Eyes on the Beijing Olympics

Photo: XinhuaIt is three hours away from the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games and I am tossing up whether to wait up until midnight to see it. I am indifferent to the sporting events but I do like pageantry and the Chinese are as good at it as any other country, if not better. New Zealand television tonight showed snatches of what is to come and it looked gorgeous.

They also showed people in a park this morning doing their graceful tai chi and traditional dances, and one of the 16,000 couples who got married today, the luckiest day of the year, or even the decade, since it is the eighth day of the eighth month of 2008. As everybody by now knows, the word for 8 in Chinese also means prosperity, and the 8 on its side is a symbol of infinity, which adds a nice transcendental touch.

Reporters on this evening’s bulletin were accompanied by cheerful youths speaking good English and saying how lucky they felt to be volunteers for the games; in an earlier report a delightful girl told the TVNZ front man he would need to lose some weight before being fit to walk the Great Wall. For their sakes, and for the sake of so many ordinary, nice Chinese people like them, I hope the Beijing games are a rip-roaring success.

An expat businessman based in China tells me that, despite a lot of grumbling among Beijingers about restrictions on their movements around the city, the mood on the eve of the games, even beyond Beijing, is overwhelmingly nationalistic. Locals may complain, but they fiercely resent the foreign media complaining on their behalf. Somehow this spirit of “keeping it in the family” seems to be the right one.

My feelings towards the Chinese are very like what I feel towards the Russians: they are people who have been terribly put-upon by their leaders in the last century, if not before. They have been bullied and starved and organised -- literally out of existence in millions of cases. And while such abuses are dissipating in China, they are by no means finished with, as Tibetans and their international supporters have made embarrassingly clear.

But the cultural autonomy of Tibet is not the only burning human rights issue in China and it is a pity that the international media have not paid more attention to the wider issue of religious freedom in the country -- the suppression of Roman Catholics and other Christians, for example -- and the grave abuse of human freedom, dignity and happiness that the population control policy represents. A booming economy, the transformation of Beijing and, no doubt, brilliant athletic performances at the games, only become truly nation-building when people are free. And that does not mean becoming just like us in the West. Let’s hope they can do better than the materialistic empire we are constructing for ourselves.

There has hardly been one story about the games this week that did not feature Beijing’s notorious smog -- as bad today on the eve of the games as it ever was, unfortunately. It strikes me as a kind of symbol of the intellectual pollution and suffocation arising from the country’s one-party system and its brand of materialism.

We in the West have our own intellectual smog, of course, and it was nowhere more in evidence this week than in Mexico City where the XVII International AIDS Conference has been taking place. This two-yearly talkfest has drawn around 22,000 delegates and consumed millions of dollars that could have been spent on anti-retroviral medicine (ARVs) for African children -- one of the groups getting less than their fair share of the drug therapy that prolongs the life of people with AIDS. There is only one way to have an Olympic Games and that is by foregathering at one place, but in a world where there is constant communication at all levels about AIDS, it is simply unnecessary for activists and experts to travel to some politically correct spot to push their barrows.

The fog that settles over all such discussions arises from a refusal to admit the true meaning of prevention in relation to this disease. Uganda in the 1990s showed exactly what it means: chastity, fidelity in marriage, partner reduction among the promiscuous. But in Mexico the big prevention hopes were wider use of ARVs, including in the form of a pill to be taken by uninfected people before sex, circumcision, and the ever-elusive vaccine against HIV. The issue of behaviour change -- “prevention’s orphan,” as The Economist admits -- was, as always, muddied by the inclusion of condoms.

Many people are sceptical about the Olympic Games being hosted in a repressive state like China. But I am more inclined to believe that China will change for the better as a result of these games than to hope for any positive outcome from the game of make-believe being played by the global AIDS movement.

Postscript: I did stay up for the opening ceremony and it was enthralling. Who can do fireworks like the Chinese? Who can train thousands of performers to act in unison so as to bring to life on a grand scale such inventions as gunpowder, paper and printing, or the era of the Silk Road or the Great Wall, and China’s apparent ambitions in space? Where else is the power to command and an ethos of submission to the common good so spectacular in its effects?

The submersion of the individual in China is too extreme, too forced, but there is a genuine value behind their idea of social harmony that they ought not to lose. Western individualism has run to seed, and we might just have something to learn from the Chinese about the value of working together.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet. She writes from Auckland, New Zealand.


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