Wednesday, August 27, 2008

What Did You See in Beijing?

The Beijing Olympics ended as a global public relations success. Everyone who watched filtered what they saw and heard through the prisms of their own experiences. From my experiences here in the United States and from my years in Taiwan I couldn’t help but watch with a cautious eye.

China went all out on the Olympics. The decision to award the games to China was made seven years ago, two months before 9/11.
Thomas Friedman talks about how China used those seven years:
China did not build the magnificent $43 billion infrastructure for these games, or put on the unparalleled opening and closing ceremonies, simply by the dumb luck of discovering oil. No, it was the culmination of seven years of national investment, planning, concentrated state power, national mobilization and hard work.
I don’t know if the Chinese actually succeeded in altering the weather for the games but they tried. I can imagine that they were a source of pride for Chinese as the Chinese news media reported, except of course for those who were moved out of their homes to make way for the games, the farmers who didn’t get water for their crops so Beijing would have enough, and for the few protesters that wanted to protest in the area designated for them but were refused or arrested for asking. Those folks probably didn’t feel much of a swelling chest of pride. All in all, I thought the television coverage by NBC was pretty fair, acknowledging China’s achievements and recognizing some of its warts.

The games themselves had their own stories. It is natural that NBC would feature U.S. participation. I suppose other nations did the same. The Chinese won the most gold medals. An interview with a Chinese professor said it well, “The Chinese teams were the best that money can buy.” That’s also an old American trait isn’t it? Speaking of American traits, I wasn’t surprised by the attention NBC gave to women’s beach volleyball, but I was surprised by the Chinese contribution of scantily-clad cheerleaders to accompany those events. I guess they didn’t want attention focused exclusively on the athletic achievements in the sand. The Chinese really went all out!

Friedman lets his mind wander from what he saw in Beijing to the United States:
As I sat in my seat at the Bird’s Nest, watching thousands of Chinese dancers, drummers, singers and acrobats on stilts perform their magic at the closing ceremony, I couldn’t help but reflect on how China and America have spent the last seven years: China has been preparing for the Olympics; we’ve been preparing for Al Qaeda. They’ve been building better stadiums, subways, airports, roads and parks. And we’ve been building better metal detectors, armored Humvees and pilotless drones.
Comparing the investment the Chinese made in national infrastructure in the past seven years compared to what the United States has not done, Friedman wonders who is living is a Third World Country.
Yes, if you drive an hour out of Beijing, you meet the vast dirt-poor third world of China. But here’s what’s new: The rich parts of China, the modern parts of Beijing or Shanghai or Dalian, are now more state of the art than rich America. The buildings are architecturally more interesting, the wireless networks more sophisticated, the roads and trains more efficient and nicer. And, I repeat, they did not get all this by discovering oil. They got it by digging inside themselves.
China’s putting it all together in such grand style will make it difficult for London and others to follow when they have the games. It is easier to do when you have the centralized authoritarian government that China does. It is not just that they are Communist. China has in its long history a tradition of such governments.

Now that the Olympics are over, one wonders if life will be any different in China. Will the people who had to move be helped to find other housing? Will farmers now get water for their crops? What will happen to all those who were detained? Will infrastructure construction move from the cities to the countryside? What now of Tibet? What of Taiwan?

My years in Taiwan gave me pause at how continental Chinese have viewed the island historically and the justifiably suspicious way
Taiwanese have viewed them. The Chinese have over a thousand missiles pointed at Taiwan, while at the same time preparing to send planeloads of Chinese tourists beginning in September visiting to Taiwan on a regular basis.

Friedman is impressed, as I am, with China’s economic progress and how they did it on their own. I wonder if he is as impressed with Taiwan. Although only 23 million people on an island about the size of Maryland and Delaware combined, as compared to China’s 1.3 billion people. Taiwan ranks 24th among the world economies.
Taiwan’s GNI per capita is $17,230 (U.S.) compared to China’s $1,740. Taiwan has achieved this as it became a genuine democracy over the last twenty years.

Taiwan is the kind of success story one would think that the U.S. government would applaud. The island nation has for all practical purposes been independent for half a century, but China regards it as a rebel region that must be reunited with the mainland - by force if necessary. So, we don’t hear any stories about the incredible growth of the Taiwan economy and its democratic government.
Jerome Keating puts it this way:
It is now over sixty years since the end of World War II and Taiwan has created for itself a vibrant democracy. Ironically while the US State Department willingly celebrates the democracy of Georgia and its independence from Russia, on the other hand it officially states that Taiwan's status is still "undetermined." It won't even touch Taiwan's independence from China. Undetermined, that is the answer you get when US state officials are deeply pressed. More often than not however, they mouth the mantra of "we have a one-China policy." It is a policy whose actual meaning is fully understood by only a few. In practice, the majority acquiesce to China's interpretation of what "one China" means. The media, in the USA and in the world are party to this acquiescence; few have the integrity to challenge this utterance.
We do well to reflect on the China we’ve witnessed over the past few weeks. We would also do well to focus some attention on Taiwan. Don’t count on NBC or any of the other networks to do it for you.

- Milo

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