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July 9, 2008

What Will the Olympics Mean for China?
A Conversation with Professor Andrew Nathan

Andrew J. Nathan has been a China scholar and human rights advocate for more than 35 years. With the Olympics quickly approaching, Nathan, the Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science, took the opportunity to discuss the Beijing Olympics, describing them as one of the most political Olympic games in at least a generation.

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Professor Andrew J. Nathan discusses the potential upside and downside of China hosting the Olympics and Beijing's promises about human rights. (2:23)

Q. What objectives does the Chinese government expect to achieve as it raises a curtain on the Beijing Olympics?

A. The potential upsides for the Chinese government of the games going well are great. They can present an image of their country as civilized, powerful, wealthy, sophisticated, well organized…. It can increase China’s soft power; it can increase its prestige. And I think that is what they are hoping for. And not only toward foreign audiences, but it can send a message to the Chinese audience. They can say, “Our government can manage this, and we can be respected by the whole world.” So the upsides for the Chinese government are very appealing.

Q. What fears do the Chinese have about hosting the Olympic Games?

A. They are also very anxious about the potential downsides of something going wrong. What they seem to be worried about most is a terrorist incident, and every government throughout the world is worried about that, so it’s normal they would have measures in place to prevent a terrorist incident. But I think they’re not sure who might produce this terrorist incident…The security mentality of the Chinese regime would be to think anyone could engage in such an incident. They would question what this group would do or what would that movement do. Chinese thinking is that almost anyone would engage in terrorism. Another feature of the thinking by the Chinese regime is that they are very security-minded and risk averse. The [security] continuum goes over to unfurling a flag, some sort of peaceful expression which in the U.S. or Europe is a protected form of free speech. But the Chinese thinking is very risk averse. They want to prevent anything that doesn’t look right from happening.

Q. As part of their bid to host the Games, China promised to improve human rights and the environment. Given the recent events in Tibet and ongoing air and water pollution problems, can the Chinese unequivocally state they have kept their promises?

A. When Beijing bid for the Olympics and were awarded them, they made formal and informal promises. The formal promises have never been made public—it’s a secret document. But much has been said about all the things that would be achieved in the course of these Olympics. Some of it is had to do with the environment. But it remains to be seen if the skies will be clear and the air will be good to breathe on those particular days in August. Nonetheless, the truth aside, apart from those 13 days in August, the environment in Beijing continues to be very bad. I understand that’s a huge problem that’s not something that can be fixed overnight, but I think it is disappointing what they have done.

The other area where promises were made was the broad area of human rights. Yet in the process of building the Olympic venues and building the hotels and so forth, human rights have been violated just in the building. It’s very ironic that the rights of the construction workers, the rights of the people who were living in those areas that were cleared to make these venues. In the lead-up to the Olympics, the government has been cleaning the streets of the city and cleaning up all the dissidents so that nothing will go wrong that would embarrass the regime.

Q. China’s history of participating in the Olympics Games has been spotty for many different reasons. Most of the Western sports featured in the Games are not part of China’s culture or history. So why does the government choose to aggressively pursue, not only medals, but moreover, gold medals in Olympic sports?

A: China is an ancient civilization, and they have their own traditions of body cultivation and health practices such as martial arts, qi-gong, and shadow boxing…but they don’t have traditions of basketball or stickball or track and field. Those were introduced in the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s by Western missionaries and the YMCA as a measure to allow China to enter into the international sports movement…. But these sports have not spread throughout the country. Ping pong is a very popular sport. Most Chinese are peasants and are still engaged in manual labor. People are not sedentary and do not go to the gym. The government has invested and runs schools and training camps for talented kids…. They see it as a form of development and national pride, as well as a form of diplomacy. In the last Olympics, the Chinese took the second most medals, and they hope to exceed that achievement in these Olympics.

Q. President Bush has said that he will go to the Olympic Games as a spectator, while the British Prime Minister, the President of France and the Chancellor of Germany have indicated they are not likely to attend the opening ceremonies because of their concerns about human rights abuses in China. How do you think President Bush will be viewed at the Games?

A. The IOC and the Beijing Olympic Committee have always taken the position that we shouldn’t mix sports and politics and yet clearly the Olympics is a very, very political event and especially this year, perhaps more than in most recent years…. This is a politically significant event, and I think Bush shipping on to the position that as he says “sports is sports” and is not politics, makes it more political. That just shows that he’s buying into the notion that it has nothing to do with human rights, it has nothing to do with China’s international position, and he’s endorsing in that sense the policy of the Chinese regime. They’ll certainly make use of that…. They will feature it in their domestic media, and the message won’t be lost either on the Chinese people or globally that Bush basically endorses the line of the Chinese regime on the fact that human rights should not be featured.

Q. Will you watch the Beijing Olympic Games?

A. I will be checking my e-mail rapid notification to see if any events happen during the Olympics where they cut to Tiananmen Square or cut to some place where something unexpected happens. But I’ll be surprised if it happens because they have the place locked down. I don’t think there’s going to be any unscripted events. But we have to watch and see what happens and how they handle it. How quick they get the police to the scene and how they allow journalists to cover it. I will be keenly interested in that. One of the stories everybody will be watching is the air in the city. I anticipate they will have it cleaned up. I think it will be sort of a no-story story. The dog didn’t bark and the air wasn’t polluted—that’s what I most likely expect.

Interview by Tanya Domi