Commentary Magazine


The Greatest Spectacle of the Century

A few hours ago, the greatest spectacle of this century concluded in Beijing with the second of two truly awe-inspiring ceremonies.  “These were truly exceptional games,” proclaimed Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, as he declared that they had come to a close.  And just about everyone, whether friend or foe of the regime, can agree with John Burns of the New York Times when he writes they were “the most stunning Olympic Games of our age.”

The extravaganza cannot help but change China.  So what will be the effect of the Olympics?  The most immediate legacy will be an enhanced police state.  As veteran China-watcher Willy Lam says, “the central government has revived Mao Zedong’s “people’s warfare” concept by reinvigorating the intrusive neighborhood committees of watchers and by reemploying “similar vigilante outfits.”  Beijing has also increased the role of the People’s Liberation Army and the paramilitary People’s Armed Police in domestic security patrolling, especially in restive minority areas.   In fact, all elements of government are being mobilized to combat “splittists,” troublemakers, and hostile forces of all stripes.  For more than a half decade, President Hu Jintao has implemented increasingly severe measures, and he has now decided to increase repression even further after the tourists, athletes, and journalists go home, “taking revenge after the autumn harvest” as Lam puts it.

Of course, in this atmosphere political reform remains off the table.  In 2008, the Chinese government permits less room for speech than it did in 1988.  Almost everyone knows that China needs a freer political system, but outside tight circles of elites in Beijing, nobody is supposed to talk about liberalization.  Unfortunately, the Summer Games will make things worse, at least in the short run.  “The Olympics demonstrated the success of the current system and the Communist Party’s determination not to reform politically,” said one Chinese commentator to Reuters.  “There is no reason to change.”

The one thing we will see change is Beijing’s foreign policy.  Flush with success from a successful event, China’s leaders will continue their more assertive approach toward other nations.  The Communist Party decided to adopt more aggressive polices in the middle of 2006 after a series of internal meetings in Beijing, and the trend will become even more apparent after the Games.  Hu Jintao not only believes that the country should assert itself; unlike his predecessors, he thinks China should actively work to restructure the international system so that it will become more to Beijing’s liking.  It won’t be long before the Chinese become the main obstacle to the implementation of American policy. 

So those who said it was important for China to have a successful Olympics were dead wrong.  The West fundamentally misunderstands Communist Party leaders.  The Chinese people will pay the price.  Eventually we will too.