Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Opening Ceremony, the Olympic Ideal and the Real World

The Opening Ceremony for the Beijing Olympics was a breathtaking and beautiful tribute to the highest hopes of the human spirit and a marvel of precise technical and artistic execution. The Opening Ceremony detailed important moments in Chinese history, conveyed the message that China is at its best when its society is open to the world and stressed the importance of harmony/balance for individuals and for humanity's relationship with the delicate ecology of Earth. In short, the Opening Ceremony perfectly embodied the best aspects of the Olympic Ideal. However, any sensitive, thinking and aware person cannot help but be disturbed by the huge contrast between the themes of the Opening Ceremony and the reality of life not just in China but throughout the world.

China has constructed magnificent facilities to house the Beijing Olympics but in the process the government forcibly evicted many of its citizens from their homes with little or no compensation. It is wonderful to speak of harmony/balance but China's commercial and industrial activities have literally poisoned the air in Beijing and created a very real health risk. While China has spared no expense to put on a great show, millions of her people have to survive on the equivalent of a few dollars a day. This is actually quite typical conduct for a totalitarian regime: Nazi Germany tried to impress the world by the way that it hosted the 1936 Olympics and for decades the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries attempted to "prove" the superiority of communism by winning the most Olympic medals, trying to distract attention from their failing economies, repression of dissent/free speech and numerous human rights violations.

China has ruled Tibet with an iron hand for 58 years, causing much suffering and refusing to allow Tibetans to exercise the freedoms that we take for granted in the United States. China refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the democratically elected government of the Republic of China (Taiwan); you may have noticed during the Opening Ceremony that the delegation from Taiwan was required to refer to itself as "Chinese Taipei" and forbidden to wave its national flag during the March of Nations; the delegation carried generic Olympic flags instead.

China's repressive domestic and regional policies are disturbing enough but China is also actively involved in supporting the actions of other totalitarian regimes around the world. A recent report by the New America Foundation states that China is the "most egregious violator" of the worldwide arms embargo against Sudan, a country ruled by an Islamic extremist government that is committing genocide against its non-Muslim population. China is not only virtually singlehandedly arming the Janjaweed group that is carrying out Sudan's murderous policies but China is also heavily involved with Sudan's oil industry. The New America Foundation report describes China as "the supplier of last resort for dictators and human rights abusers," citing China's military exports to Zimbabwe, Myanmar and rebel groups in Congo.

Any hope that the Olympics could provide some respite from the troubles of the real world was horrifyingly shattered when a knife wielding assailant killed the father in law of the coach of the U.S. men's volleyball team, stabbed two other people--inflicting life threatening wounds on the murder victim's wife--and then committed suicide by jumping out of a window. The attacker's motives are unknown but just two days before the Opening Ceremony the Turkistan Islamic Party released a video containing threats about terrorist attacks during the Olympics, including suicide attacks; that group has claimed responsibility for several recent terrorist attacks in China.

Thankfully, there has not been any physical violence within the Olympic venues but the Iranian delegation committed a flagrant and disgraceful desecration of the Olympic Ideal by refusing to let an Iranian swimmer compete against an Israeli swimmer. This is not the first time that the Iranian delegation has been guilty of this kind of misconduct and it really raises the question of whether Iran should be permitted to send a delegation to the Olympics at all. By not setting and enforcing standards of proper conduct, the international community gives a free pass to the very people who seek to destroy any hope of turning the Olympic Ideal into a reality.

During ancient times, the Greek city states enacted a truce during the Olympics but in the modern world the opposite is the case: a bloody conflict in the former Soviet republic of Georgia began on the eve of the Olympics, has reportedly already claimed at least 2000 lives and could very well escalate into a full fledged regional war.

Yes, it was breathtaking and inspiring to see the lighting of the Olympic torch. Yao Ming said that he was moved to tears and it is easy to understand why--but while the torch serves as a beacon of hope for what humanity is capable of at its best, real flames of death are burning around the world.

It is all too easy to spout trite sayings about how these Olympics could be a springboard to making the world a better place or that the symbolism employed during the Opening Ceremony represents a message of hope from China to the world, a signal of China's benign intentions. Unfortunately, many people thought exactly the same way about the 1936 Olympics, only to receive a rude awakening very quickly.

I'm not saying that people should not enjoy the tremendous competition taking place during the Olympics; I watched several events on Saturday and in just a few hours I will be watching intently--and then writing about--the basketball game between Team USA and China. However, at some point, in some way, we--humankind--have to really consider what we are doing to each other and to this planet. Some commentators gloss over the differences between China and the United States as "cultural misunderstandings" but it goes a lot deeper than that. The United States is a democracy that upholds freedom of speech and freedom of religion; despite a political discourse that is at times equally bitter and tawdry, there are regularly scheduled elections in the United States and an orderly transfer of power when incumbent politicians are voted out of office. China is a totalitarian country that ruthlessly suppresses free speech and the free exercise of religion. The United States is not perfect by any means but there is a big difference between a free, open society and a closed, repressive society--and that is why millions of people risk their lives to try to come to the United States in order to escape from totalitarian countries.

For those of us who are blessed to live in safety and comfort in the United States, it is all too easy to speak empty phrases about "cultural misunderstandings" but China's policies--and the policies of other totalitarian regimes--are a matter of life and death for millions of people in China, Tibet, Sudan and countless other countries. There is a temptation to close one's heart and mind to problems halfway around the world and turn our attention inward but Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sagely observed, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." That statement is a philosophical truth, a prophecy--and a warning.

Simon Wiesenthal survived the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust and could have resumed his career as an architect but instead he devoted the rest of his life to bringing Nazi war criminals to justice. He explained his life choice this way: "When we come to the other world and meet the millions of Jews who died in the camps and they ask us, 'What have you done?' there will be many answers. You will say, 'I became a jeweler.' Another will say, 'I smuggled coffee and American cigarettes.' Still another will say, 'I built houses,' but I will say, 'I didn't forget you.'"

What will we say to the victims of today's atrocities?


Anonymous said...

I was extremely disturbed at the jack booted goose stepping army guards raising the flags. I need not mention why.

David Friedman said...


That kind of display has long been a central part of ceremonies in many communist and totalitarian countries.