‘For years we couldn’t wait for the Olympics to start. Now we can’t wait for them to be over.’ That is how a Chinese friend described the horrible limbo in Beijing as a control-freak state tries to anticipate and eliminate any possible challenges to its glorious coming-out party on the 8th of the 8th, 2008. It is clear to any visitor to the Chinese capital that while China hopes to clean up the medals tables, the sporting contest is at best a sideshow to the real Olympic competition — the battle to define how China is seen by its citizens and the world outside.
The outside world tends to talk about how revolutionary economic reforms have gone hand in hand with political stagnation. But the Olympics shows that China has modernised its politics as much as its economy — just not in the direction of liberal democracy. The state has largely withdrawn from people’s everyday lives, giving Chinese citizens unprecedented freedoms to consume and organise their professional and personal development. But this growing freedom in the personal realm has been matched with an increasingly sophisticated control of the public sphere. In the 1980s, many Chinese intellectuals supported multi-party elections and the separation of the party from the government. But since Tiananmen, political reform has taken on a new meaning. While there are still prominent thinkers — such as the political scientist Yu Keping — who believe in the country’s incremental embrace of democracy, many modern intellectuals argue that China would be better to avoid elections altogether and instead focus on introducing the rule of law while making the one-party state more responsive. The last few years have seen the party use opinion polls, focus groups and public consultations to put the one-party state in touch with public opinion. What is emerging is not Western-style democracy, but a high-tech model of ‘deliberative dictatorship’ that has increased the legitimacy of the one-party state, and lessened calls for genuine democracy.
But though the Olympics will strengthen the Beijing government’s standing at home, it is likely to weaken it abroad. Maybe the big story of the 2008 Olympics will not be of Beijing’s ‘Big Brother’ watching its citizens, but rather the story of thousands of journalists and fans watching Big Brother, and recording its every move on mobile phones, cameras and blog-posts. In an interesting new book, Owning the Olympics: Narratives of the New China, the academics Monroe Price and Daniel Dayan claim that the development of new technologies such as digital cameras and the internet site YouTube could turn the surveillance society against itself. In the past, we have defined surveillance as the powerful monitoring the powerless; the use of information technology by state institutions to monitor individuals. But increasingly, the availability of new technology allows individuals to monitor the state institutions themselves. The authors use the phrase ‘sousveillance’ — French for monitoring from below — to capture a new phenomenon where the powerful can be filmed and held to account for their actions in the court of public opinion. Sousveillance famously made an appearance with the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, the hanging of Saddam Hussein in 2006 and the protests in Burma in 2007. But the Beijing Olympics could take this to an industrial scale. The Beijing authorities could see all their painstaking attempts to show a kinder, gentler image to the world overturned by some rogue footage of an overzealous security official responding to protesters captured on a mobile phone or digital camera.