Monday, August 25, 2008

Now the real games begin

Despite the unfortunate stabbing of a US national on day one, a few questions about possibly under-aged Chinese divers and the occasional pro-Tibet demonstrations and subsequent arrests, it could be said that Beijing successfully weathered the Olympic storm that, as many had claimed, would take the Chinese leadership to the mat. None of Beijing’s predictions of Uighur or Tibetan “terrorists” attacking Olympic venues materialized, while the world’s response to its failure to allow the media to act freely and for protests to be held at a predetermined venue was conspicuous in its meekness.

Maybe the twin security-charm offensive paid dividends, managing to hold dangerous elements at bay while dazzling the world with proof of China’s economic development. All in all, Beijing must be delighted with the outcome.

But as the air clears of canon powder and the athletes start returning home, China finds itself with challenges of Olympian proportions — the interplay between a cooling economy and continued social discontent. Reports have it that during the Games, the upper echelons of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) met daily to discuss the economy and that a meeting is scheduled next month to discuss means to address growing unemployment and an exports sector — the core of its economy — that is threatened by a global economic slowdown.

Locked in a feedback loop with threats to the economy is people’s resistance to forced evictions, corruption and environmental catastrophes, none of which will have disappeared despite the illusion of modernity the Games may have created. In fact, cognizant of the amount of money Beijing spent on the event, people all over China whose needs for employment and security are not met may be justified in turning their criticism of the CPP up one notch — especially if, as analysts have predicted, the economy takes a turn for the worst.

Expect to see the first showdowns in parts of China where the twin factors of a weak economy and ethnic tensions are prevalent. Xinjiang, where most minority Muslim Uighurs reside and which remains one of the poorest provinces in the country (it falls in the “impoverished” category in Business Week’s survey of Chinese per capita income), could soon turn into the greatest threat to China’s stability. In fact, last week Chinese authorities were hinting at the need to deal swiftly with what they perceive as an existential threat to China in Xinjiang (separatism), which for Uighurs could mean mass preventive detentions and, in the extreme, more bloodshed.

The Olympics were all about illusion and reality-defying human feats of determination. But ultimately this was a bubble, and once that bubble has deflated, reality quickly creeps in to fill the vacuum. While Beijing staked its international reputation on them, it will soon realize that well-coordinated ceremonies that leave the audience breathless did not immunize it from having to address pressing socioeconomic challenges.

Despite the image of modernity and unity that China sought to broadcast to the world by hosting the Games and the tremendous financial expenditure that went into ensuring such an outcome, China is no better off today and it continues to face the very challenge it faced before the Games opened earlier this month, that of maintaining social stability.

This time around, however, the restraints on its behavior created by the world’s attention in the lead-up to the Games no longer exist and carrots and sticks will not as readily dissuade the CCP from choosing the path of violence to deal with domestic problems.

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