Commentary

Protests? Pride? Gold medals? How will Beijing come out of these Games?

Updated: August 6, 2008, 1:24 PM ET
By Anthony Tao | Special to ESPN.com

In three days, the curtain will rise on the 29th installment of the modern Olympic Games, and judging by the scale and vigor of the host country's preparation -- $42 billion spent, architectural marvels rising into the skyline, 40 million pots of flowers lining roads and Olympic venues -- this just may be one of the most spectacular and memorable shows the world has ever seen.

Roundtable Participants

• Melinda Liu: Liu has been the Beijing bureau chief for Newsweek since 1998. She joined the news magazine in 1980 and opened the Beijing bureau that same year. Liu also served as president of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China.

"The Olympics are a catalyst for people to confront some things that have been happening in their own lives and their own work that maybe they wouldn't have confronted before."

• Anna Sophie Loewenberg: Loewenberg is the writer, editor and host of the popular Internet show "Sexy Beijing." Her debut show reportedly was viewed by more than half a million people in the first year it was on the Web (it debuted in July 2006). She is also a contributor for National Public Radio.

"This is really a historic moment for China, and that I get to be here and see the ways in which it changes China in the short term, in the long term, that I get to feel what's going on in the street -- I feel very lucky."

• Maggie Rauch: Rauch is the editor/founder of China Sports Today and played basketball and water polo in college. She also writes a biweekly column in Chinese for the 21st Century Business Herald.

"The first priority is to get through these Games without incident, have them go smoothly and cleanly, put on a good event; and then the second most important thing is to win the gold medal count. First place is what counts."

• Raymond Zhou: Zhou is a columnist for China Daily, the largest English news portal in the country.

"The Western media is too focused on a few issues. When I go visit places, I'm always surprised by the things I don't know, and if I carry preconceived ideas with me, then I will always see the things I want to see."

What's at stake?

The numbers give us a hint: A global audience exceeding 1 billion is expected to tune in to the Opening Ceremony on Friday, while Beijing welcomes 16,000 athletes, 5,000 reporters and nearly half a million tourists. But the significance of this endeavor runs deeper. For as long as there have been the Olympics, China has eyed them as the ideal medium to showcase its 5,000 years of culture and history.

But there are constant reminders that these Games will be played to a backdrop of controversy. Issues that transcend sports -- such as censorship, human rights, the environment, Darfur, terrorism and the media itself -- have been all over the news, amid pleas from both Beijing and the International Olympic Committee to keep politics out of the Olympics. How does this square with Beijing's ubiquitous Olympic motto "One World, One Dream"?

To help us answer this question, we assembled a roundtable of four distinguished journalists based in China who have had the chance to watch these events unfold before them. The setting was Maison Boulud ("House of Boulud," as in world-renowned chef Daniel Boulud), tucked inside the Legation Quarter near Tiananmen Square. The restaurant is just a month old, but the two-story Victorian building has a rich history worth sharing. It housed the American embassy from 1903 to 1949; the Dalai Lama sought refuge there in the 1950s; U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger secretly met with Chinese premier Zhou Enlai there in 1971 in advance of President Richard Nixon's groundbreaking visit to China the following year.

How this space became a restaurant -- a sophisticated, modern lounge where the front doors are regularly bolted to allow its hostesses the decorum of letting patrons in -- is a story of mystery and intrigue. Ten years ago, the transaction never could have happened, not without an attitude shift from the powers-that-be nearby in the heart of Beijing and the booming economy that led to an infusion of foreigners. If ever there was a place to talk about the changes sweeping this city, and the issues that will shape and define these Olympics, this was it.

Question from Anthony Tao: What do the Olympics mean to China and the Chinese people?

Raymond Zhou: Different things to different people. It might mean a moment to make money for some; for others, it may be a moment to lose money. But overall, I would say it is a moment of pride.

Melinda Liu: This has been an incredible year for China: the earthquake, the torch relay protests, the riots in Tibet and the violence there. I think there's been more news here in this one year than there have been for many years put together. And I keep thinking that the Olympics have been sort of a catalyst. Not that it caused all those things, but it made them more significant, it made people react in different ways, it focused people's psychological energy. I think it gave greater significance to all those things in ways that may take years to play out after the Games.

Listen to roundtable

Listen to an excerpt of our Olympic roundtable with moderator Anthony Tao here:

• Podcast: Roundtable

Maggie Rauch: I've been asking that question of people for a year, and I almost always heard the same answer, which was, "This is a great thing for China. We're very proud to show the world how China is changing and developing; but to me personally it doesn't mean much. I can't go, and perhaps I don't even have time to watch because I work 12, 13 hours a day." Ultimately, there is this sense of pride and anticipation for the event, but as Raymond said, it really means a lot of different things to everyone.

Anna Sophie Loewenberg: We were shooting [film] at Jingshan a few weeks ago and when we would just ask people, "What are you doing? You're painting calligraphy on the sidewalk. What are you doing?"

"I'm painting calligraphy for the great Olympics."

What are you doing there with your erhu, your string instrument?

"I'm playing for the Olympics."

So I think yes, there's definitely a great sense of pride from people on the street. But the one question that I ask people -- Are you going to the Games? Do you have tickets? -- and not one person -- not one cab driver, not one person I've spoken to in any conversation -- has tickets to the Games.

Roundtable
Anthony TaoRaymond Zhou and Melinda Liu.
Q: Four years ago, the dominant question in the lead-up to the Athens Games was, "Has the country done enough?" And I think this year it should be, "Is China doing too much?"

Liu: Maybe not "doing too much" as expecting too much. I think this was going to be the business opportunity of all opportunities for a lot of people and it hasn't turned out that way because so many other things changed, [like] fewer ex-pats coming because of visa difficulties.

The interesting thing that's happening here is that the Olympics have become a national campaign, like today's version of the Great Leap Forward, internationally. And, of course, as a campaign, it is not sustainable. It is not a long-term thing. You put all your energy into it, you go all out, you stay up all night for days preparing, but at some point you run out of steam and you can't continue. And it wasn't meant to continue anyway.

A lot of Beijing residents, just ordinary Chinese people, are feeling inconvenienced by all the searching, all the security, all the traffic restrictions, the trucks that can't come, the cement that's 100 percent more expensive. There are a lot of people sort of complaining quietly, but they're not going to make trouble -- they support the Olympics, they support their government supporting the Olympics. But I can't help but think it's tweaked something in Chinese minds that, "Oh, sometimes there are things I don't like about rules and regulation and police and security." And maybe, down the road, there might be some feeling like, "This should be more consistent. There should be more rule by law rather than rule by campaign."

Zhou: I think the government is really nervous about something that happened at the Atlanta Games [the Centennial Park bombing]; that was done by just one madman. Something like that, the Chinese government is determined to prevent.

Loewenberg: In my neighborhood, it's all low-income people and migrant workers who come to Beijing to sell their wares or people who collect recycled goods; all of that is gone. And they knew. People were telling me in April, "June, I'm out of here." So it's like, the guy who comes by and sells homemade tofu products and came to my door every week for a year, is gone. But the word on the street is, "We'll be back in September."

Q: There have been numerous examples of that already. What do you make of potential protests during the Games?

Zhou: It depends on what they want to achieve. Do they want to really achieve something substantial, or do they want to just make a statement? If they really want to achieve something, it's bad because you don't go to your neighbor's wedding to say, "I want to settle accounts now," and then expect people to be friendly to you afterwards. Why can't you wait two or three weeks to conduct business? That's my point. I'm totally [coming at] it from a cultural perspective. I feel that what we Chinese call "face," Westerners call "respect." And if there is one time you should show your respect for your neighbor, a friend, or even a foe, a rival, this would probably be it.

Liu: I think it's good for China to hear criticisms of stuff they're doing, in a constructive way. I also think that the pressure on Chinese authorities is so intense now. … There will be a lot of people who say, "Oh, they didn't do this and they didn't do that and this happened and that happened." But the fact is, [the authorities] felt it reach them in a way that, had the Olympics not been happening, they probably wouldn't have. What's happening is the Olympics are a catalyst for people to confront some things that have been happening in their own lives and their own work that maybe they wouldn't have confronted before.

Roundtable
Anthony TaoAnna Sophie Loewenberg and Maggie Rauch.

Q: When bidding for these Games, China promised the IOC it would allow uncensored access to the Web during the Games, but that hasn't proven to be the case. Does that surprise you, and is it worth it? [Editor's note: China has since compromised, unblocking some sites like Amnesty International, but select information on Tibet and the Falun Gong remain inaccessible.]

Zhou: The host wants to show the best side, not necessarily what you think is the best side. … I think the Western media is too focused on a few issues. I'm not saying those are not legitimate issues, but China is such a vast and complex country. When I go visit places, I'm always surprised by the things I don't know, and if I carry preconceived ideas with me, then I will always see the things I want to see. I always get a sense that China cannot be summed up with just the few issues.

Liu: I don't think it's worth it for the Chinese authorities to do this. I imagine there must be a debate going on. I imagine there must be Chinese authorities who don't see the need for this, who have the confidence to think that Chinese society will survive 2½ weeks of open Internet access and that it's not going to be so bad. But maybe the realization hasn't sunk in that the negative press, as a result of these blockages, will do a lot to tarnish the image of the Games, which is what they were trying to prevent in the first place.

Q: Let's steer this conversation a bit towards sports. One of the fascinating story lines heading into these Games is whether China can overtake the U.S. in the medal standings [China was three short in the Athens gold-medal count, 35-32]. So these Olympics are sort of a coming-out party for Chinese athletics, as well. What's the sporting landscape like?

Rauch: The older generation is more focused on the sports in which China has been traditionally a power -- badminton, pingpong -- and the younger generation is a little more interested in basketball, soccer. China doesn't have a great shot in either of those, but those teams will be watched very carefully by the younger generation. And also -- this kind of speaks to what the meaning of the Olympics is to Chinese people -- there was a poll a couple months ago by Xinhua: "What are the two most desired gold medals in the Games?" And the results were Liu Xiang's 110-meter hurdles gold medal and the women's volleyball gold medal. And what's interesting about both of those is they both challenge ideas that Chinese people seem to hold about themselves, which is, "We're good at the small-ball sports, we're not good at team sports, we're not good at the big-ball sports and we're not good at [track and field]." I hear that internally way more than I've ever heard it externally. So there is, through both of those events, a chance for Chinese people old and young to view themselves differently and be seen differently by the rest of the world.

Zhou: Personally, I only care about Liu Xiang because I feel Liu Xiang winning the gold medal is tantamount to Barack Obama winning the presidency in the United States. Because it's about more than sports. It's about shattering stereotypes that Asians are intrinsically not good at track and field.

If you go around and ask ordinary Chinese people, it's almost hammered into us that Asians are not good at this. There's no way we can compete. And ordinary people will just tell you, "We don't grow up eating beef, so we don't have that kind of physical stamina, so we can only compete in sports where you use skills, dexterity." So [Liu Xiang] really matters. It's not just about one person or one athlete or one gold medal. It's probably, in terms of social impact, equal to maybe 20 or 30 gold medals in table tennis or something.

[+] EnlargeOlympic Torch Relay
China Photos/Getty ImagesBeijing beat out Paris, Toronto, Osaka and Istanbul to earn the right to host the 2008 Olympics.

Q: Can you imagine if he loses?

Zhou: The possibility of that is big right now. And we had our hopes high once, in 1984, when the Shanghai athlete [high jumper] Zhu Jianhua broke three world records almost in a row within a year's time, and then he only got bronze at the Olympics.

Rauch: Both of those medals are far from locked up. Everyone's aware that Liu Xiang's record has been broken [by Dayron Robles in June], and the volleyball team is very strong and a contender, but so are five other teams.

Liu: The mere fact that we're sitting here and talking about the expectations on Liu Xiang … can you imagine if you're Liu Xiang facing this from everybody on the street, everyone whom you've ever talked to? That's the kind of pressure that I think people are talking about. I was having a conversation with a party secretary of Chaoyang district and he just suddenly said the pressure is incredible, because if you're competing outside of China, it's different. Yes, you have pressure, but losing face in a foreign land, that's one thing; losing face in your own homeland, with so many people's aspirations and expectations on your shoulders, would be devastating.

Q: How much do you think the Chinese team's medal count will factor into the country's final calculation of whether these Games were a success?

Rauch: It's huge. The first priority I think is to get through these Games without incident, have them go smoothly and cleanly, put on a good event; and then the second most important thing is to win the gold-medal count. First place is what counts.

Q: Does China have a chance in basketball against the U.S.?

Rauch: In a word, no. But I do think they can get out of that group and into the quarterfinals. It may not happen, but they do have what it takes and they can surprise some people.

Q: As journalists, it's easy to become cynical and jaded about whatever it is you're covering, and especially for sports journalists, sometimes you lose focus of what the Games are about. I'm curious to find out from each of you how, on a personal level, you feel about these Games coming up.

Liu: I don't think it's possible to separate totally [the sports from the politics], at least for me. I'm not a sports journalist; I cover a lot of politics and foreign policy and leadership issues. However, I fully expect that there will be moments where I am just swept away by the mood of the crowd, and if there're all these people out there saying Zhongguo jiaoyu ["Let's go, China"], it's exciting. There definitely will be some transcendent moments, in one way or another.

Zhou: From my point of view, I just hope that no bad news that's not related to the Games will come in the 2½ weeks, because I really want it to end peacefully. I hope those people who want to protest, to [voice] their grievances or whatever, pick another time. Because, from a cultural perspective, it's like the wedding of the century, and you should respect that by moving your business to another time slot.

Loewenberg: I am very honored to be here. I think this is really a historic moment for China, and that I get to be here and see the ways in which it changes China in the short term, in the long term, that I get to feel what's going on in the street -- I feel very lucky. My hope is that people are going to say what they're going to say and do what they're going to do and that there can be something very positive that comes out of it. And, if anything, I think the world understands a lot more about China than it did pre-2000, and that's really important.

Rauch: I'm just the wide-eyed sports fan, and I'm just over a year into what I'm hoping is going to be a long career in China, so I'm still in my honeymoon phase with China and really enjoying that. And it's my first Olympics. I know there's all kinds of economic and cultural and political issues, [but] I'm glad my work allows me to concentrate on the Games themselves. And I think what's coming up for sports in China is also really exciting, and I'm happy to be here to see that kick off.

Anthony Tao is a freelance writer based in Beijing and a frequent contributor to ESPNMag.com. You can read his Beijing Bureau posts here.