Successful bid, then second thoughts

Beijing Olympics

August 08, 2008|By John A. Gans Jr.

WASHINGTON - "John, it was destiny." Those were the words spoken to me by a young staffer to the Beijing Olympic bid as we walked in Moscow's Gorky Park the day after the membership of the International Olympic Committee had voted to give the 2008 Summer Olympics to China. We had worked together as part of the public relations team supporting the bid. A recent college graduate, I had innocently remarked how surprised I was the bid had succeeded. My walking partner then instructed me in the power of Chinese nationalism and patience. It was part of the education in international politics and the Chinese worldview I received working for the Beijing bid.

The slogan of the bid was "New Beijing, Great Olympics." Our team's strategy - that engagement with China would improve China - was informed by U.S. efforts to grant China permanent normal trade relations status and to ensure China's accession into the World Trade Organization. By presenting the Games as a way to improve China, we could help neutralize those who wanted to punish China for perceived past and ongoing sins; overcome challenges created by events such as self-immolations in Tiananmen Square and the downing of a U.S. spy plane; and win the bid.

It worked. "The Games will be a success and make China better," I predicted to friends, based on my experience seeing the Chinese compromise - how they learned to approach the Western press and talk about human rights and environmental challenges - in their effort to win the Games.

Since then, I have monitored from afar the city's progress toward the Games. While I do not regret China's winning the Olympics, like many, I have been disappointed by the progress the country has made toward the promise we helped sell in 2001. That lack of progress has convinced me that a new strategy toward China is needed.

These may indeed be "Great Olympics," but it is the "New Beijing" that worries me. From the emergency measures needed to get ahold of the city's pollution and the reports of homes and businesses walled off from the eyes of spectators to the limits on visas and the restrictions on Internet access, we see a Beijing that took shortcuts, flouted international standards and twisted agreements with the IOC and Olympic partners.

I want the Games to be a success. I hope the world focuses on the athletes and their performances. I am happy for those who worked so hard to host the Games. But I am haunted by my conversation in Gorky Park and observations over the past seven years and their implications for future relations with China.

My time working for and watching Beijing's Olympic ambitions has taught me there are no easy answers with China. I hope policymakers have learned the same lesson. China is too big, too deliberative and too willing to wait out its "destiny" for the usual carrots and sticks of engagement or isolation to work.

The U.S. approach must be more like China's. Its leaders do not worry about winning news, political or business cycles. They focus on winning in the long run and are confident it is their destiny to do so.

The U.S. must better determine its own long-term objectives and must clearly and respectfully advocate for those goals in the areas of politics, security, economics, environment, governance, law and social, labor and human rights. The U.S. must match China's resolve in pushing for those interests.

And America must be as willing to wait. Only with similar time horizons will the U.S. be negotiating with China on equal terms. This patient approach may include disagreements and frustrations, but it will ultimately prove more rewarding than isolation or offering engagement and hoping China meets short-term obligations and makes improvements down the line.

When the Olympic flame goes out and the athletes and spectators leave Beijing, I will continue to value my China education and work to build a more constructive U.S.-China relationship, but I will also remember the disappointments of the past seven years. My walk in Moscow reminded me of the importance of patience. The U.S. will need it, and a new strategy, to ensure a "New Beijing" is destiny after all.

John A. Gans Jr. is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. His e-mail is johngansjr@gmail.com.

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