run up to the games. Fantastic new stadia were developed as well a huge renovation of infrastructure. A mass assault was launched on Beijing’s pollution problems including a complex project by China’s top scientists to stop acid rain falling on Beijing throughout the course of the games.
Nevertheless, this redevelopment spawned further stories involving the disappearance of people who complained they had not been properly compensated for the property they lost to allow construction take place.
There were various instances throughout the games that reinforced the perception of China as a ‘Big Brother’ state and that the images showcased by the government veiled what China really was.
A feeling of all not being quite right behind the Great Wall was evident from the off when it emerged that the fireworks display at the opening ceremony broadcast “live” to the world was in fact pre-recorded.
China got more egg on its face when it transpired that Lin Miaoke was lip synching “Ode to the Motherland” at the ceremony as the true vocalist, Yang Peiyi, failed to pass a “cuteness” test on account of her crooked teeth. Olympic organisers were also forced to admit that they paid for “cheerleaders” to be bussed in to fill stadiums.
Eyebrows were raised further when the events themselves kicked off. The hoards of media that descended on Beijing were promised full, uncensored, twenty-four hour access to the games. However, like China’s champion hurdler, Liu Xang, the authorities failed to deliver on the promise.
Access to the games was only granted at “convenient” times and websites with the mildest hint of criticism of China were found to be blocked
Access to the games was only granted at ‘convenient’ times and websites with the mildest hint of criticism of China were found to be blocked. Furthermore, hotels and hostels were required to have surveillance equipment installed in each room and ethnic Tibetans were banned from working in Beijing during the games.
China’s gymnasts were subjected to controversy when there were doubts as to whether He Kepin and were teammates had reached the required age to participate. This fuelled reports that children as young as three were taken from their homes to train as athletes.
The questionability of China’s sense of fair play struck closer to home as events unfolded in the Working Man’s Arena where Ireland’s boxers excelled.
While Paddy Barnes and Kenny Egan admitted their opponents were the superior pugilists they felt that they were not awarded marks for accurate strikes while Shiming Zou and Xiaoping Zhang were given points for punches of dubious precision because they were representing the Red flag of China.
While the International Olympic Committee proclaimed the games a success the global opinion of China does not seem to be what the Chinese administration hoped it would be when the Olympic bandwagon rolled out of Beijing.
While the general consensus appears to be that China is indeed a new superpower and will certainly feature prominently on the world stage in the future it remains to be seen whether this will be in a positive or negative manner.
That China has developed greatly in recent years is indisputable but the various controversies that came to the fore in the Olympics have led many to compare China to the oppressive, authoritarian system of Cold War era Russia.
International ire directed against their country has triggered a mass increase in nationalism and patriotism due to the fierce pride of ordinary Chinese in the “new China”.
This is a far cry from a state once so badly plagued by a national inferiority complex that a National Day of Humiliation was proposed as an annual holiday. However, China must overcome obstacles such as inflation and pollution in order to cement its resurgence to a position of power on the global scene.
The ancient Chinese proverb warns “Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid of standing still”. While fear may be too strong a word with regard to dealings with China in the future, any interaction with China will be hallmarked by tact and wariness.
The Beijing Olympics has shown that China has taken great strides to modernise itself and it cannot be denied that it will be a major player in the major international affairs of the twenty-first century.
However, the various controversies of the games and the Chinese whispers of governmental misdeeds have led many to have the same opinions of China being a totalitarian state that they harboured prior to the Olympics. It may yet be a while before the Chinese government achieves its goal of having world leaders echo the words of one Fr. Ted Crilly; “the Chinese; a great bunch of lads”.