new Things I Ate in Cambodia: conflicted olympics

Sunday, August 10, 2008

conflicted olympics

I just watched the Olympic Opening Ceremonies. It was a magnificent show, as promised by the 300 million budget and the collective, intense enthusiam of 1.3 billion people collected and condensed upon a single evening. The Chinese people want this and have wanted it bad for a long time: they are here to show the world that they are entering the game and the rest of us had better be ready. I'm glad they chose the venue of a sporting event to put forth that message.

Now, I am a big Olympics booster. Due to circumstance, I have attended two Olympic games and on both occasions found it impossible not to get swept up in the excitement and glamour of a whole bunch of disparate people who rather like to fight on regular occasions getting along, partying together and playing games and doing whatever else Olympic athletes do in their free time. The sense of energy and optimism that ineveitable accompanis the Olympic games is truly intoxicating: it may be a beautiful illusion, but the fact that the world seems to be able to convince itself for two weeks every two years that we all actuallly like each other is nice enough. (We will exclude Munich from that count - sadly, tragically.)

I am conflicted about the Beijing games, however. China fascinates me - culture, language, you name it - and my time in China last summer was a hell of a ride. A year ago, China was feverishly bulilding, working towards an almost total rehaul of old Beijing to host what was, in essence, a national debutante ball. You could see it everywhere: the old hutong neighborhoods being merrily leveled and all the junk swept out in preperation for the Big One, punk kids on the street studying basic English, buildings being painted and revamped.

Of course, as of a year ago, the revamping efforts hadn't taken care of the hookers, drug dealers, or persistent smell of shit in the hutong I resided in in Qianmen, but I wouldn't be suprised if things are looking different now. China has a truly awe-inspiring ability to get stuff done, an ability to produce great monuments and public works and civilizations with awe inspiring speed and efficency, tapping the massive human pool at their disposal to achieve great and sometimes terrible things.

And therein lies what bothers me about these Games. China is going places and is damn well certain it is taking its 1.3 billion people with it - but the means of China's rise are disturbing. . The Chinese deserve a comfortable middle class as much of the rest of us and I'd be a real dirty hypocrite to say they shouldn't reach for that goal. But the utopian idealist in me hopes that such a rise could be done better.

The Chinese government, as has been repeated ad nauseum, is repressive - and you can absolutely feel it in the air and on the streets in Bejing, a collective muscle-tightening whenever the cops are around (and they always are), a careful fear of saying the wrong thing or going the wrong place. China is opening up, but it is doing so slowly and rather irrationally: something may be legal one day and illegal the next. China hosts the Summer Olympics, then pulls back on the media and arbitrarily denies visas to thousands of foreigners for fear of "trouble", political or otherwise. China really is not entirely sure how open it really wants to be.

And then there's the other elephant in the room: Tibet. I am not an idealist about Tibet: it wasn't a very nice place before the Chinese came in and hippies with Tibetan Buddhist fantasies should not convince anyone otherwise.

Now, the West fixates on Tibet due to the inescapable charisma of the Dalai Lama, who has done a bang-up job of publicizing his country and people's plight across the world. However, my concern lies with Xinjiang, the primarily Uighur Muslim region of Northwest China that is undergoing much the same cultural repression at the hands of the Han Chinese government that Tibet is. Unfortunately, Xinjiang is populated primarily by Muslims (who are not exactly the world's media darlings right now), their land is terribly isolated and not as attractive as that of Tibet's, and they lack a big charismatic figure-head. Furthermore, Uighur separatist attacks on the Han Chinese government can very easily be turned into yet another world example of Crazy Goddamn Muslims Busting Shit Up, although the situation has nothing whatsoever to do with jihad. (But this is not what China wants you to think.) Uighurs want independence and autonomy just like Tibetans do, and like Tibetans, they will fight for it.

However, Han China is like the Borg: land they take over Will Be Assimilated, and thus goes Tibet and Turkestan. They have been up to this for thousands of years now and it is foolish for anyone to assume they are going to change their ways. And all the idealistic college kids in the USA are not going to do shit to dissuade a cultural juggernaut that has outlasted every other culture in human history.

But that doesn't mean I'm thrilled about condoning the Chinese government's behavior or ignoring it. If they're going to perform cultural assassination and political repression, I don't really want to be cheering in their section, even if it is in the bright n' shiny guise of the Olympics. I find the brightness and cheeriness of the Olympics, the Mandated Happiness of the whole affair rather hard to swallow in light of the Chinese government's behavior and the whole-sale development that is happening on the backs of your average Chinese worker: China is trying its best to prevent the whole story from being told, but it is one that needs to be told.

But China is important, and I believe that their importance will only magnify in the years to come. I am following the political outcome of these Olympics intently because China will figure large in the world scene from here on out, larger then I think anyone imagined back in the dark days of 1989. When I watched the Opening Ceremonies, I realized I was watching an event that would figure not only to China but to my own future: this was a world power emerging from its burrow, blinking in the light - and it would behoove me to respect it.

I wish China and the Chinese people all the best, but I also fervently hope that they will change their means of ascension. As it stands, I don't want a regime like China's molding the world. The future of the planet really may depend on the path China decides to take in the next 20 or 30 years - and I'm looking forward to seeing it all unfold.

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