Beijing saw winning the right to host the 2008 Summer Olympics as an opportunity to raise China’s international profile and solidify the "China rise" among the so-called big powers. Since 2001, times have changed, and Beijing has shifted from its initial focus on hosting the best Olympics ever to one nearly exclusively concerned with security of the games and avoiding further embarrassments. This is stirring complaints from foreign investors, domestic businesses and perhaps more important, fueling debates inside the Communist Party and central government over the decision to host the games and the best way to salvage any potential gain from hosting the Olympics.
In July 2001, China beat out its competitors for the right to host the 2008 Summer Olympics. The decision was somewhat controversial at the time, considering China’s lack of political freedoms and human rights record. The International Olympic Committee, however, considered the Olympics a way to encourage change in China’s internal situation. For Beijing, winning the games was seen as further proof of China’s rise among the big nations in the world, particularly as it came only a few months after an tense standoff with the United States over a collision between Chinese and U.S. military aircraft that left a U.S. E-P3 (and its crew) on Hainan Island in southern China. U.S.-China tensions faded rapidly later in 2001 after the attacks in Washington and New York, but China continued to play the Olympics up as both a tool to rally nationalism among domestic and overseas Chinese, and as a public relations initiative to demonstrate China’s emergence among the major world powers. This was further reinforced (in Beijing’s eyes) by the rapid rise of China’s economy in the succeeding years, as China climbed the global gross domestic product ranking ladder to 4th place in 2007, passing most of the European nations and closing the gap with Japan. As the Olympics drew nearer, Beijing grew concerned with a whole host of potential problems, seeing 2007 as the most critical year — a year that it anticipated would bring a confluence of political pressures from Taiwan and the United States amid growing concerns of economic problems at home and abroad. Beijing’s fears of a perfect storm for 2007 ultimately proved overblown. But just as the Chinese leadership was breathing a sigh of relief, 2008 brought about a whole host of problems ranging from domestic security threats to a hammering of China’s image overseas. On March 5, a Chinese man carrying what he claimed was a bomb hijacked a bus full of Australians in Xian, raising concerns about transportation security in China, and Beijing's ability to counter threats from common citizens (as opposed to the "separatist" or "extremist" groups Beijing had been focusing on up to that point). Just days later, on March 7, Chinese security forces thwarted an alleged attempt to bring down a Chinese airliner flying from Xinjiang to Beijing. According to Chinese authorities, the incident was perpetrated by Uighur militant separatists linked to al Qaeda and the international jihadist movement. This was seen as further evidence of what Beijing had been warning about all along, namely, that Uighur terrorists were targeting the Olympic games. Many observers outside China saw this claim as fairly spurious, and more likely to be a convenient excuse to crack down on the ethnic Uighurs and tighten security overall rather than a response to serious and identifiable threat. But even as Beijing was warning about the threat the Uighurs posed to the Olympics, the annual March 10 demonstrations in Tibet marking Tibet’s failed 1959 uprising against Chinese forces suddenly grew violent, triggering several days of riots in Lhasa and other Tibetan cities until Chinese troops intervened. Beijing saw this as instigation not only by the Dalai Lama, but by his foreign supporters, including the United States. This view as reinforced when it became known that members of CANVAS, a Serbian-based but U.S.-funded group that teaches nonviolent movements and helped train activists in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution and Georgia's Rose Revolution, among others, had held a session with members of the Central Tibetan Administration — Tibet’s "government in exile" — in India a week before the Lhasa demonstrations. And it didn't help matters that the Dalai Lama was scheduled to visit the United States in March as well. China’s reaction to the Tibet uprising was anything but subtle. But while Beijing tried to play up the violence perpetrated by the Tibetans against Han Chinese as an excuse for its heavy-handed response and as a way to reduce support for the Tibetans internationally, Chinese authorities found little sympathy overseas. Worse for Beijing, the Tibetan rising and Chinese response reinvigorated a plethora of organizations who had planned to target China’s hosting of the Olympics but had largely fallen off the radar screen. When the Olympic torch was lit in Athens, Greece, on March 24 to begin its multination tour ahead of the opening ceremonies, protesters were there to greet it — just as they were at stops in London, Paris and San Francisco. The torch run wound up facing significant disruptions as anti-China demonstrators took the opportunity to air their messages. These demonstrations triggered counterdemonstrations by overseas Chinese, seen first in force in San Francisco. These actions were compounded by grassroots Chinese boycotts of French goods and a war of words between Beijing and Paris. As the Chinese counteractivism receded, the political problems for Beijing continued as various world leaders announced their intentions to meet with the Dalai Lama on his foreign tours and debated (and in some cases decided against) attending the opening ceremonies in Beijing. China’s political problems continued through April — when Beijing had to recall a shipload of arms destined for Zimbabwe amid international condemnation — and on into May — as Beijing found itself on the defensive politically. All the while, Beijing faced increasing security threats domestically, not only from potential foreign demonstrators planning on attending and disrupting the Olympics, but also from economic and social stresses triggered by a falling stock market and rising food and fuel costs and emerging murmurs of discontent about spending on the Olympics when people could not afford food. As Beijing struggled with economic pressures, internal debate over the most effective measures to counter the confluence of problems grew more intense. With the combination of internal and external pressures increasing, it was only the tragedy of the May 12 Sichuan earthquake that brought Beijing some reprieve from international stresses. But while this diverted some of the international criticisms, it did nothing to stem the broader problems facing the Chinese economy and Beijing's policymakers. With economic concerns and their attendant social consequences foremost in Beijing’s mind, China shifted from trying to continue using the Olympics as a show of strength to the international community to focusing almost solely on ensuring no further embarrassing or disruptive events happen to undermine the Olympics. Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping toned down expectations from the Beijing Olympics during a July visit to Hong Kong and the Middle East, using the phrase "common attitude" in regard to how others and China may view the Olympics. He even suggested the games should be viewed as a sporting event, not a political demonstration. Chinese media has also taken a similar line recently, seeking to reduce expectations and noting that there remains a wide gap between China and other developed nations — arguing that it is thus not necessarily reasonable to expect China to host the best games ever. With the shift from political show to simply pulling it off without further interruptions, responsibility for Olympic success passed from the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games to the Public Security Bureau (PSB), China’s state security apparatus. Security issues and China’s inherent paranoia were already impacting the potential economic returns from the Olympics. (No country earns money from the Olympics anymore, though local businesses usually do.) But this only accelerated as local businesses were being ordered to shut down during the Olympics, visa restrictions were being stepped up and the general climate in Beijing went from one of welcoming an international sporting event to one of security lockdown. The combination of the global economic slowdown, the political backlash from the Tibet rising and the ever more stringent security measures — which is preventing even some of the Olympic sponsors from getting visas for their own staff and executives to attend the Olympic games — has led to a further slowing of both tourist interest in the Olympics and economic interest in China. One sign of this is seen in the Beijing Tourism Administration’s estimates of foreign tourists for the Olympics. In 2004, BTA estimated some 800,000 foreign tourists would come to Beijing during the Olympics, a number that shrank to between 450,000-500,000 in March, and was revised down again in July to 400,000-450,000. The significant increase in security is not only impacting foreign tourists and businesses; it is spurring debate inside China as well. With the PSB focused only on ensuring there is no embarrassing or dangerous event during the Olympics, and operating under a premise that appears to almost determine the best way to avoid incidents is to make sure no one even comes to the games, economic and even political concerns are falling by the wayside. And this is contributing to the internal debate. There are mixed views in Beijing, but in general they fall into two categories. On the one side are those advocating the tighter security, hoping to cut China’s loses and make sure at all costs that no terrorist attack or large-scale demonstration or protest occurs. They see foreign powers, and particularly the United States, as instigators of problems inside China, and want to demonstrate that China is not too weak to defend itself. They are also looking down the road and see converging economic and social problems as something that needs addressed — and with a strong hand. The Olympics can provide the pretext for stricter security measures that may carry on well past August. On the other side are those arguing that there need to be continued economic benefits from the Olympics, and that the best allies Beijing has internationally are not foreign governments but foreign businesses. Restricting business activity, locking out foreign executives due to more stringent visa procedures and sealing off Beijing to travel from other parts of China — and thus from the foreign and domestic businessmen based there — are only going to cause the flight of business interests Beijing has long feared. Departing with them would be Beijing’s vocal allies around the globe, namely, those business leaders who work to keep their own governments from pushing China too hard, as their profits are made via China’s cheap labor and emerging market. While they debate the best way to manage a losing situation, both sides seem to agree that China is not gaining the public relations benefits it expected from the Olympics — rather it looks like an embattled government struggling to contain its own disgruntled population and fend off criticism from abroad. The local Beijing economy also does not appear to be set to gain from the Olympic boom Beijing had hoped for. And elements in the Communist Party and in other provinces are beginning to argue internally that the money and attention spent on the Olympics not only has been in vain, it has also left the bigger economic issues languishing and created more problems in the long term for China. Whether there is a terrorist attack or not, the 2008 Olympics are increasingly looking to be far from the success Beijing expected, and the internal recriminations are already beginning to fly. China’s economy is no longer the unstoppable engine of growth some viewed it as, and there are already subtle calls from high-level officials to ease up on the security restrictions and try to gain some economic boost from the Olympics (and simultaneously to avoid alienating foreign businesses). When the Olympics end, China’s leaders will be left to deal with the underlying economic realities they have been trying to set aside. They also will have to cope with the fact that just because Beijing could host an international sporting event does not mean China’s international standing will significantly change. Internally, China is going to have to contend with the social forces it has unleashed in the lead-up to the Olympics. To demonstrate its commitment to the Olympic ideals (and deflect criticism), Beijing has expanded press freedoms, encouraged internal discussions, and allowed greater leeway in political and social debates among China’s citizens. But these freedoms will not be easily given back if Beijing determines they have gone too far. Other autocratic regimes have tried to use the Olympics for international political cachet (Berlin 1936, Moscow 1980 and Seoul 1988). Perhaps it is no coincidence that in each case, less than a decade on there was a major political change — Hitler was dead and Nazi Germany crushed by 1945, in 1989 the Berlin Wall fell and two years later the Soviet union broke up, and in 1997 the long-time opposition leader Kim Dae Jung came to power in South Korea. What China hoped for and what it may well get from the Olympics seem far apart.