Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

China's Winning Olympic Spirit

| September 1, 2008

WHEN CHINA announced its Beijing Olympics theme of "one world, one dream" in 2005, many Americans regarded it as an empty slogan. They questioned if China's quest for harmony, friendship, and unity — the core values of the Olympic spirit — would fit into a world beset by increasing confrontation and conflict. However, now that the Olympics has come to a successful end, China has impressed the world by its efforts to turn a highly politicized and competitive event into a harmonious experience for the world.

At the heart of the "one world, one dream" theme lies China's aspiration of building a harmonious world. Deeply rooted in Confucianism, harmony represents the amicable face that China is trying to present during its rise to world prominence. As Chinese, we have confidence in and echo this well-intended message. Yet we also understand that China's pursuit of harmony is met with certain doubts from the rest of the world. This also has become clear during the Olympics.

In the boisterous run-up to the Olympics, all kinds of interest groups laid out their grievances and put pressures on China. The overwhelming criticism in the West of China's policies on Darfur, Myanmar, and Tibet seemed to make China's pursuit of harmony impossible.

China at times became frustrated by these challenges as the whole nation was geared up for the glory of hosting the Olympics for the first time in the Games' century-long history. But gradually Chinese learned to accept with equanimity these problems. Chinese vice president Xi Jinping even remarked that a cage needed noisy birds to make it lively. Such confidence was highlighted by President Hu Jintao in his first news conference ever with foreign journalists just days before the Games, during which he said he hoped that the Olympics would help convince the world of China's commitment to a peaceful ascendance.

During the Games, China's effort to build harmony with the world eclipsed even its unprecedented conquest of gold medals. The Chinese people's openness, graciousness, enthusiasm, and hospitality, as an American friend commented, have helped China win the biggest medal: the world's esteem.

There were many harmonious moments during the Games. The Serbian swimmer who lost the Gold medal to Michael Phelps by just 0.01 second took his loss in stride. Sharpshooters from Russia and Georgia embraced after earning medals for their countries, which had teetered on the brink of war.

The "one world, one dream" ideal even transcended Chinese nationalism when some globetrotting Chinese coaches led foreign teams in the Games. Indeed, many Chinese felt proud of the Chinese gymnastics coach of US gold medalist Shawn Johnson and the Chinese coach of the US silver-winning women's volleyball team. One dream for the world's celebration of sports does not sound like such an empty slogan in such cases.

Unifying around this athletic spirit during the Games helped to keep politics in the background. Yet beyond the Olympics, China's journey in exploring and pursuing internal and external harmony will continue to face resistance from those who think China's harmonious banner is too good to be true and from those who interpret differently the concept of harmony. For example, China's collectivist approach to harmony may not resonate with people who honor more individual rights. It might be natural for many Chinese to believe that ensuring a safe, harmonious, and undisrupted game for athletes and spectators from all over the world is the top priority and responsibility of the host, while it might be equally natural for Americans to believe that China's preventing two old Chinese women from protesting during the Games counters the principle of harmony.

China's experience in handling the complexity of the Olympics has proved that self-adaptation and mutual adaptation with the world, as well as maintaining an open and, especially, peaceful mind, is crucial to achieving a state of harmony. The Olympics wrought changes in China, as desired by the world. The Games also helped change the world's perception of China, as desired by China.

Anne Wu is an associate at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Jason Qian is a fellow at the Harvard Negotiation Project at Harvard Law School.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Wu, Anne and Jason Qian.“China's Winning Olympic Spirit.” The Boston Globe, September 1, 2008.

The Authors