Olympics are mainland's global showcase
To the leaders in Beijing, the 2008 Olympics are a symbol of the achievements of China's modernisation and its peaceful rise as a nation. The people, too, share this enthusiasm and want to present the best aspects of the country to the international community during the Games. They have been learning English, practising queuing for buses and learning not to spit in public.
Two East Asian neighbours share this experience: Japan, with the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and 1970 Osaka Expo, and South Korea with the 1988 Seoul Olympics and the 1993 Taejon Expo. Beijing has had to wait eight years for its glory after its unsuccessful bid for the Sydney Olympics. But it did secure the Expo for Shanghai in 2010.
The mainland's impressive economic growth has certainly generated many external pressures. Last week, six months before the Beijing Olympics, Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg resigned as a consultant for the Games' opening and closing ceremonies. He cited Beijing's failure 'to bring safety and stability' to the Darfur region of Sudan, where it has invested heavily in oil production. Earlier, some foreign athletes also indicated they might not take part in the Games due to the capital's air pollution.
These pressures are being sharply felt by the Chinese leaders and the people because of the significance they attach to the event. In contrast, residents in many European cities are not keen to host the Olympics. They worry their municipal governments would incur too much debt, and that too many tourists bring inflation and other ills.
But publicity and image-building, at home and abroad, are very much part of the Beijing Olympics. Authorities are under pressure, and more challenges no doubt will arise before summer. The leaders are well aware this is a US presidential election year, and severe criticisms of China will crop up in candidates' campaigns. It is a wise course for China to relax politically, be more open to foreign media and avoid other measures that can derail preparations.
In the first place, China is a developing nation with a relatively low per-capita gross domestic product despite impressive gains in recent decades. Economic development is not without problems, even with sensible policies. These are well-known facts that can not be hidden. They are often mentioned in public speeches by Chinese leaders too.
The Games offer China a world stage to highlight its remarkable achievements. This in turn will enhance the leadership's legitimacy. But the event should also be treated as an occasion to help the international community better understand China, problems and all. It will be more convincing if Chinese leaders can demonstrate that they are acutely aware of the country's challenges and inadequacies, and that they are actively seeking solutions.
In terms of image building, officials should ensure their policies and measures do not inflict too much pain on the people. Obvious examples are mass demolition projects, removing peasant workers from urban areas, and chasing away petitioners. Such activities can not escape the attention of foreign reporters in China. Mainland officials should accept this rule of thumb: assume anything they do regarding the Olympics will be reported internationally.
Western media will definitely be interested in dissidents while following the Games. During the Seoul Olympics, the authoritarian military regime allowed opposition leaders ample opportunity to contact foreign media. The result was positive even from the point of view of the regime.
In contrast, the usual practice of the Chinese public security officials is to place prominent dissidents under house arrests or send them far away on 'holiday' during major events. The treatment of dissidents this summer should be a major component of the image-building project.
Joseph Cheng Yu-shek is a professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong