Reluctant Expectations: China and the Olympics


Published: August 28, 2008

At first, I was reluctant about watching the Olympics. I know a few Tibetans. I had heard them talk of their anger towards the Chinese, their frustration with their state of imposed diaspora and the sympathy and solidarity they feel for those left behind in the homeland, suffering under foreign rule. I had read article after article about censorship in China, about crackdowns on journalists and bloggers, about the huge effort the government makes to hide its mistakes and misdeeds from its own people. I had raged at China’s support for the murderous regime in Sudan and at their exploitive trade relations with Africa. And beneath all that, I felt a profound anxiety at the way China, through their investments and their trade policies, seemed to be almost aggressively pursuing a world in which the whole of humanity is economically dependent on their industry and labor.

So, as the Olympic flame began to poke over the horizon some months ago, I became an angry, vocal detractor of China and their right to host this year’s Olympic Games. I preached to friends and family about how shameless China was, how they didn’t care about any country except their own. I argued, I think rightly, that China had failed to meet the expectations of reform that had been the pretenses under which they had been awarded the games years ago, and thus did not deserve to be a host country. I grinned and cheered on the protesters that met the Olympic torch in Paris and San Francisco, and when the Chinese people reacted to our criticism with outrage, I became outraged at their blind nationalism in turn. As the reports trickled in about the horrendous pollution in Beijing, I gloated and not-so-secretly hoped that the smog would force a last minute relocation to Athens. Perhaps, I thought, such an embarrassment would teach the Chinese government some humility, would teach them to consider the long term consequences of their actions, rather than to simply cover up their failings at the last minute.

But as the days ticked closer to the opening ceremony, I found my enthusiasm for a boycott flagging. Besides my own sadistic vindication, I wondered, what would be gained by trying to humiliate a sixth of the world’s people? The truth, I had to admit, was that I was uneasy with the idea of a strong China, a China that had some measure of dominance over world affairs and culture—and not just because of the authoritarian way in which the Chinese government deals with their own people.

I have never been to China. I do not know their values, but given the country’s history this past century I am not sure I approve of them or like where they led, especially since I am more or less comfortable with Western values. I tried once—and failed—to learn the Chinese language, and have since felt unnerved and incensed by suggestions from businessmen in books and radio interviews that Westerners who want to get ahead in the coming century should learn Mandarin or Cantonese. I do not think I am alone in these feelings, especially amongst my peers. For those of us who grew up never really knowing the fear and challenge of the Cold War, the thought of another superpower in the world, of our high status in this life not being assured simply by being American…whether or not we like to admit it, this thought doesn’t usually sit well.

In those last few weeks before the games, however, and finally in those last few hours of indecisive pacing, I bit down my judgements and decided to watch the opening ceremony. At first I remained critical, making sarcastic and cutting comments whenever I could, but soon I gave up and let myself be washed along by the grand spectacle of the thing. Afterwards, watching the various triumphs of the Americans, the Chinese, and all the other athletes, I couldn’t help but hope that these games were everything the Chinese people wanted them to be: the reintroduction of their vastly changed and quickly changing civilization to the rest of the world.

I am not so naïve to think that pulling off a successful Olympics will make China reconsider their occupation of Tibet, or help them solve any of their staggering domestic problems—their huge population of rural and migrant poor, the draconian pract ices of their government, their pollution and their congestion. There remains much to criticize China about, and like it or not their tender national ego demands that we handle them with kid gloves if we want our criticisms to be heard. Still, I am cautiously optimistic. Perhaps China will learn that it is nice to be liked, and after this realization international pressure to enact democratic reforms and respect human rights will have more weight. Or perhaps not.

I still have mixed feelings about China being allowed to host the Olympics, just like I still have mixed feelings about the way China is emerging into the world. But we can’t stop it. One way or another, China got the games. And one way or another, the one billion plus people of China will be a big part of the future. They are already.