Can the Olympics Democratize China?

The surprising survival and endurance of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) since the pro-democracy 1989 Movement has led most scholars to be skeptical about the prospects of democratization in China. No prediction seems safer than that the CCP will continue to control China for years, if not decades. No prediction invites more ridicule than to argue that the CCP’s days in power are numbered.

“The Goddess of Democracy” was carved by students from the Central Academy of Fine Arts and erected in Tiananmen Square. Photo courtsey of Frank Dai.

Yet the prospects for democratization in China have never been more propitious. Indeed, the coming Olympic Games may well turn into a mega-drama with far-reaching implications. In fact, anti-CCP activists are already using the Olympics to push the country toward democratization, amplifying their pressures like the students in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City (which ended bitterly with the massacre of 300 students ten days before the games). The Olympics could also open the way to democratization as the 1988 Olympics did in South Korea. The CCP leadership is fully aware of these dangers and is preparing for them by cracking down on its opponents. Yet the leadership is not likely to be able to control the sequence of events that will lead to its downfall.

The Magic Number 2025

Prior to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, analysts and scholars were under the impression that the Soviet Union would evolve, not collapse, even though information about the economic and structural crisis of the USSR was available to policy makers from various intelligence sources. As Bruce Berkowitz explains, informed policy makers did “not ‘get’ blindsided; they blindsided themselves.” Indeed, “despite seeing the fault lines, none of these people could construct a plausible scenario in which the cold war wound down before 2025.”

Similar to the Soviet Union in 1989, China is presently facing daunting social, demographic, political, structural, ethnic, and economic difficulties, to mention only a few highly problematic dimensions of the most populated state in the world. And similarly, many scholars and analysts do not predict substantial democratization processes in China anytime in the near future. As in the Soviet case, notable scholars like Harry S. Rowen argue that China will not collapse but will gradually evolve and become a democracy by … 2025. Similarly, Roland Inglehart and Christian Welzel also predicted in 2005 that “China will make a transition to a liberal democracy within the next two decades”, namely by 2025. Those who object to economic-evolution theories, like Minxin Pei, point to the determination of the CCP leaders to protect their rule and privileges by all necessary means, and highlight the CCP’s ability to introduce new strategies that may improve the odds that their “rule will continue to thrive in the next two decades.”

Yet, the conditions that exist in China today and those that existed in China in 1989 when the pro-democracy Tiananmen Square movement emerged are strikingly similar. In 1989, rampant corruption and inflation were the most important political issues. These are exactly the two main pressing problems of China today. Corruption is so rampant that President Hu Jintao recently acknowledged the problem and vowed to eradicate it. On top of that, inflation is soaring to dangerous levels, exacerbated by unemployment among urban dwellers. The lower echelons of this “second China” cannot keep up, and a Chinese government think-tank has warned “that rising food and property prices are causing discontent among a majority of the country’s urban poor.”

Furthermore, rural protests in China have become a common phenomenon in recent years. In 2005, for example, official statistics recorded about 87,000 protests, some of them very violent including improvised weapons and some involving up to tens of thousands of people. Moreover, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences reported that 20% of Chinese university graduates in 2007 remain unemployed. Many thousands of unemployed graduates are Chinese students who studied abroad in democratic countries. These young, highly educated, yet unemployed people in the heart of Beijing can become the foot-soldiers of a new student movement.

Democracy as Unexpected

The democratic experience of recent decades has taught us three main lessons. First, democratic social movements often emerge at the least expected time and succeed in democratization under the most unfavorable conditions. Second, successful democratization and the lack thereof are intricately connected to political opportunities that can be exploited within and beyond the system. Third, conditions and opportunities do not naturally cause democratization; people must take advantage of these opportunities and also create strategies and tactics that outsmart the regime. Democratization does not depend on abstract factors or enlightened decision of elites. It depends only on effective demands and pressures that force power holders to step down or agree to political reform. When effective pressures are brought to bear on authoritarian regimes, the dictatorial monolith is broken or deepened, and the ruling elite are forced to negotiate or step down. As Frederick Douglass said long ago, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” As such, the demands for democracy in China can resonate loudly and effectively during the Olympics in Beijing this August through tactics of dramatizing the games.

The quick emergence and spread of democratic social movements often takes specialists by complete surprise. Just in recent months did two such unexpected movements emerge. The first started in September 2007 after Burmese monks took to the streets of Rangoon and rallied a democratic movement. The brutal suppression of this movement led to a “boomerang effect” of international condemnations and pressures that facilitated government talks about a new constitution with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Five months before the Olympics, Tibetan monks ignited a protest movement against the Chinese government that spread like wildfire to other parts of the country bringing international condemnation on China. In reaction, Chinese intellectuals sent a petition of protest to the Chinese government and to other member of the CCP. Interestingly, one of the precursors to the 1989 Tiananmen Movement, also five months before it began, was the Petition Movement initiated by the Chinese intellectual Fang Lizhi.

Unexpected shifts in popular attitudes – from fear to anger – often follow dramatic and symbolic events that substantially change the degree and extent of perceived injustice and the degree of resistance motivation in the population. During these special moments, people suddenly discover that others share their attitudes and feelings, and they may suddenly realize that the all-powerful regime of yesterday is actually weak and fragile.

Most scholars argue that such transformations of public opinion are quite impossible in China today because the Chinese are now far more nationalistic and materialistic driven than ever before, and that intellectuals and students care more about clean and efficient government than about democratization. This line of argument, however, fails to recognize the dynamics that gave rise to the 1989 Movement. Most student activists, let alone government employees, had no clue that they are about to ignite, and participate in, a mass movement. The transformative event that changed things dramatically in 1989 was when a small group of students declared a hunger strike. Up until the hunger strike, most people and even students were apathetic to the movement. Yet, the hunger strike challenged the moral basis of government legitimacy and deeply moved people emotionally. In a matter of days, without Internet or mobile phones, well over a million people took to the streets of Beijing (and elsewhere in China) sympathizing with the students, including government employers, police and army personnel, and the official media. Could this type of dramatic event happen again during the Olympic Games?

Olympics as a Spark

Most discussion about China’s Olympics revolves around whether the Olympics should be boycotted in part or as a whole because of China’s human rights abuse, its backing of the genocide in Darfur, and more recently, the harsh suppression of the Tibetan uprising. Less attention has been paid to how the Olympics could create a rare window of opportunity for protest. The Olympics could potentially spark a people’s power movement that would lead to democratization through several possible paths.

Symbolically, the first spark has already been lit; it is the Olympic torch itself. In the course of five months, the Olympic torch has traveled 85,000 miles through 20 countries. Demonstrations were dramatic in several major cities such as Paris, London, and San Francisco. Scandalous events began even before the Olympic torch was lit. Pro-Tibetan activists stormed into the live broadcast of the lighting ceremony, disrupting the event and embarrassing Liu Qi, president of the Beijing Organizing Committee. Other protests coupled with the Tibetan uprising hurt China internationally and made it fully aware of the immense danger of holding the Olympics.

The Olympics create a rare window of several weeks during which approximately two million tourists will visit Beijing. Over 20,000 journalists representing many foreign media channels are expected as well. They could capture instances of protest and suppression and transmit them live to hundreds of millions of people in China and around the world. Unlike the brutal massacre of Mexican student activists who were trying to draw attention to their struggle ten days before the 1968 Olympics, the Chinese government’s ability to suppress protests in Beijing will be extremely limited and could backfire in the current international and domestic context.

Political protests in live broadcasts from the Olympic opening ceremonies, during the games themselves, and on the various medal-honoring ceremonies (to mention a few possibilities) could set off a chain of events leading to a political crisis. Protestors can enjoy a human shield of tourists between themselves and the police forces, as well as instantaneous contact with Chinese and world audiences through people’s mobile phones, the Internet, and the major media networks. Any small group of protestors could potentially spark a mega-drama that would keep Chinese and international viewers captivated by the news. Under these circumstances the CCP apparatus may come under various domestic, international, and internal (elite) pressures that could lead to an important political opening in the system.

Many groups in China are interested in taking advantage of the Olympics to amplify their voices. The Tibetans, though primarily pursuing their own autonomy from China, seem the most likely candidates for igniting protests, but there are many other underground groups. Falun Gong members, for example, may stage a peaceful meditation in Tiananmen Square. The Tiananmen Mothers Group (the mothers of those killed in the 1989 events) has already petitioned the Chinese government to come clean about the death toll in 1989. Led by Nobel Peace Prize nominee Ding Zilin, this group can stage a drama in Tiananmen Square in memory of their dead children. Discontented urban migrants and labor protests are potential threats to the regime too. Student activists, intellectuals, workers, and other underground groups may also plan to take advantage of the unique situations of the Olympics.

Protests may also arise in connection to unforeseen organizational scandals during the games. For example, the Chinese government has set a goal to decrease the horrendous air pollution in Beijing in order to have clear skies throughout the games. A failure to reach this national goal could end bitterly if in August athletes face a combination of a smog, humidity, and heat in Beijing. Olympic athletes may find that the environmental problems of Beijing affect their ability to perform well and this may shame the Chinese. A quarter of the British athletes training in China, for example, suffer from exercise-induced asthma and risk health problems in Beijing. Air pollution may be particularly dangerous to marathon runners. Haile Gebrselassie, the marathon world record-holder, already pulled out of the marathon event for precisely this reason. The International Olympic Committee has said that it will postpone or cancel endurance events if conditions pose a danger to athletes’ health. Indeed, if athlete’s health is seriously jeopardized during the games, this could lead to a public outcry. Construction scandals or transportation scandals could have similar political implications.

The Olympics are perhaps the highest expression of the nationalistic sentiments that the CCP-led governments have cultivated as an alternative ideology to communism. In recent years, however, “What the Chinese government fears most of all is a national movement that fuses various discontented groups – such as unemployed, farmers, and students – under the banner of nationalism.” The Olympics may serve as such a uniting event. The games may enlist people’s national sentiments to demand a main missing component in their national identity – the political rights that their government is depriving them. Alternatively, the Olympics may end up as an embarrassing spectacle either due to political disturbances or as a result of hazardous environmental conditions. The patriotic spirit and national pride of many Chinese may be insulted and lead them to take their pent up angers out against the government for failing to deliver the national goal that it had promised and for which it had years to prepare. Alternatively, the failure to restore “social harmony” in Tibet may also stir national sentiments that may backfire against the government.

The earthquake in the Sichuan Province has complicated the situation even further for the CCP. Journalists ignored government instructions and reported as they saw fit. Civil society experienced an unprecedented moment of unity, organization, and mobilization. The government had nothing to do other than try to ride this wave. Yet, despite the government efforts to strengthen its position, many Chinese realized that the CCP corruption can kill. They saw how elite schools were left standing while nearby public schools fell on their children due to illegal construction standards fostered by corruption. Many Chinese already realized that uncorrupt rule is impossible without accountable and elected representatives in all levels of government. Now that aggrieved parents are trying to protest, the government is trying to silence them as well. Perhaps families of the earthquake victims will use the Olympics to amplify their protest.

A scandal-plagued Olympics could be the last straw after the Tibetan uprising and the earthquake. Nothing could be more insulting and humiliating than inviting the whole world, including state leaders, to witness a “disharmonious society.”

Acting against Dictatorship

The Chinese government seems to be fully aware of the dangerous potential that the Olympics pose to their rule. The fear that the Olympics will spur a political crisis has led the government to begin an early crackdown on, and silencing of, all potential “troublemakers.” For example, the authorities announced that they will only allow state-sanctioned companies to upload video and audio files on the Internet. They jailed 51 online dissidents, and blocked more than 2,500 Web sites. The authorities also began cracking down on and restricting NGOs. The Chinese government even sent a special Chinese police force to Israel for training in counterterrorism and crowd control. Indeed, Amnesty International has noted an increase of human rights abuse in direct relation to the Beijing Olympics.These human rights abuses echo Chinese power holders’ deep concerns about non-violent protests during the Olympics which could yield a new color-revolution. Shi Zongyuan, China’s top press regulator, admitted this freely: “When I think of color revolutions I feel afraid.”

Yet, the actions of the government alone cannot determine the political outcomes of the Olympics. Just as the government can prepare and plan for the Olympics, so can its rivals. One of the major lessons from the study of social movements and democratization is that careful planning, clever strategies, effective tactics, and skillful execution of non-violent resistance can make the difference between successful democratization and complete failure. There are indications that the power of non-violent conflict is conscious among those pursuing democratic reform in China. As such, human agency is a key component in the initiation and success of struggles against non-democratic structures.

The regime’s opponents know the weaknesses of the regime and how they can be exploited in the context of the Olympics. The inventions and innovations of resistance tactics to avoid government surveillance are important in this respect. Activists may use mobile phones (with alternating sim-cards) and text messages in order to effectively organize and coordinate action. These means have already been used in protests across China and under other non-democratic regimes. The Internet in particular offers new avenues for resistance and coordination that the regime knows little about, despite its 30,000 strong Internet police force.

The importance of agency, tactics, and careful planning cannot be exaggerated. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. and his colleagues learned important lessons from their failed attempt to stage a drama in Albany, GA, and skillfully implemented those lessons in their “Program C” (“C” standing for confrontation) in Birmingham, AL. This televised drama resulted in the enactment of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Similarly, activists who are intent on bringing political reform to China may have learned historic and strategic lessons from the 1989 Movement and can successfully implement them this summer. The Chinese government can do little against this, and much of its early suppression actions may prove counterproductive.

The main weapon of the weak is their strategic thinking, tactics, and ability to take advantage of opportunities that temporarily make physical power irrelevant. Former slave Harriet Jacobs alluded to this already in the 19th century, “Who can blame slaves for being cunning? They are constantly compelled to resort to it. It is the only weapon of the weak and oppressed against the strength of the tyrants.” In the Olympics, when millions of tourists from all over the world will be in Beijing, as well as over 20,000 journalists, the configuration of power will change, opportunities will be many, and this cunning will be pivotal.

Global Repercussions

A successful democratic movement in China during the Olympics is bound to be a mega-dramatic event with far-reaching repercussions. A democratic movement may cause the ruling elite to split, it may force the elite to negotiate, or it may compel them to initiate real democratic reforms. Alternatively, the dynamics of a movement may force power holders to step down because they will be too discredited to negotiate. Whatever may be the specific course, such a global event could be compared to the collapse of the Soviet Union and communism in Eastern Europe, which had a snowball effect on inspiring democratic movements elsewhere.

Similarly, the authoritarian states in the shadow of China would most likely be swept away by a new swell of democratic excitement. While we cannot predict exactly how far and in what pace such an event will impact other countries, we do know that the world would become much more inhospitable to non-democratic regimes without a dictatorial China, and hence several developments can be predicted.

China’s authoritarian neighbors such as Burma, Singapore, and Thailand would probably not be able to withstand the democratic tide should a dramatic democratic movement hit China. Even dictatorial and isolated countries such as North Korea and Laos, will find much more difficult to maintain their isolation in the international arena without China’s strong backing and economic aid. Developing counties in Africa which are reliant on China for trade and international protection, such as Sudan, may also be affected. A drama in China may even penetrate the Middle East and inspire student movements in places like Iran. It is also likely to augment and strengthen democratic trends within one-party states.

The prediction that this democratic moment will occur as a result of the Olympics is one of probability, based on what we know from people’s democratic experiences; it is not a deterministic prediction nor is it based on normative wishes. Clearly it is also possible that protests will not be successful, but this will be despite the existing possibilities, not because of missing preconditions for an effective democratic movement in China.

Finally, the possibility of Chinese democracy involves a moral obligation and policy implications. The Chinese people can be helped in their struggle for recognition and democracy. The international community can amplify the pressure on the Chinese government should a protest movement begin. Non-violent Chinese activists can be trained and helped from abroad. Tourists can serve as shields to those peaceful demonstrators and prevent the authorities from quickly quelling protests.

We should be mindful until and during the Olympics, and think strategically about how to facilitate the demands of those who are struggling for an accountable and democratic China that respects dignity and rights.

Moji is the pen name for a U.S. academic in China for the games.