Victor D. Cha
© 2008 by The Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Massachusetts Insti-
tute of Technology
The Washington Quarterly • 31:3 pp. 105–123.
The WashingTon QuarTerly ■ summer 2008
Victor D. Cha is director of Asian studies and the D.S. Song Chair at Georgetown University
and an adjunct senior fellow at the Pacific Council for International Policy. He was director of
Asian affairs on the National Security Council from 2004 to 2007. He is author of Beyond the
Final Score: The Politics of Sport in Asia (Columbia University Press, 2008).
On August 8, Beijing will host the opening ceremonies for the 2008
Summer Olympics. For two weeks, we will be treated to athletic performances
that animate dreams and inspire the world, set against the backdrop of one of
the world’s most ancient and celebrated civilizations. That, at least, is the way
that Beijing would like to sell the Games. For better or worse, they will mark a
critical crossroads in China’s development as a responsible global player.
Just as the Tokyo Olympics in the summer of 1964 closed the book on war-
time Japan, the Beijing Games will end China’s past century as the “sick man”
of Asia and open a new chapter as a modern, advanced nation. The newly
built stadium known as the “Bird’s Nest” and the supermodern “water cube”
aquatics center are iconic Olympic facilities offering the world a new image
of China beyond the Great Wall. The symbolism of China’s first astronaut in
space carrying the Beijing Olympic banner could not have been a stronger
statement of the nation’s aspirations.
The Olympics, however, also generate pressures on the regime to change
its behavior, not just its image. Beijing is wrestling with the difficulties of
conjoining its controlled and closed political system with the classical liberal
ideals of individualism, open competition, and respect for human dignity
embodied in the Olympics. It is under siege from intense international scru-
tiny of its behavior b