China and the Beijing Olympics, the Empty Mirror


The Olympics in Beijing will be one of the great moments in modern Olympic history. The Chinese have been remaking Beijing for nearly a dozen years now, in anticipation for the coming August.

The Summer Olympics will start on August 8, 2008 at 8:08 P.M. Reason? In Mandarin, the number eight sounds like the word "fortune". 500,000 foreigners will be coming to Terminal 3, the new terminal in the Beijing airport, in July and August to visit China during the Beijing Olympics, just what will they find?

In a must-read article in April 2008 issue of Vanity Fair, William Langewiesche wrote Beijing's Olympic Makeover for VF's China Dispatch. If Langewiesche's hypothesis are right, those foreigners will find a homogenized Beijing, hiding much of the truth about a Modern China.

China, as a country, has a historical tradition that goes back five thousand years. Their concept of a world order, their pride in their countries' history, their pride in their countries' contribution to the world and their confidence in where China fits in the new world.

How should China look at a country like the US? With an upstart history of less than four hundred years? Looking at our country through the cultural sunglasses of China would be fascinating. The truth is, however, Chinese sunglasses may see out, but will not allow us to see in, unless, we take the time and effort to understand, as much as we can, of their culture and history first.

For the last decade, the Chinese government has used outdoor advertising, monthly public relations announcements, and Chinese pride to encourage the Chinese people to a) not spit in public, b) not urinate in public, c) climb over the seat of airplanes, like they do trains, to get off, d) not push on planes and to take pride in the modernization of Beijing and the other great Chinese cities.

But is this a modern Potemkin village? Allow me to digress. Way back in the good old early eighteenth century, Peter the Great, Russia's great insomniac, wanted to modernize Russia. He banned beards, he wanted Russia to embrace everything European. He demanded modernization.

Much of what Peter the Great wanted, succeeded, but much failed. He was fighting against the culture, religion and soul of Russia. His push for modernization required cities to be modernized at a unrealistic pace. On one of his tours of Russia, as he slept at night, fake skylines of towns were moved along the river banks before Peter's rising each morning. These were masterminded by Potemkin, hence the Potemkin village.

What William Langewiesche notes in his essay on China is that while the major cities of China are modern and that Olympics venues will be wonderful, but they are part of the charade about a modern China. China's strength is its people and the ability for change and creativity. However, with a school system that is failing, with huge pollution problems outside of the major cities, and a fear of change, the China that westerners see and experience is positive and prosperous. Lagnewiesche thinks the reality is much different.

Before the 1936 Olympics, Langewiesche wrote, that the Nazis cleared the Gypsies out of Berlin, removed all of the signs keeping Jews out of public places. They even released the rules on homosexuals, giving the feeling that the Nazis were really characters from a Charlie Chaplin movie, not sadistic thugs. Now that was modern public relations, courtesy of one Joseph Goebbels.

Langewiesche's hypothesis does not compare the Chinese government to the Nazis. And most Westerner's beliefs that Marxism is alive and well in China is just that, a belief. The truth is much different. Trust is among close friends, families. The government will take on any trappings that keep China growing, but their control of that growth, their understanding of the price that growth will take out on the resources and people of China is negligible. What happens when the engine slows down? What happens when the economy has slips, who will step up and develop the creative solutions that would happen in Korea, Japan, Western Europe or the United States?
Langewiesche suggests that the government has built a Potemkin village, and empty mirror, where the tourists will see wonderful buildings, a Beijing with better quality air, but all of those will be temporary.

William Langewiesche most important observations are telling. In considering the Chinese as a people, he notes that while "the Chinese are said to be individualists, but at this point the country can appear to function as a single giant Karoke Bar." By that he means, that the goal is to not loose face, and the country is focused on making the Olympics a huge success.

How much can we tell from the recent announcement of the Chinese officials capturing a group bent on committing a terrorist act at the Olympics? We can tell that the Chinese are diligent, and that they are taking the possible terrorist actions seriously.

The Olympics are the world showcase. The Olympics bring the world to the host country. The new visitors to the country influence the host country like all visitors do, but what will the people see?

If William Langewiesche is right, the buildings will be beautiful, the opening ceremony will be great television, but the China that six billion television viewers will see will not be much of the real China.

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