With 205 nations being represented in the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, reporters have flocked to the city from across the globe, as controversial issues, such as political repression of dissenters by the Chinese government and rising pollution levels, are being brought to the forefront of global media.
Traditionally, one element of the Olympics that previous host countries have capitalized on is its tendency to stimulate the economy by bringing outside investment into the country. According to Peter Navarro, an economics professor at UCI, while the preparation for the Olympics has stimulated China’s economy, the added exposure the event is generating could ultimately work against the nation.
“What the Chinese government hopes is that the Olympics will work as a marketing tool to basically improve China’s image in the world community … [however] the Olympics are basically exposing two things in China. One is the increasing level of repression and two is the grotesque pollution,” Navarro said.
According to Navarro, the worst case scenario is that a significant series of demonstrations occur, which are partially repressed by Chinese military force. However, Navarro went on to state that it is improbable that such protests would be the most violent demonstrations that China had ever experienced. Perhaps the most infamous of such occurrences took place nearly 20 years ago during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. During the now infamous event it has been estimated that as many as 3,000 protestors were killed by the Chinese government’s military.
“It would be unlikely, but you’ve already seen police partially crack down on people … there’s going to be some heads banged during this thing and it’s a question of whether the cameras catch it,” Navarro said.
An article written for the Associated Press on July 24 stated that the Chinese government has planned for demonstrations by setting up a number of designated protest areas in Beijing.
Navarro’s credited the Olympic Games themselves for raising awareness about pollution.
Recently, Navarro wrote an article for Asia Times Online that addressed how one-third of the Olympic sailing course in Qingdao, China is polluted by algae bloom, which he discussed in greater detail with the New University.
“[T]he Olympic sailing course has been decimated by a significant algae bloom, which is the result of sewage run off into the sea … it’s going to be the pollution Olympics as much as anything else,” Navarro said.
According to Kenneth Pomeranz, a Chancellor’s Professor of History at UCI, much of China’s pollution stems from a number of factors, not the least of which is the country’s unique political atmosphere.
“On paper China has actually some pretty good environmental legislation, [but] its very difficult to enforce … Local governments often have a strong stake in the success of local factories so they often turn a blind eye, even when there’s a law on the books,” Pomeranz said.
Conversely, according to Pomeranz, China’s central government is massive, but not large enough to oversee local governments’ adherence to all of its environmental policies.
One person who has experienced Beijing’s environment firsthand is recent UCI graduate Tim Hutten, who is currently in Beijing training as a member of the United States Olympic Men’s Water Polo team.
Hutten is the reigning Cutino Award winner, which goes to the best college water polo player.
The day after arriving in Beijing, Hutten told the New University about the city and how he must adapt to the environment in order to prepare for the competition.
“Just walking around in Beijing the last 24 hours, it is plain to see that air pollution is very high. The sky is very grey and overcast, but if you look out in the distance you can see the pollution. We have trained yesterday and today and I couldn’t see a significant change in my performance, but the real test will be when we start competing,” Hutten said.
Whether the Olympic Games will work for China as a marketing tool or bring about unprecedented international criticism remains to be determined.
However, Hutten’s focus remains unwavering.
“Our team came here for one purpose,” Hutten said. “That is to win an Olympic gold medal. In the end that is the only thing that really matters.”