"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!

By Andrew Leonard
Published March 20, 2008 10:45AM (EDT)

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.

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