The Face, or Facade, of China

So the item all over the news of late is the Olympics, which are being held as we speak in Beijing, and will go on for the next week or so. Giving the games to China has been the source of controversy since the decision was made in 2001 - while China suggested it was the chance to show itself off as an emerging world player, the critics argued that China’s record, particularly on human rights, made it an inappropriate host.

But that battle is over - China got the Games, Let the Games Begin! - and the questions and critics now focus on the actual execution of the Olympic production, years in the making. It hasn’t taken long for the critics to find their talking points. Issues that have come up (as of the 13th, 5 days into the 16 day production) include:

  • Internet Access & the Free Press — While the Press feels they were promised free access to the internet, several sites appear to be blocked; the Chinese feel they are delivering what they promised. The Press was also was promised freedom to report as they normally would, however there have been reports of visa problems, travel restrictions, police intimidation, limited access to venues, particularly to Tienanmen Square, and instructions not to air live interviews. (read the New York Times’ comments on the matter)
  • Fireworks — To execute a flawless Opening Ceremonies, many of the fireworks shown to the TV audience were actually computer generated and added to the scene. The claim was it would be too difficult to film from a helicopter in real time.
  • Ode to the Homeland — This patriotic song was also part of the Opening Ceremonies — but the trick was there was two girls involved - 9 year old Lin Miaoke on stage, lip-syncing to the pre-recorded voice of 7 year old Yang Peiyi. The official line is that it was a casting choice; the critics claim it went too far. (CBC’s coverage)
  • No Citizen Protests — The central government promised to allow citizens to protest during the Games, but they are restricted to three public parks, and must apply at least four days in advance. So far, no citizens have showed up, but rumours of those attempting to apply being intimated or arrested have.
  • How Old Are the Gymnasts — To be young is an advantage in Gymnastics, but there is a rule that you must be at least 16 to compete at the Olympics. China claims all members of its team meet that standard, but reporters have cast doubt on the exact ages of three competitors (of the six that compete together for the team event), and there’s only the word of the Chinese government, in the form of government-issued passports, in support of their ages. To add intrigue, Yang Yun, a member of the Chinese Gymnastics team at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, admitted to being 14 when she competed there.
  • Beijing Weather — The air quality in Beijing is often among the worst in the world, enough so that the possibility of canceling endurance events persists. While Beijing claims to have improved air quality, an independent scientist has released a report suggesting the numbers have been fudged by selectively choosing sampling sites and times.
  • All Sold Out? — The Games’ organizers claim that every event was sold out, but reporters on the ground report seeing blocks of identically dressed Chinese spectators, and speculate that they are bussed-in ‘cheerleaders’ to make the venues seems full.

Is the internet access issue a misunderstood or a broken promise? - the head of the IOC has French as his native tongue, not English, and thus some have suggested that journalists have misunderstood him by taking the literal meaning of his English words. Did we miss something in translation on the other points, or have the Chinese straight up lied to us? To me, it increasingly looks like China has become all about posturing at the Games - a facade without substance. The history that this all reminds me of is the Russians during the Cold War; after the USSR fell, we, in the West, discovered the appearance of military might had come at the cost of all else.

One World, One Dream?

One World One Dream? via goa_entranced on Flickr

And so I wonder, Is it deception, in the goal of flawless execution, or is it simple cultural misunderstanding? China wanted to play with the “Big Boys,” and wanted the Olympics to prove it had the wherewithal to do so. Thus, right or wrong, the Chinese actions will be judged in the West by the values of the West, and honesty is still valued more than showmanship here.

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