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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The battle of Beijing

IIPM’s 36th Glorious Year of Academic Excellence

What happens when an authoritarian government and thousands of activists go head-to-head at the Olympics? China is about to find out.

You can always count on the Olympic Games to provide drama. Next year’s games in Beijing will be no different; they too will produce powerful stories and riveting television. But this time the images will not just be athletes overcoming the odds or breaking records. They will also focus on clashes between Chinese police & activists who will arrive from all around the world. The causes that motivate their activism range from human rights to global warming, from Darfur to Tibet, from Christianity to Falun Gong. Clashes outside stadiums are likely to be more intense & spectacular than the sports competitions inside. The showdown will be captured as much by video cameras in the cell phones of protesters and spectators as any news agencies’ camera crews. The Beijing Olympics will not just test the limits of human athleticism; it will also test the limits of a centralised police state’s ability to confront a nebulous swarm of foreign activists armed with BlackBerries. A governmental bureaucracy organised according to 20th-century principles will meet 21st-century global politics. Lenin meets YouTube.

Just like the athletes, the Chinese government & activists are getting ready for the battle in Beijing, too. The Associated Press reports that China’s intelligence services, police, and government think tanks are compiling lists of foreign organisations and individuals in what has been described as one of the “broadest intelligence-collection drives Beijing has taken against foreign activist groups.” As per Xinhua, China’s official news agency, Zhou Yongkang, minister of public security, has ordered the police to “strictly guard against & strike hard at hostile forces at home & abroad.” And the various “hostile forces” will test China’s mettle. In Prague, an organisation called Olympic Watch was formed in 2001 to use the occasion of Beijing games to challenge China’s policies on freedom of speech, death penalty, Tibet, religious freedom, & forced labor camps. Darfur campaigners are calling the Beijing games the “Genocide Olympics” and want China to stop supporting the Sudanese government. The Washington Post dubbed the games “Saffron Olympics” to denounce China’s support for Burma’s murderous regime & massacre of its saffron-clad monks. What will happen when the games start and thousands of foreigners travel to Beijing not to watch the games but to try to change China? How will authorities know that the old lady from Denmark is coming with her church group to protest China’s abortion policies, or the young Australian couple is really part of a militant environmental organisation? In short, what if the $40 billion the government is spending to showcase modern China yields the ugly global image of a thuggish regime?

It’s fair to say that the Chinese government probably had no idea what it was getting into when it applied to host the Olympics in 2000. The world — and China’s place in it — have changed substantially since. In 2000, Chinese companies were not as active investing in pariah states that no other company would dare touch. In 2004, for example, China surpassed Iran to become the largest military supplier to Sudan. In 2005, a new pope took a strong stance against China’s persecution of Christians. China’s environmental degradation was far less of a global concern in 2000. Its exchange rate, tainted products & aggressive trade practices had not become the lightning rod they are now.

The real stumbling block is that number of Chinese cell-phone users has boomed from 140 million to over 600 million since 2001, & number of Chinese Internet users has soared from 17 million to 162 million since 2000. Bloggers, chat rooms, social networks & other online communities have mushroomed. And the development of Web-enabled cell phones that can double as videocameras is made even more politically consequential by the rise of YouTube, founded less than 3 years ago.

No PR campaign, howsoever massive, can alter reality. And reality is that thousands of protesters with causes that enjoy public support around the world, China included, will stage highly visible, creative protests during the Olympics & the Chinese government will try to suppress them. Thousands of videocameras will record the ensuing battle. The path from the streets of Beijing to YouTube will be almost impossible for the regime to blockade. Of course, the other option for the Chinese government is to agree to some of what the protesters demand. And slowly, modestly, it has already begun to do so by, for example, nudging Sudan to accept international peacekeepers. But the demands are too many and too varied. Many seek to alter the very nature of the regime and the political & economic power upon which it is based. Repressing them will be a new and frustrating experience for a centralized government that is not used to containing well-organized, media-savvy foreigners who work through highly decentralized, international, nongovernmental organizations that know how to mobilize public opinion to advance their causes. These games promise to be a great spectacle. And we’ll all be watching.

A write-up by Moisés Naím

For more articles, Click on IIPM Article.

Source : IIPM Editorial, 2008

An Initiative of IIPM, Malay Chaudhuri and Arindam chaudhuri (Renowned Management Guru and Economist).

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