The awarding of the 2008 Olympic Games to Beijing marked a milestone in the rise of the East Asian power. But it also handed China's rulers a platform they could use to address the rest of the globe — and their own people. In the years since, as Beijing has wielded its growing economic and political heft to cement its place in the world, managing relations with China has become perhaps the greatest long-term challenge for U.S. policymakers.
A study of the Beijing Games' opening ceremonies offers a perfect prism through which to consider China's ascent to the international stage. Each year, I have the students who take my graduate course on sport and international relations watch the lavish show staged at the Beijing National Stadium to kick off the Games of the XXIX Olympiad. Before the video starts, I ask students to try to spot any political messages embedded in the pageantry. The exercise, I've found, almost always leads to wonderful discussions on the relationship that exists between sports and geopolitics.
Much of the success I've experienced with this assignment hinges on the importance that China's leaders and people placed on hosting the country's first Olympics. The state-run Xinhua News Agency declared that "the extravaganza showcased an increasingly confident nation and could be a turning point in world history." Informed Americans were no less aware of such import. Henry Kissinger, who paved the way for America's rapprochement with China in the 1970s, said the 2008 Games served as a "symbol of the importance of China in the world today and the final combination of the entry of China into a full international system."
The opening ceremonies, which featured more than 15,000 performers and combined high production values (some estimates put the cost of producing the opening ceremonies at $100 million) with stirring music and the thunder of a citywide fireworks display, made for a stunning spectacle. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair described the event as "the spectacular to end all spectaculars and probably can never be bettered." My students have universally agreed with his assessment. What really interested me, though, were the political interpretations they ascribed to the event. Nearly all of their remarks centered on the idea that China was attempting to show the rest of the world (and especially the United States) that it was the next great power on the international stage. The perfectly synchronized routine performed by exactly 2,008 drummers to kick off the ceremonies registered with my students as a particularly powerful symbol in this regard.
Many Americans who watched the event shared their opinion, including NBC's host for the ceremonies, Bob Costas. With China's "population of 1.3 billion putting on a show like this," Costas said, "people at home are not alone if [they] think that what they are seeing is both awe-inspiring and perhaps a little intimidating."
In fairness, there's considerable truth to the idea that Beijing used the 2008 Olympics to trumpet China's rising status to the rest of the world. And there was certainly good reason for the Chinese to take pride in the event. In addition to the country's many cultural achievements, by 2008, China's gross domestic product had surpassed that of Germany, making it the world's third-largest economy. Moreover, every indictor showed that China would soon move beyond Japan to assume second place in global GDP rankings. The capabilities of China's military forces had also expanded substantially in the lead-up to the Beijing Games. In 2006, the country began operational deployment of a modern, solid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missile. The following year, China demonstrated a notable military capability in space by shooting down one of its own satellites.
Even so, the overridingly U.S.-centric analyses of my students seem to me the result of a particular type of American conceit. As George Friedman has brilliantly argued, Americans tend to think far more narrowly about geopolitical issues than they did during the Cold War. And when global topics do catch the attention of the average U.S. citizen, he says, "The issues must matter to Americans, so most issues must carry with them a potential threat." Applied to the subject at hand, when forced by the Olympics to pay attention to China, my students made the notion of a Chinese danger to the United States the focus of their narratives.
Still, a more thoughtful reading of the opening ceremonies would include consideration of the political dimensions facing Chinese leaders back at home at the time. Many Americans, including my students, believe that the United States and its allies in the Pacific constitute China's central problem. But this assumption isn't true. While Beijing does indeed face a tricky external environment, its biggest concern can be found within its own borders. The leaders of the Communist Party of China have for many years essentially "bought" the political loyalty of Chinese citizens by promising to better their lives through significant (and sustained) economic growth. And since the inception of the strategy, party officials knew that keeping their end of the bargain wouldn't be easy. Though millions have been lifted out of poverty, China's economic growth has benefited urban areas far more than rural ones; it has also been accompanied by high levels of environmental degradation and property confiscation.
These problems have led to considerable domestic turmoil. Stratfor readers no doubt remember the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, along with a host of other similar episodes in China. One of the most violent instances of ethnic conflict in recent years occurred only a few months prior to the 2008 Olympics when a government crackdown targeted hundreds of monks who assembled in Lhasa to protest China's occupation of Tibet.
Given these pressing issues at home, it's easy to understand why the message of "a harmonious society" appeared over and over again during the games' opening ceremonies. The theme reached its zenith roughly 18 minutes into the event when 56 children (each representing one of the country's recognized ethnic groups) carried the national flag to representatives of the People's Liberation Army as the patriotic "Ode to the Motherland" was sung in the background. As a member of NBC's broadcast team for the ceremonies, Joshua Cooper Ramo described the moment as "a profound statement that will resonate in the hearts of the more than 1 billion Chinese watching this tonight, the idea that the state is the guarantor of the future of those children in a country that for so long could not guarantee the safety or stability of the society for generations of children." This, I think, says it perfectly.