The China problem

Those wanting to enjoy the Olympics as pure sport have to ignore the host country's troubling behavior -- just what it wants you to do.

Published August 5, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

As the world arrives in Beijing and the frenzy ratchets up, it's becoming clear that, unless we choose to ignore it all and just focus on the running and the jumping and whatnot, we're in for a pretty depressing Olympics.

Amnesty International and other human rights groups are condemning China for its crackdowns on Tibet protesters and its evident policy of rounding up undesirables to present a clean, happy image of Beijing to the world. The world press has been howling about promised openness that hasn't materialized. We've heard enough about Beijing's air pollution to choke the heartiest of souls.

George Walden, a reporter and former Tory M.P. who has lived in China and written extensively about it, summed up the scene in less than one sentence in the U.K. Telegraph: "Unbreathable air, stepped-up arrests of dissidents, restrictions on journalists, terrorist alerts, mournful echoes from Tibet -- the Beijing Games do not seem set to earn a gold medal."

He continues, "The transformation of Beijing into a huge Potemkin village has been achieved partly by the accelerated destruction of the hutongs (urban lanes) and of unsightly neighbourhoods peopled by rag-tag hawkers and traders.

"What cannot be knocked down and renovated overnight is disguised by hurriedly erected screens, but any gain in idealised scenery is lost by stories of individuals who stand in the way of the giant Olympic machine to defend their homes, and are harassed, bullied or beaten to shift them from its path."

Walden does point out that there's a positive side to all of this. Until relatively recently, he writes, that fellow protesting the destruction of his home for an Olympic venue would have been quickly hustled away and shot. So, progress.

Associated Press writer Anita Chang reports on Chinese citizens grumbling about the Olympics.

"I think ordinary people have no opportunity to see the games," a 24-year-old blogger named Zhang Heng tells her, "and I find it hard to accept that everyone around the country has to adjust their lives and work for it, just because this is about the country's image."

Chang quotes Beijing residents who are struggling with a soaring cost of living they attribute to the Olympics. Some say the event has thrown them out of work, such as an ice-cream cart vendor who says the government won't let him operate during the games. "At least half the people I know can't wait for the games to be over. It's a glorious event for the country, but ordinary people are the unlucky ones," the vendor says.

"If there were freedom," says another man, too afraid to identify himself fully to Chang, "there would definitely be people protesting."

There is some freedom. Zhang is allowed to blog about his frustrations, for instance. Demonstrations are allowed, but only in three parks in Beijing, well out of camera range of the Olympic venues. Protesters must get permits five days in advance, and any demonstration deemed to be an attack on national unity and sovereignty is off limits.

With freedom like that, who needs dictatorship? The various international news agencies say they're prepared to cover spontaneous demonstrations they're sure will happen. Let's hope so, and let's hope the demonstrators don't get massacred.

This is the backdrop for all that running and jumping.

The International Olympic Committee's stated hope was that bringing the Olympic spotlight to China would force it to open up, grant new freedoms and improve its human rights record. It has been clear for a while now that that wasn't going to happen. We have the IOC to thank for that if we're going to enjoy the running and jumping -- we'll get 3,600 hours of it in the U.S. -- we'll have to ignore what's going on outside the venues. Just what China's government wants us to do.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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