Today's date:
Summer 2008

The Trickle-Down Olympics

Bao Tong is former director of the Office of Political Reform of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee and Political Secretary to Premier Zhao Ziyang, the highest ranking official to offer support for the Tiananmen protesters in 1989, after which he was purged. Bao Tong was arrested in 1989 and sentenced to seven years in prison. Since his release in 1996 he has been under house arrest. He wrote this for the Human Right's Watch collection China's Great Leap: The Beijing Games and Olympian Human Rights Challenge.

Beijing — The implied but highly effective message of the hosting of the Olympic Games and the consequent rise in national prestige is that it was all a result of the preservation of the Communist Party's authoritarian rule. It is this disproportionate internal political significance that creates an irony for the Beijing Olympics; it marries an event symbolizing international peace and cooperation with rising nationalism.

The current regime was founded in pursuit of communism, now a bankrupt ideology. Today the Chinese government continues to demand sacrifices from the majority of the people, but no longer in exchange for a future Communist society. Instead, the new purported goal is a stronger nation, one to be reckoned with on the international stage.

Yet, the Chinese government's desire for improved international standing is, at present, essentially an aspiration of the elites. In contrast, the majority of the people, particularly in rural areas, are still overwhelmed by poverty, disease and economic insecurity. The glory of a nation will be beamed down via television to the rural millions who have sacrificed their well-being to pay for a half-century of industrialization while seeing in their own futures little improvement over their ancestors'.

So far, what we have witnessed are the low wages paid to migrant construction laborers who worked on the infrastructure projects that served the Olympics and the continued acquisition of land for new construction projects through administrative means without consultation or adequate compensation to the displaced.

There is no doubt in my mind that any good fortune brought by this international sporting gala has fallen only into the hands of China's ever-richer urban elites. The economic stimulus produced by unconstrained government spending, huge infrastructure projects and the influx of foreign investment has fallen into the hands of only a few very rich people. In theory, the "trickle-down" effect should spread these benefits throughout the economy. But the growing income disparity in China suggests a systematic inequality fostered by a government whose motto is "for the elites, by the elites and of the elites."

The Olympic Games are the ultimate example of the kind of policies that end up serving only a small group of the population. The shiny new buildings and temporarily clear skies of Beijing displayed to the world at the Summer Games, let us not forget, were built on a pyramid of sacrifices by people who were shuffled out of view for the event.

There is sadly little evidence that the Games in Beijing have pushed China any closer to an open society. Even though temporary permission was given to foreign journalists from January 1, 2007, through the end of the Games, the crackdown on Chinese journalists and lawyers has continued unabated.

The modernity of China showcased during the Olympics stands in stark contrast to the Chinese Communist Party's antiquated way of ruling. Too much of the government's legitimacy is based on misconceptions and historical untruths. To maintain its increasingly twisted and complicated version of truth, censorship and the systematic induction of mass memory loss has been necessary.

Will the enthusiasm of millions of Chinese television viewers captivated by the Games erase the dark memory of the government's crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square? No one knows for sure, but the Chinese government apparently thinks it can achieve this goal of collective amnesia. This explains why the government was so fixated on hosting the 2008 Games and also the reason for the international focus on what China's future role on the world stage will be after 2008. Using the Games as an instrument of propaganda can only serve the government to improve its image cosmetically in the short term, but it will help very little to resolve China's problems in the long run.

China's true problems lie beyond the 2008 Olympics or any other showcase of success. After 50 years of major policy U-turns, the Chinese Communist Party has not delivered any kind of equality or universal social programs for education, medical care and economic security, though it did nationalize all lands and huge sectors of the economy during Mao's reign.

Endless promises to the rural poor have been made and forgotten, while in fact their hard work ended up being siphoned off to build industries and modern cities. Government funds have built state-of-the-art sports complexes, opera houses and Internet firewalls, but have failed to build roads in the nation's poorest villages or to keep the nation's social security system from bankruptcy. On top of all that, there has been no progression on civil liberties, which is the only way to adequately address issues of injustice in an open and equitable way.

Deng Xiaoping has been credited with undoing Mao's policies, but he was also the one to come up with the inherently unjust idea of allowing elites to prosper through economic expansion. So far, no Chinese politicians have been able to systematically resolve or even reduce China's social injustice, despite lip service to the disenfranchised. The result is that the Chinese government is growing increasingly reliant on coercive powers to keep down the disgruntled while at the same time growing addicted to tactical cosmetic patches, such as hosting the Olympics.