Friday, August 22, 2008

China and the Olympics

Inspired by this site, I'm going to try to make sense of my jumbled up thoughts about the Olympics in China. 
On the one hand, I bristle at the jingosim of the U.S. media when it comes to describing the Olympics and the Chinese handling of it. Story after story has focused on the scandals, the lack of democracy, the curbing of individual rights at every point etc. From the two old ladies being sent to labor camp for protesting the treatment of Chinese citizens to the enormous pressure placed on Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang and the way that slums and low income areas were hidden overnight in walls. On the other hand, all of this stuff should raise our hackles. Why should we excuse such behavior, just because this is a developing country. That's an Ayoobian argument that I find difficult to buy. 

Case in point for me was the story about the lip-syncing switch with the two little girls.  Yes, it was callous to have switched the girl with the voice with the girl with the angelic face. Yes, it was another indicator of the Chinese obsession with national image. But as my friend pointed out, do we really think it would have been any different in the US? I thought about it and I agree that it is not like the US is any more altruistic than China but I do think on balance, that such a switcheroo would not have taken place. Why? Not because of any more moral reason, though that is debateable too, but because such a thing would simply fire up too much of a media fire storm in the US. The media would have been all over it, the kids would have been hounded, the olympic committee would have been crucified by Tyra and Oprah and all the rest of them. They just could not have gotten away with it. 

And that's, on balance, a good thing. 
At the risk of often being over played and over-hyped, it is a good thing for governments, people in power etc. to not be able to ride roughshod over people with impunity, to not be able to get away with abuses of power without protest and shaming. Power will often prevail but our greatest triumphs as a global citizenry have come when we speak truth to it, to use a cliche. 

What is disturbing to me is the implicit agenda behind the sustained coverage of the Olympics in the U.S. where the media seems to delight in exposing such stories, all the while marveling in a distinctly envious tone about the spectacle and efficiency of the opening ceremony and the prowess of Chinese athletes. At each turn praise has been accompanied by qualifiers...
 Yes, China leads the gold medal tally but you know they send athletes away as little kids contrasting with Shawn Johnson who got to go to prom in a sparkly yellow dress. Yes, the opening ceremony was amazing, but they handpicked only the best looking people. Yes, the architecture in Beijing is stunningly innovative but ordinary citizens do not have a voice in this development. 

All true, no doubt, but amplified by decidedly mixed intentions. 

It's been a tough one- these Olympics. As a fellow third-world citizen, I sympathize with those who feel that singling out China smacks of jingoism and first world condescension coupled with just a tinge of panic. But as a citizen of the world with some basic respect for human rights and fairness, I cannot help but agree that these very episodes need to be highlighted, for things to change even a bit. 

Tough indeed. 

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