Sunday, August 24, 2008

thoughts on china after the olympics

I have been quite taken with the 2008 Summer Olympics, which were hosted by the Chinese in Beijing, for those of you who have been on an extended backpacking journey without access to the media. Since our daughter has lived and worked in China, and took a degree in Asian Studies, we have had more than a passing interest in the country and its culture (s) over the past few years. I have paid particular attention to the media's treatment of China during the past few weeks. At first glance, much of the media's reflection on the host country has been what I would term very U.S.-centered: how China is using the games to become a super-power, to join the U.S. as a world leader, etc. Along these lines, much of the focus has been on the inadequacies of China in two basic areas, human rights and the environment. Of course, these judgments are often made with the assumption that the countries offering the criticisms have resolved all issues in these areas. And there is a corresponding historical template: that somehow China is evolving in a way that the U.S. did some time ago. Among the more prominent pieces that seems to reflect these sentiments is one by Anthony Lane in the current New Yorker.

Each of these perspectives ignores a basic sense that China lives in its own reality, and for the most part this has little to do with U.S. perceptions (this is a point made by Philip Pan in Out of Mao's Shadow---his recent interview with Bill Moyers is also worth watching). While China does violate the human rights of her citizens, and while there is a looming environmental crisis, these are issues that are internal to that country's own destiny. Our parity with China, the inevitable result of our increasing financial indebtedness to them (occasioned by the War in Iraq) and by the overwhelming population demographic (more people are learning English in China than living in the U.S.), is driving economic costs in commodities ranging from food to gasoline, and there will no reversal of this.

I reflect on all of this not to gloss over a country's imperfections---this is not a "Chamber of Commerce" piece. I simply submit that a few basic assumptions have prohibited many, at times, from appreciating the remarkable contribution of China's hosting of these games, from the Opening Celebration (which has the British puzzling on what exactly they are going to do in 2012) to the Gold Medal count, which at last glance had China in first place.

I have sensed a renewed patriotism within myself during these games, one that had been diminished in the past few years by Abu Ghraib, Guantanimo, our willingness to exploit the Arctic Wildlife Reserves (or the North Carolina coast, for that matter) as gasoline prices increase, and the truly ridiculous campaign rhetoric in this election cycle. The Marvin Gaye-Nike "Star Spangled Banner" commercial, for some reason, is very moving to me. Today I watched the taped finals of our Men's basketball team, winning in a tough battle over Spain (kudos to Coach K). It was great; pure fun.

But alongside this patriotism, I have the corresponding sense that another nation is claiming the center of the world's imagination, and may very well be the empire of the 21st century (although I could be wrong--this could actually be the destiny of India). Our default critique of the games---very polished and smooth, but what about censorship, human rights, environment---is finally unimaginative, unless we are willing to apply a rigorous political self-examination to our own love of sports.


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