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China: Tourists Not Welcome

As Beijing gears up to host this year's Olympic Games, we asked Perry Link, professor of East Asian Studies at Princeton University, to give us his perspective on how China is responding to the challenge. He will be guest-blogging for us over the next few weeks:

The 2008 Olympics are widely seen as the country's "coming-out party"--its chance to show its new self to the world.  But if China wants to impress the rest of the world, one might wonder why the government would, in recent months, lock up rights advocates, call the Dalai Lama a wolf, vote at the UN to support Robert Mugabe, and do other things that give China a shabby image overseas. 

And why would they make it difficult for foreign tourists to come to the big party? An American scholar now in Beijing writes to a colleague of mine:

The city is basically empty but clean. Very few tourists. I stayed at the Sheraton Great Wall and I was the only guest on my floor. Reception told me that the hotel has no guests through the Olympics, due to the "suspension of tourist and business visas." [The receptionist] complained vociferously for a few minutes, then said the government would fill the hotel with officials to make up for the loss.

There is not the slightest doubt in my mind that the Chinese people, overwhelmingly, want foreigners to come and get a good impression of their country. But the Chinese people are not running this Olympics show. The top leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are in charge, and the priorities of this particular group are hardly identical to those of the broad populace. The first priority of the top leaders is not to impress foreigners but to impress the Chinese people that they, the CCP, are the champions and vanguard of China's new nationalism. This point is crucial to their power.

Since its inception, the CCP has always relied on ideology to justify its power.  Idealistic language about "serving the people" had real meaning in the 1950s; but by the 1980s, it had become a mere shell game, and after the CCP's army slaughtered citizens on the streets of Beijing in 1989, lost all its credibility. What to do? The party turned to money-making and nationalism as its new ideologies, and CCP leaders know that their power depends on their identification with both.

Enter the Olympics. Both of Beijing's bids for the Games (in 1993, when the bid failed, and in 2001, when it succeeded) were win-win wagers for the CCP. The party would either reap the glory of garnering the Games or, in a failed bid, could present itself to the Chinese people as their champion in the face of "anti-China" foreigners.

The CCP leaders today are less interested in impressing the outside world than in showing the Chinese people how much the outside world is impressed with CCP-led China.  For that, they don't need potentially obstreperous tourists, but leaders like George Bush, who has announced that he will attend the Games and will express his views on human rights "privately," playing exactly the part that China's rulers want. They do not much care what Mr. Bush thinks. They care that the Chinese people will observe him paying his respects. That is why the five exiled dissidents who met with Mr. Bush on July 29 urged him to speak of freedom and justice publicly, to all the Chinese people, not just to the rulers in private.

Perry Link