“The Beijing Olympics debacle has begun”

Riots and death in Tibet, out-of-control pollution, protests over Darfur: Beijing's ready for its close-up!

Topics: Environment, China, Globalization, How the World Works, Olympics,

For everyone else with a trace of conscience and a grasp of diplomacy, the truth is out: The Beijing Olympics debacle has begun.

So finishes an editorial in the Taipei Times published on Saturday, as news reports of rioting in Tibet whipped around the world. The pro-independence Taipei Times is probably not the place to look for an unbiased view of events in the People’s Republic of China, but what struck me as I pondered the words were how true they rang.

China has spared no expense in preparing for the 2008 Summer Olympics, now only five months away. The hope of China’s leadership has always been to take advantage of the occasion to showcase the nation before the rest of the world. As a coming-of-age party, it would hardly be an exaggeration to suggest that a successful Olympics would partially erase the stain of 19th century foreign domination and imperial collapse that transformed China from one of the world’s great powers into a basket case. If the 21st century is to have a Chinese flavor, then the 2008 Summer Olympics was to be an enticing first course at the banquet.

But as a public relations exercise, so far, the Olympics are turning into a disaster. The violence and destruction in Tibet tower gloomily above all else: Recent accounts written by James Miles for the London Times and Howard French for the New York Times cannot be spun as anything else but the abject failure of Chinese rule in Tibet. For those whose memories of Tiananmen are still fresh, the news that Tibetans are rising up in anger inspires a shudder. It is hard to see this ending well.



But Tibet isn’t the only headache for China’s leadership. The ongoing efforts to ensure (or pretend) that Beijing’s air is clean enough for world-class athletes to breath is a daily reminder of the ghastly environmental price China is paying for its astounding economic progress. When a world champion long-distance runner like Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie bows out of the Olympic marathon — citing fears that Beijing’s polluted air will aggravate his asthma, the message sent to the rest of the world isn’t one of Chinese success, but failure — a failure to balance economic growth with the maintenance of a basic quality of life. Earlier, the resignation of Steven Spielberg as an artistic advisor, on the grounds that China wasn’t doing enough to deal with the horrors of Darfur, was embarrassing, but survivable. A full-fledged boycott — by individual athletes or by entire nations — incited by a brutal crackdown in Tibet, would be an unthinkable loss-of-face.

China’s leaders are adamant that sports and politics shouldn’t mix. Anyone who remembers the futile boycotts of the Moscow and Los Angeles Olympics might be inclined to support such a thesis, if it weren’t for the fact that China’s hosting of the Olympics is fundamentally a political act. China wanted the Olympics to demonstrate to the world that it was a first-class power. Now the citizens of the world are watching, and large swaths of them don’t like what they see.

Writing for the Nation, Jeffrey Wasserstrom put it eloquently: “the tragic and farcical developments of recent weeks underscore the inherent conflict between China’s desire to place itself in the global spotlight and its hope that no one will focus on the nation’s flaws.”

No major nation attempts to control the popular discourse more than China. But in the current Internet-enabled infotainment universe no single event to date is likely to attract as much attention, commentary, and eyeballs as the Summer 2008 Beijing Olympics. An optimist might hope that all this foreign attention could serve as the lever that finally gets the immovable object rolling. But when you combine the narrative of sport between the assembled nations of the earth with the political tensions of Tibet and human rights activists, when you attempt to square the circle of pell-mell economic growth with environmental sustainability, when you open your doors to the world but will not dare allow a peep of criticism — how can it not be a debacle?

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Clare Barboza/Bloomsbury

    Uncommon Apples

    Api Étoile

    Like little stars.

    Clare Barboza/Bloomsbury

    Uncommon Apples

    Calville Blanc

    World's best pie apple. Essential for Tarte Tatin. Has five prominent ribs.

    Clare Barboza/Bloomsbury

    Uncommon Apples

    Chenango Strawberry

    So pretty. So early. So ephemeral. Tastes like strawberry candy (slightly).

    Clare Barboza/Bloomsbury

    Uncommon Apples

    Chestnut Crab

    My personal fave. Ultra-crisp. Graham cracker flavor. Should be famous. Isn't.

    Clare Barboza/Bloomsbury

    Uncommon Apples

    D'Arcy Spice

    High flavored with notes of blood orange and allspice. Very rare.

    Clare Barboza/Bloomsbury

    Uncommon Apples

    Esopus Spitzenberg

    Jefferson's favorite. The best all-purpose American apple.

    Clare Barboza/Bloomsbury

    Uncommon Apples

    Granite Beauty

    New Hampshire's native son has a grizzled appearance and a strangely addictive curry flavor. Very, very rare.

    Clare Barboza/Bloomsbury

    Uncommon Apples

    Hewes Crab

    Makes the best hard cider in America. Soon to be famous.

    Clare Barboza/Bloomsbury

    Uncommon Apples

    Hidden Rose

    Freak seedling found in an Oregon field in the '60s has pink flesh and a fragrant strawberry snap. Makes a killer rose cider.

    Clare Barboza/Bloomsbury

    Uncommon Apples

    Knobbed Russet

    Freak city.

    Clare Barboza/Bloomsbury

    Uncommon Apples

    Newtown Pippin

    Ben Franklin's favorite. Queen Victoria's favorite. Only apple native to NYC.

    Clare Barboza/Bloomsbury

    Uncommon Apples

    Pitmaston Pineapple

    Really does taste like pineapple.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>