Despite Western Hopes, Olympics Will Not Change China's Course

Behind the decision to award China with the 2008 Olympic Games lies a noble Western idea: that this event can help change a brutal and powerful government.

Yet the reality is that the Beijing regime is a weak, pitiful giant. China is a country wracked by elite power struggles in the corridors of the capital and labor unrest in the far-flung cities. Between now and 2008, the economic situation is precarious at best. 

This giant's weakness, not its strength, will make the Olympic Games largely irrelevant in shaping the future of the country. The government will accommodate the human rights advocates and journalists as much as it needs. But if the regime feels threatened, it — like any other — will do what it must to survive, the games be damned.

The drive to give the games to Beijing was informed by a wonderful Western idealism: The notion that rewards will further the cause of reform and force China to allow political dissent and human rights under the spotlight of international scrutiny. "Beijing can be seen as presenting the chance to be an agent for change," said Dick Pound, the Canadian who directs IOC marketing efforts.

At first glance, it seems that this idealism will be rewarded. Beijing recently took a kinder and gentler approach toward North Korean refugees, sending them on to South Korea instead of repatriating them as usual. Clearly the regime saw that it was being watched in advance of the Olympic decision. But this view lacks one thing: perspective.

Look at China from the inside. In the months leading up to the decision, there have been signs of intense political unrest. A series of military exercises off Taiwan last month were the largest and most complex in recent Chinese military history, seemingly intended to intimidate Taipei.

China fielded 100,000 troops, amphibious forces, Xiandi-class warships, and more. But a closer look by foreign intelligence indicated that the exercises were snap exercises, called with little notice and ultimately yielding no real military value. At the end, it was apparent that the People's Liberation Army had yet to solve the forced-entry problem -- how to invade Taiwan. But the exercises were played up in the state-controlled press: They were a show, intended merely to stoke nationalism.

Consider the economic situation that will unfold in China between now the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. To date, 6.7 million people have been laid off from decaying state-owned industries. This is a large and restive population that only hints at larger troubles, underemployment and labor unrest.

To the West, China's entry into the World Trade Organization is a great thing. To the average Chinese worker, the WTO stands for one thing: job losses. Abiding by the international norms of free trade will force more, inefficient state-owned industries to close and put still more people on the streets. Midway to the games, in 2004, there will likely be a wave of job losses and unemployment will probably engulf as much 7 percent of the country's labor force.

So, in this landscape, how does China's government react? How does it see itself? Leaders in the government see the games as part of a larger survival strategy. The games offer them an opportunity to preserve the Communist Party's power. The games offer a little breathing room.

They are, as a result, being used. In the run-up to the games, much was made of the government's efforts to clean up Beijing, particularly for visiting Olympic officials. Beijing began efforts to clean up the environment and improve infrastructure, like new highways, while demolishing shantytowns.

But little was made of the political implications of this effort. Within these shantytowns lie not only poverty and petty criminals, but 3 million itinerant residents, many of whom are members of ethnic minorities. Many of these people live on the edge of the law and their enclaves are breeding grounds for separatists and dissidents.

Yes, the government is sprucing up for the Olympics but it is also moving against its perceived opponents, in the very heart of the capital. The government bulldozed an important ethnic Uighur community in 1999. Between April and December of last year, the government arrested at least 20,000 people from within these ethnic minorities.

Finally, the regime itself is about to undergo a major generational shift. President Jiang Zemin has gotten the Communist Party to accept the idea of bringing private businessmen into the party's ranks. Yet at the same time, the government is cracking down on Western influences. Guangmin Ribao, an official daily reaching nearly 1 million people, has steadily campaigned against American entertainment, culture and values.

A new face will likely come to power between now and the Olympic Games, too. Hu Jintao, the vice president, is a likely successor to Jiang. A quiet official, Hu helped run Tibet, ordering a military crackdown on independence rallies in 1989. He is comparatively outspoken against religious separatism. He views the cohesion of China as his paramount concern and sees the party's rule as something not up for negotiation. In April, he launched a campaign to reassert party rule in rural areas.

The West thinks it can help change China, in part with the spectacle of the Olympic Games. It is a nice thought, one conceived entirely apart from China, viewed on its own terms.

Richard Parker is executive editor and chief operating officer of STRATFOR, the global intelligence company. Rodger Baker and Amanda Buehler contributed to this article. The company's website is