I believe we can come to some preliminary conclusions about the Communist-run Olympic Games.
Most of the debate before the Games was whether or not the Olympics would force a change in the regime’s behavior; just about everyone assumed the Communists would milk the event for all its worth as a propaganda bonanza. No one expected them to get that part wrong.
Yet that is exactly what happened: the Communist Olympiad—from the perspective of the Communists—has been a failure. To understand why, and what that means, one must remember what the cadres wanted—and, in fact, desperately needed—from these Games.
The Communist regime was looking for two things out of the Olympics. The first was foreign approval for their “mandate from heaven.” Those who said this was the CCP’s “coming-out party” were absolutely correct. The regime did everything it could to make Beijing look modern, vibrant, and dynamic—just like any city in the free world.
There were, however, some things the Communists couldn’t do, because of the other and far more important objective of the Games—to use nationalist pride from the Games to build support for the Party and discredit dissidents. This would in part be driven by the aforementioned foreign support—anyone who participated in the Games would be labeled by the CCP as a supporter of the CCP (which is why I wanted a free-world boycott), and there would be many foreigners who would be more than willing to talk up the regime (especially in the “engagement” crowd). However, the Olympiad itself was also supposed to build “patriotic” feelings in the populace at large.
We can now be certain that neither objective was achieved.
The first weekend looked very good from the regime’s perspective; the opening ceremony drew more attention than many of the initial events. That backfired quickly when the acts of fakery were exposed, especially the treatment of Yang Peiyi.
Thus, during a time when the cadres hoped to hear about how their wonderful hosting reflected on the Chinese people, they instead endured repeated criticism from international media—including the we-all-know-the-Chinese-government-is-not-the-Chinese-people dagger (one of the main purposes of the Games was to make the free world equate the CCP and China as one entity).
Add to it the numerous reports of foul play surrounding the host’s women’s gymnastic team, and the Communists were reduced to being grateful that the conversation changed to Michael Phelps.
Still, even with the attempt to win foreign acclaim largely in shambles, the cadres could still count on the overwhelming gratitude and support of the Chinese people—at least that’s what they thought. As it turns out, the cadres themselves made that goal impossible to achieve, first by their decision to keep tickets away from the public in order to make party members happy (this led to the embarrassing spectacle of empty seats), and then by their fawning on urban areas, which angered rural Chinese so much they are all but ignoring the entire thing.
This is especially troublesome for the Communists because the rural interior is the place where anger at the regime is highest. Thus, the nationalistic sentiment that the Olympics were supposed to spark has been nonexistent outside of the Potemkin cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Shenzhen). Instead, the Games have set off a wave of hostility to the regime and the cities it has developed and micromanaged politically for three decades.
What will this mean for the future? For starters, it means the firewall on which the Communists counted to ride out the post-Olympic storm never materialized. More importantly, it means we may have reached a turning point on the “nationalist” card in general.
In the cities, where residents are dependent upon the Party for political connections, wealth, and development, the CCP can still hold firm and rely on the self-interest of the people it controls to do its bidding (this is why the young elite in Communist China’s cities remain firmly wedded to the Party—the Party educated them and made them rich - precisely to ensure they don’t take to Tiananmen Square as their counterparts in 1989 did).
In the countryside, however, there is less wealth to go around, and the cadres’ sense of entitlement pretty much assures that they’ll get all of it. As a result, the ordinary people are much less supportive of the Party. That is not new.
What is new—or perhaps what the Olympics have exposed—is that love of China is not enough for these folks to look the other way and grant the Communists their propaganda coup. In other words, for the average rural farmer, there is a difference between China and the CCP, one that the Olympics appear to have reinforced, not eroded.
If this is the case (and from the outside, this must remain an “if”), then the Olympic Games are not just a failure for the Communists; they are a catastrophic failure that may mean the beginning of the end for the regime.
D.J. McGuire is cofounder of the China e-Lobby and the author of Dragon in the Dark: How and Why Communist China Helps Our Enemies in the War on Terror.