China in Focus #7: Remembering the Beijing Olympics

July 23, 2012 | 5:58 am
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

With the Olympics approaching I thought it would be a good time to look back at U.S. views of China during the Obama era. The 2008 summer games in Beijing took place in the context of the successful political campaign that carried Barack Obama into the White House. While China did not figure prominently in the campaign, it is worth remembering that Obama’s democratic opponent, now his Secretary of State, called on President George W. Bush to boycott the opening ceremony. Candidate Obama presaged his administration’s China policy by saying he was “of two minds” on the boycott, preferring to be polite while making it clear he would take a tougher line on China than his predecessors. 

As we approach the 2012 Olympics and the 2012 election, Republican challenger Mitt Romney is following Hillary Clinton’s lead and criticizing the President for a weak approach to China. Romney supported Beijing’s Olympic bid when he was running the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City.

U.S. opponents of the Beijing Olympics, like the late Democratic congressman Tom Lantos, who compared China’s bid to the “Nazi Olympics” of 1936, argued U.S. participation “permits an authoritarian regime to exploit the Games to prop up its faltering legitimacy.” The same argument is now being used to justify efforts by Congressman Frank Wolf to forbid NASA from talking to the Chinese about cooperation in space. Wolf, a long-serving Republican representative from Virginia, picked up the anti-China mantle from Tom Lantos after his colleague across the aisle passed away in 2008. 

The opening ceremonies of the Beijing Games celebrated traditional Chinese history and culture—not communism, the party or the state. And when it came to the contentious contemporary problems of environmental sustainability and climate change, Zhang Yimou, the Chinese director of the event—whose films were once banned by Chinese government censors—chose solutions rooted in the traditional Chinese values of social comity, natural balance, education and the family. It was a soft, cosmopolitan, and progressive expression of China’s emerging national identity. Xi Jinping, China’s heir apparent, was the political figure who is reported to have green-lighted Zhang’s vision for the Games.

Beijing 2008 Theme Song “You & Me” (official video with bi-lingual song lyrics here)

Reviews of the Beijing Games noted Chinese authorities fell short on their promises to the International Olympic Committee regarding press freedom and other human rights. U.S. China hawks claimed the event was an “Us and Them” rather than a “You and Me” moment, accusing Zhang and the organizers of totalitarian posturing intended to demonstrate to the rest of the world that “China is big and will do what it wants.” U.S. public favorability towards China shot up dramatically the following year, suggesting a majority of Americans saw it differently.

Obama said little positive about China after getting elected but maintained a cordial tone with its leaders. The President trumpeted an aggressive approach to China on trade in his most recent State of the Union address and used a new set of trade complaints on autos to bolster his credentials with blue collar workers in a recent campaign swing through Pennsylvania and Ohio. His most significant contribution to U.S. defense and security policy was to “pivot” away from the Middle East toward East Asia, explicitly focusing current U.S. military assets, as well as future procurements, on the prospective military challenges of a modernizing China. 

Hillary Clinton greeted the Chinese with cynicism. In 2009 Clinton told the Asia Society the United States should not focus on the “tensions and perils of our interdependence” in the region. One of the “perils” Clinton was referring to is China’s trade surplus with the United States. The Chinese leadership converts the cash it earns into U.S. treasuries, which finance U.S. deficit spending. China now holds approximately 1.2 trillion dollars of U.S. debt. Clinton told the Asia Society she was focusing on the positive, because that is what they were expecting to hear, but confessed the following contradictory lament during a conversation with Kevin Rudd, the Australian prime minister, just over a month after her remarks to the Asia Society:

“How do you deal toughly with your banker?” 

It is not without justification that a pair of policy analysts working for a Chinese Communist Party think tank once asked me, “Which Hillary Clinton do you expect us to believe?”.

Four years after the Beijing Olympics, the Obama administration’s “two-minded” approach to China finds the relationship stuck in a quagmire of simmering discontents and diplomatic doubletalk. 

The people of the United States seem to want their government to get along better with China. A recent survey conducted by a leading group of Chinese Americans showed that “an increasing proportion of the American public accepts China as a rising power and wants a collaborative relationship.” Fifty-five percent of the American public holds a favorable opinion of China. That’s a higher favorability rating than those enjoyed by either President Obama or candidate Romney.