It is said that the Beijing Olympics was a big draw, perhaps proving the adage that no publicity is bad publicity. Did the worldwide protests before the Olympics ironically serve as a big advertisement for the Beijing Olympics? And now that a record number of people have watched the Olympics, what have they learned about China?
I have always been optimistic about people’s impression of China after the Olympics, but Joel wrote that he has less respect for China after the Olympics because of the methods China used to achieve its perfect image.
China has poured billions into trying to paint a picture of itself – an image – that looks perfect. But to us it’s just an image, like a commercial, so we naturally and automatically look past it to see if there is any real difference.
This is very perceptive and I believe is a popular viewpoint. I would question, though, how much of that “image” is simply constructed in biased and unthinking reporting.
Let me give an example: the $40 billion pricetag for the Games. It was used over and over as “proof” for pouring money into some image project that doesn’t benefit people. But is that true? Not at all. The majority of the $40 billion was spent on infrastructure in and around Beijing — not only the sports facilities which Beijing and its many universities lacked, but subways, roads, mass transit systems, inter-city rail, and housing development. That is not wasted money for “image”. That is solid investment.
Here’s another example: cleaning up pollution is “just for the Games” to look good so people don’t see how polluted China really is or China doesn’t really care about its own people living in pollution. Is that true? Again, I don’t think that tells the full story. It’s true that China hasn’t been taking environmental issues seriously enough in the past, but many measures to improve public health and safety and clean up the city and actually enforce pollution regulations are permanent. The Olympics are the impetus to start a new chapter on many “software” improvements that China desperately needs.
This goes back to my initial view on what Chinese officials really meant by their belief that the Olympics will open up China, because I’ve always thought they were genuine in this sense: to use the opportunity of the Olympics to push through a lot of improvements that wouldn’t have gotten made otherwise. It was never a promise to satisfy all the objections that people have with China, nor was that a practical possibility. China was always going to make the changes that it needs to make on its own terms.
Most people no longer doubt that China has the ability to put on a good show or make massive changes, and thereby hang with the best of them, if it so chooses. Most people now are digging deeper and shifting towards the image vs. reality question. Going beyond the superficial and seriously considering what China will ultimate become is a vast improvement over viewing China as a Cold War stereotype. That has to be a good thing, even if I think they still don’t have it quite right. 😉 If the Beijing Olympics has done anything, it is to push people to be more realistic, more grounded, and have a better grasp of China. If that means a good bit of their romanticism (e.g. respect) is lost with their pre-conceived notions about China, so be it. It’s a net positive because they come ever closer to experiencing China and all of its problems as Chinese themselves do.