08/26/2008 11:26 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

China's Debutante Ball

Reposted from Foreign Policy In Focus

Nearly 70 years after the Games began again in the modern era, the Olympics finally took place somewhere outside the West. It was 1964, and the host country was Japan. The Tokyo Olympics were an opportunity for Japan to erase the stain of history. It had been tapped to host the 1940 Olympics, but its invasion of China scotched that deal. The 1964 Olympics would solidify its new reputation as a peaceful country.

As importantly, Japan wanted to prove to the world that its economic miracle was built on more than just cheap exports. In 1964, the famous "bullet train" went into operation, establishing a new global standard for public transportation. Also in 1964, Japan joined the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the club of the economic big boys. It would take only four more years for Japan to pass Germany and become the world's No. 2 economy. The upset victory of the Japanese women's volleyball team over the Soviet Union to capture Olympic gold that year symbolized the dynamism of this agile and resourceful nation.

By the time the Olympics returned to Asia in 1988, Japan was already a seasoned global economic power. The host of the 1988 Olympics, South Korea, was hoping that its "coming out" party would provide a similar economic boost. South Korea had followed Japan's economic model but at a more feverish pitch. South Korea took only one-third the time of Japan to double its per-capita economic output, and it was proud of its ppali-ppali (hurry up) spirit. It was also in the middle of a profound political transformation. Political protests had peaked the year before, and the authoritarian government of Chun Doo-Hwan agreed to democratic elections in part to prevent controversy from spilling over into the Olympic year.

And now China is the third of Asia's Olympic debutantes. Like Japan and South Korea, China has tried to use the Games to demonstrate that it has transcended the past and belongs among the most powerful economies of the world. The new stadiums, the bustling streets of Beijing, the greater outspokenness of the population: all of these indicate that China has left the Cultural Revolution, not to speak of the humiliating colonial era, far behind. And with continued, near-double-digit growth rates, China is well on the way to repeat South Korea's trick of leaping from the developing world to the developed.

Like any coming-of-age event, the Olympics not only acknowledge transformation, they can be part of that transformation. As we wrap up our sports and foreign policy strategic focus, consider the story of Cathy Freeman, Australia's first Aboriginal Olympian, who won gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. "Her Olympic success has perhaps helped to change the face of prejudice, almost a taboo subject in a modern Australia," writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Grant Jarvie in Sports as a Resource for Hope. "Her Olympic reception following victory in the final of the 400-meter dash may be viewed in stark contrast to the day she traveled to a meet at age 13. Waiting outside Melbourne's Flinders Street Station, she was ordered to move on by a group of middle-aged white housewives, when the whole adjacent seating area lay vacant. As Cathy Freeman held the Olympic torch aloft during the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games she did so in an allegedly different Australia from the one experienced by her parents."

Of course, like any debutante ball, the Olympic Games are carefully orchestrated to ensure that nothing embarrasses the participants, the organizers, or the viewers. The Games are theater, and the director/dictator wants to sustain a particular illusion. It's no surprise, then, that Beijing went to great lengths and expense to stage-manage the affair. It cracked down on dissent, increased the police on the street, and controlled the camera as much as possible so that international audiences saw the spectacle and not the messy reality backstage. In 2008, this meant a sharp increase in security. As FPIF contributor John Sugden points out in Watching the Games, the increase in security expenditures is part of a larger trend: "In Los Angeles in 1984, the average security cost was $11,627 per athlete, or $14 per ticket. Two decades later in Athens, where there were an estimated 10,500 participants, the average cost was $142,857 per athlete or $283 per ticket."

The security and surveillance capabilities upgraded for the Olympics don't magically disappear when all the athletes and crowds go home, and that is certainly a long-term concern for activists in China. But when The New York Times editorializes that "the final gold medal -- for authoritarian image management -- can already be safely awarded to China's Communist Party leadership," it misses the larger point that all governments engage in such image management. Did the United States bring journalists on tours of the poorest Los Angeles and Atlanta neighborhoods in 1984 and 1996? Did Japan highlight its appalling record on minority rights in 1964 or subsequent Winter Olympics?

Also outside the limelight are concerns of economic fairness. The Play Fair at the Olympics coalition, which first mobilized around the 2004 Athens Games, focuses attention on the terrible working conditions for those who produce sports equipment. Because of media campaigns and pressure on corporate giants like Nike, some new regulations are in place on wages and safety. But inevitably, down the chain of production, suppliers find ways to maintain the status quo. As the Maquila Solidarity Network points out in an FPIF policy report, Clearing the Hurdles, "when the Chinese government raised the minimum wage in Dongguan province in order to account for a skyrocketing inflation rate on basic goods like food, employers at many of the athletic footwear factories studied by Play Fair found ways to nullify the increase. Some employers raised production targets, thereby reducing or eliminating production bonuses, a significant portion of worker incomes. Others introduced new charges for food, lodging or other services. Some of the workers interviewed now receive less income than before the minimum wage increase."

In the end, China has probably gotten what it wants out of the Olympics: some new buildings, a large haul of medals, the memorable performance of Michael Phelps, 100 world leaders at the opening ceremony, relatively clean air. There is renewed appreciation of its economic advances. In a Foreign Affairs essay timed to coincide with the Olympics, economist C. Fred Bergsten even made the astonishing proposal that the United States and China should preside over the global economy in a new institution: the G2.

To achieve these goals, Beijing suppressed protests and faced down boycotts. But like Tokyo and Seoul at Olympics past, Beijing also worked really, really hard. Those who rightfully criticize China's human rights record need also to acknowledge the pride that went into this coming out party. A billion people thrilled at their country's debut on the Olympic stage. That figure will continue to resonate long after the medal-counting is over.