Beijing faces win-win situation after decision

CHINESE NATIONALISM FUELS OLYMPICS BID

September 23, 1993|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

BEIJING -- Four years ago, the regime that sits atop China had to gun down its own citizens to reassert its control.

Two years ago, it was still trying to buttress its legitimacy by whipping up anti-foreign sentiment with state TV films about China's abject humiliation in the 1839-1842 Opium War with Britain.

But this year, Chinese leaders haven't had to so obviously employ terror or xenophobia to shore up their grip on power. Instead, they've had Beijing's bid to stage the Summer Olympics in 2000.

Force and fear remain among the tools used by the Chinese Communist Party to achieve its highest priority, its continued reign over China.

But nothing has worked quite so well in redecorating this shaky regime's image here as Beijing's quest for the Games, which will be decided today by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Monaco. Bidding for the Olympics has enabled Chinese leaders to tap into and give definition to the almost inexhaustible reservoir here of latent nationalism, wounded pride and longing for the world's approval.

"The government has adroitly exploited a very strong pre-existing current," says a Beijing-based Western diplomat.

Desire to catch up

In more concrete terms, the Olympics drive has allowed the regime to align itself ever more thoroughly with the single strongest sentiment among the Chinese people these days: a desperate desire to catch up with the Western world's relative wealth and power.

Some observers believe that China's leaders risk a major loss of face if one of the four other competitors -- its main rivals being Sydney, Australia, and Manchester, England -- walks away with the Games today.

But in many respects, it appears the Chinese regime is in a win-win situation.

If Beijing nabs the Games, today will be viewed here as a significant milestone in modern Chinese history, a day of unprecedented acceptance of China by the rest of the world.

If Beijing loses, the extent of foreign criticism of Beijing's bid has been such that blame could always be shifted outside the country in a new round of anti-foreign propaganda.

In any case, there seems little question for many Chinese that China already has won the honor of staging the Olympics -- if not in 2000, then in 2004.

Many here seem as certain of that destiny as they are of their belief that China itself has finally found a way to head down the road toward prosperity and strength, after more than a century and a half of floundering in the face of superior Western technology.

That path began with China's emergence from the stagnant decade of the ultra-leftist Cultural Revolution at the end of the 1970s. Back then, senior leader Deng Xiaoping vowed that a minimally comfortable standard of living would be enjoyed by virtually all Chinese by the end of this century.

In 1993, a growing number of Chinese are taking palpable pride that their nation is likely to achieve that goal -- and a lot more -- by 2000. And Beijing's Olympics campaign here resonates deeply with this new-found confidence and expanding sense of possibilities.

"The year 2000 is very special -- a kind of watershed -- for the Chinese people," says a 22-year-old student at a Beijing college, who, like her classmates, will not allow her name to be used. "From every aspect, China is finally standing up in the world. In 10 or 20 years, she may be a powerful country. I think this is a kind of national miracle."

Adds a classmate: "We can accept failure now because we know that we will get the Olympics one day, sooner or later."

Of about 20 students in their college class, none say they oppose Beijing's Olympic bid.

Chinese nationalism

Only one of the students admits to not caring about Beijing's bid for the Olympics, and even then she feels she must correct herself later.

"What I meant to say is that I need to study the issue more," she says. "I wouldn't want anyone in America to think that there was a Chinese college student who doesn't love [the] country."

Her comment illustrates that Chinese nationalism is far different from Western forms of nationalism. Here "love of country" has long meant unqualified support for the national ruler -- or else.

So there is good reason to question the true level of support for the Olympics here.

After all, Chinese leaders literally promised the IOC in their formal bid proposal that opposition to the Games would never arise in China, a promise that only a repressive regime can hope to keep.

And not a few Chinese privately criticize Beijing's Olympic bid as a waste of money for a developing nation with so many unmet basic needs, from housing to education.

"The Olympics doesn't have anything to do with us ordinary people," says a 24-year-old peasant from Sichuan Province.

But even China's most dedicated political dissidents -- including Wang Dan, the former Tiananmen Square protest leader, and Wei Jingsheng, just released after 14 1/2 years in jail -- have expressed unqualified support for Beijing's bid.

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