Beijing’s political tightrope-walk

Published on OpenDemocracy, by Kerry Brown, March 12, 2008.

China’s leadership has reason to be afraid of China’s people as it navigates a difficult course in the path to the Olympics, says Kerry Brown.

China’s premier Wen Jiabao has said that he is the world’s most worried man. Across his desk pass reports on the many issues that could endanger the country’s stability and halt its steady growth: environmental damage, energy-supply problems, social unrest among them. At night, in the peaceful seclusion of the central Zhongnanhai compound next to Beijing’s “forbidden city”, the worries must if anything intensify. Wen’s years as a consummate political insider and survivor may have brought him to a commanding political position – but nothing can have prepared him (or indeed anyone) for the task of steering the mighty entity that the People’s Republic of China has become on a stable and sustainable course (see “China goes global“, 2 August 2008) …

… A balancing-act:

All of this makes the billions of dollars spent on the Olympic games look increasingly incongruous. The main buildings are finished, and Beijing is now attending to the details. But the cold international atmosphere – assiduously reinforced by campaigners who have sought to brand the extravaganza as the “genocide Olympics” – has exposed the Chinese leadership’s obvious lack of preparation in the arena of images as opposed to infrastructure. The reaction in China to Stephen Spielberg’s resignation from the creative committee of the opening ceremony – both defensive and insinuating – is revealing of a deeper confusion. Despite seeking counsel from western public-relations firms, Chinese officialdom still has a long way to go in dealing with a story-hungry, fractious and sceptical foreign media that is very far from the pliant creature it is used to at home.

Thus, the great event on 8-24 August 2008 – far from the smoothly spectacular entry onto the global stage that Beijing envisaged – is shaping up to be a big test for the Chinese leaders (see Li Datong, “Beijing’s Olympics, China’s politics“, 22 August 2007). The problem for Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao and their comrades is that the international spotlight on their hosting of the Olympics (with all the criticism this entails) requires them to show to the Chinese people that they are standing up strong and proud for China’s interests at the very time when they must (in jittery economic circumstances) continue to deliver the all-important growth that they need to remain secure in power.

True, they are tough and realistic people, and are probably in as good a shape as any rival elite would be to meet the challenge. But they face a balancing-act as difficult as any that will earn gold during the games; and if the leaders get through reasonably unscathed, they will merit a place on the Olympic podium for political acrobatics. (full text).

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