Tuesday, August 5, 2008

the mood with just three days left

After seven years of construction and hype, it's hard to believe that the Games will finally be here in just three days. As we go down the home stretch, it's interesting to compare the mood internationally with that here within China.

Internationally, the overarching tone is one of question-filled tension, as if there are all these coiled springs here in Beijing, and everyone is just waiting to see which one is released first. Many Western media articles, as well as my friends and family, simply seem to be wondering out loud, musing on any of a number of topics:

- Will China's temporary environmental measures work?
- What will China's reaction to protests on its own soil be?
- Will the Games be safe and secure, given Beijing's unprecedented focus and expenditure on security? (Side question: is the extreme security justified by the threat, or simply an excuse for the Chinese government to increase surveillance and controls on its own people?)
- What will foreigner visitors think of the "sanitized" Beijing, one in which the taxi drivers speak English, dog is not served on menus, everyone queues properly, and no one spits?

On the whole, with regard to many of these questions, George Vecsey summarizes, "China sought these Games as a major step in its coming-out party, and now China will be tested in front of the world." So now the big question is, will China pass?

Of course, pervading so much of the asking of these questions internationally is an overall pessimistic tone, and sense that China may not pass the test. Over the weekend, one of CNN's home page leading headlines was, "Pollution, Internet, doping dominate Olympics lead-up." Everyone has the coiled springs under a microscope, watching for signs of movement.

In Western conversations, it seems to me that the myriad questions being asked, the anticipation, the anxiety, the sense that any stability is tenuous and any successes short-lived - all of it boils down to the fact that so many see these Olympics as a chance to have a referendum on China as a whole. I think this quote in a recent New York Times letter by Tom Scocca is a good summary:
...the underlying, animating question (or problem): is China fit to host the Summer Olympics? For some segments of the West, it can be answered by a simple syllogism: the Olympics are good. China is bad. China should not host the Olympics.

Like an expandable roller bag, that conclusion can be unzipped to hold whatever ideology you’d like to carry along in it: anti-Communism, democracy, Tibetan independence, press freedom, environmentalism, workers’ rights, Internet openness, Darfur.
Take your pick of the above issues. Each one is all over the news and conversations in the West, and so often accompanied by the simple concluding question, "How will the Olympics affect _____?"

Whereas the mood internationally is dominated by questions of politics and the environment, here in China, as one would expect, the mood is quite different. In my experience, there has been a slow and gradual shifting in mood over the last six or eight months.

At the beginning of this year, there seemed to be a combination of blind optimism and unspecific hope for the Olympics; when I asked my colleague in January what his biggest concern for the Olympics was, he thought for a long time but couldn't think of a single response. Similarly, in this video shot in February and posted on Time's China blog, many Chinese responded to the question of, "What's your biggest hope for 2008" simply with, "That China host the Olympics well," though with few specifics of what defines "well."

From March to May, though, there was a marked shift in China's mood. A series of negative events in China (Tibetan uprising, torch protests internationally, Sichuan earthquake, and others) left many Chinese feeling like victims, and I think suddenly there was a very real sense that perhaps something could go wrong in August as well. Surging nationalism encouraged China to stay strong in the face of such disasters; in May I was invited by a Chinese friend to join a Facebook group called "2008 China Hold On!" whose description reads, in part:
we have been expecting the great Olympics for years, but now when it is coming to us in 3 months, my country and our government are facing unexpected natural disasters and worldwide politcial challenges...

as a local Beijing person, I worried for such situation, while at the same time, i have condifence in our government. i am sure they can overcome all these difficulties and show the world how great and strong China is.
(I declined to join the group.)

Without the ability to predict or control natural disasters, China's fear of failure became more and more specifically focused on the fear of terrorism or vindictive sabotage. The response: increased security.

The impacts of the added security went much further than just inconvenience (three personal impacts: now having to send all bags through an x-ray before boarding the subway, having to show ID every time I enter my work complex, and being frisked three times recently before being allowed to enter a bar). The increased security was accompanied by an increased paranoia on the part of the Chinese that a terrorist attack might occur. In June, I asked all of my colleagues their biggest hope for the upcoming Olympics. In contrast to the responses from similar questions earlier in the year, this time about half of them said their only hope was for a peaceful, safe, and secure Olympics. (The other half hoped that they wouldn't have to work during the Games.) The fear of a terrorist attack or other deliberate disruption seemed acute and widespread. A few colleagues even mentioned leaving Beijing out of fear that it wouldn't be safe to stay here.

But over the last few weeks, it seems to me, the mood here within China has shifted again, this time away from one of paranoia about security and back to one of optimism, pride, and hope. Aided by the Olympic banners and Chinese flags that have gone up all over the city as well as the ever-optimistic state media, I think the mood here is positive, confident, and celebratory that China overcame so many obstacles and is ready, finally, to welcome the world.

I'll conclude with a telling example. Last weekend, at the exact same time that CNN featured the home page headline claiming pollution, censorship, and doping were dominating the Olympics lead-up, China Daily's home page led with the hard-hitting, "Rogge: Beijing Olympic Village is best ever." In light of this, I think a more accurate headline for CNN probably would have been, "Pollution, Internet, doping dominate Western media coverage about Olympics lead-up; China confident and patting themselves on the back."

Photo credits - 1: China Daily; 2: Boston.com, via The Beijinger.


DH said...

Vance, Interesting observation in terms of the media portrayal of the Olympics in China and abroad. I've read some disturbingly anti-Chinese comments on news blogs re: Beijing hosting the Games. One comment I've seen over and over: "The Olympics should only be held in civilized countries." (Emphasis added.) I doubt anyone of that mindset will ever visit China and see for themselves how amazing it is there, but I think it lends weight to your argument that Western perception of everything happening is highly influenced by the tone and content of the media narrative.

mw said...

Very insightful, but surely there are a few other folks like me who are just simply excited about the games (any olympics are exciting) for the opportunity for both China and the world to know one another. I am not the only one left living who remembers the Munich olympics with a chill in my heart, so increased security is a good thing, not a bad thing, no matter which country is hosting. And of course if one more person says to me, the air is so bad there, they never should have allowed china to host the olympics, I am going on a shooting spree.

Where is the joy of the olympics in all the western press? We on the outside should have the grace to be honored that China has prepared such a glorious red carpet for us and accept this gift with the good manners our mothers taught us. I too observe the juxtaposition of headlines from both sides every day and am tired of the west's raining on my parade of looking forward to the olympics. I am far from a superficial person, so my feelings are not meant to display ignorance of some of the realities being faced here. I only want the olympics to succeed - in every way - and someone out there needs to adopt a posiitve attitude; thinking negatively makes negative things happen.

So it's time to party down, compete hardily, and share graciously. China has welcomed us - why can't we just accept the invitation?

Rob said...

Well, I hope to see some review on your site of these questions. But I guess we have to say that by most measures, China passed, and passed in a big way.

Even if there are many issues that remain unanswered or that might be cause for concern, I think the perception of China has shifted, which allows outsiders to empathize more with Chinese people, and thus not respond as positively to the open criticism that has until up to the Olympics been taken almost as gospel.

Will this change the way China needs to be engaged to continue improvement?

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