Post Olympic Prospects
Cleaning up after the party often reveals a lot, and the world situation post Beijing Olympics is no exception. Let’s start with China, not forgetting, however, that the unexpected Georgia crisis effectively drove the Olympic events out of the headlines.
The story-board before the games began was essentially this: long humiliated and poor, China is announcing her return to the world stage in style, with the most lavish Olympics ever staged, featuring venues of the purest ultra-modern architecture, a multi media opening that will outshine anything seen before, the deployment for the first time of superb Chinese athletic talent garnering more gold medals than anyone, foreign heads of state making the trip who conspicuously had scheduling conflicts when it came to Athens--and lest anyone see it all as orchestrated or regimented, the whole package done up in the finest human rights rhetoric, with promises of full internet access and even an officially recognized right to protest.
What did we get in fact? The world leaders were there as promised and the architecture was as advertised. But we learned that the televised opening fireworks were in part computer simulated (a year of work) and that the cute little girl who sang at the ceremony had been lip-synching for another, whose voice was better, but whose face -- this decision was made at the Politburo, which is to say Cabinet level -- was not sufficiently perfect to represent the Ancestral Country (her two front teeth were not quite right; I thought she was adorable). We learned that almost certainly the Chinese authorities falsified the age of at least one gymnastics competitor. As for the freedom, foreign reporters were roughed up, Chinese treated worse, and iTunes was shut down for selling an album of pro-Tibet songs by international pop stars.
Of course some of the athletic performances were stunning and that is supposed to be the point. But it is not my point. What struck me about the Olympics was not the way they presented a confident new China striding boldly onto the world stage, but rather the way they disclosed the fear, ubiquitous fear-- of foreigners, of Chinese, of imperfect teeth spoiling an effect -- a fear that pervaded both the preparation and the execution of the Olympics. That fear tells me more about what China is really like than do a thousand marchers waving flags in perfect synchrony.
Clearly the Chinese authorities had no confidence that the Games would go just fine if left alone and managed, say, as the Greeks ran theirs. If someone had run up a Turkish Cypriot flag in front of the cameras at the Greek Olympics (who knows? maybe someone did?) the government would not have panicked and sent dozens of police pronto to fight their way through the crowds and remove it immediately in a nasty brawl. It might have disappeared at some point, but the effect would have been confidence, not terror.
With respect to Tibet, the Chinese fear was that somehow any mention of this their conquered and subjugated territory, might spark uncontrollable events-as nearly happened until the Sichuan earthquake shifted attention. Now we learn that the monasteries are being cleansed for the umpteenth time. Readers should understand that if Tibet were a western country; if Germany, say, had wrought the kind of cultural and demographic destruction on France that China has on Tibet (only a handful of the original 3,000 ancient lamaseries survive; the rest were taken down during the Cultural Revolution) the words “democide” and “cultural genocide” would be used to describe the atrocity. Tibet, however, is small and far away and has people of light coffee complexion, so the powers -- including India and the United States -- have all acquiesced in China’s invasion, occupation, and cultural destruction of the country beginning in the 1950s. The story, however, is by no means over.
More worrying than Tibet was East Turkistan,a territory likewise annexed at horrific military cost by the Manch Qing empire which ruled much of East Asia, including China, from the beginning of the seventeenth century to the beginning of the twentieth. The Manchus carefully excluded Chinese from the land they called Xinjiang [“New Dominion”] but in the twentieth century, Chinese in migration began, and under the Communists mosques were knocked down like lamaseries in Tibet, and Islam persecuted, leading to bitter resentment. The Islamic people of today’s China’s occupied Turkic territory have none of the pacifistic traditions of the Tibetans. The Turks managed to kill more than a dozen Chinese police during the Olympics in one town in the far west; they may have been behind explosions elsewhere, and rumor has it that a truck filled with explosive driven by Turks was intercepted in Shanghai. But for the moment the Turks under Chinese occupation have not managed to match the gruesome achievements laid at the doorstep of their Chechen colleagues in Russia.
(I say “laid at the doorstep” because many Russians believe that at least some “Chechen” terrorism is in fact the work of the Russian secret police. Likewise, in China, clear evidence exists that official media and police organizations are attempting to build up an “Islamic threat” to China, in order to obtain American and other foreign assistance. Access to good information is extremely difficult in both cases, so we must make our judgments with caution, aware of potential deception and media manipulation).
Official fear, however, extended to the very Chinese people themselves. Many people whom the government did not trust were turfed out of their homes in Beijing for the duration; others were not allowed in. The arrival of the Olympic Torch in the capital of China itself was hidden by a ruse from a crowd of ordinary people chanting patriotic slogans as they waited to greet it -- the convoy carrying the sacred flame sped past them into the closed precincts of the Temple of Heaven for an officials-only party. Although tickets to the Olympics were officially sold out, masses of empty seats could be seen at many events. The joke (?) was that most attendees were members of the People’s Armed Police (the militia created after 1989 to crush domestic trouble) and their families.
Add this to all we know about the fundamental problems that the Chinese authorities must soon confront -- ranging from political participation to fundamental economic weaknesses to an unfolding environmental disaster -- and one senses that the whole show was at best a bluff and one that failed. Revealing, in the sorts of details I have mentioned above, just how terrified Beijing is that one little pebble will come loose and trigger an avalanche. Normal, confident countries having legitimate governments and populations that may gripe but that are basically satisfied simply don’t understand that kind of fear.
Now add the unpleasantness in Georgia. Chinese thought places an undue emphasis on psychological factors as opposed to actual facts. Hence the concepts in personal life of “face”—social dominance--and in international relations of wei 威 “awesomeness.” The Olympics were a spectacle designed to impress and overawe the rest of the world with the latent might of the New China--not athletic, but rather geopolitical might,
Enter the Russians. Shortly before the Olympics the Chinese released a statement about their army. Their national character, it stated, dictated a Chinese army bigger than either the Indian or the Japanese--but smaller than the American. Not mentioned at all were the Russians: the assumption seems to have been that they ceased to be a contender in 1991. But right in the middle of the Olympics Russian tanks -- real tanks with real soldiers, firing real shells and in some cases being gutted by real Georgian anti-tank weapons -- rolled into a former occupied territory of the USSR, and they are still there.
The Chinese, it suddenly became clear, were mostly effect; they were very good at talk, but the last time they invaded a foreign country was Vietnam in 1979, where they were humiliated. Most since has been firepower displays, table pounding, equipment build-ups, nibbles at coral reefs, and attempted intimidation of government forces in India’s northeast--but not actual fighting. This is not to say that China is not in fact a formidable and dangerous military power. The point is that out of nowhere came a Russian army that marched into the Caucasus, killing people, an iron fisted display that would have swept the gold medals in the Olympic military invasion event, if one existed, leaving Chinese looking limp-wristed.
All of this signaled a major shift in international politics, to be treated in subsequent columns. China remains an enormously rich, populous, and strongly armed country having quarrels of one sort or another with a good half dozen neighbors at least. For years Russia has been neglected (what is the last really good book on contemporary Russia that you know of ?), while “the rise of China” has served as theme for endless books and articles and television shows, not to mention interminable meetings not only at America’s many think tanks and universities but also at the White House.
Now Russia is back, greatly complicating things as I pointed out last week. Russia’s population is to be sure not growing. Her economy is increasingly based on oil. Her military is not all spit and polish. But to be fair, the city of Moscow is on the way to becoming one of the most beautiful capitals in the world, as the Soviet grime is scraped off the old buildings and the churches restored and their domes re-gilded. The iron fist of Russia’s military, regularly underestimated in centuries past only to be vindicated in battle, however, is clearly visible again. The alarm this sudden revelation has caused in America is clear in a New York Times article on August 22 that can only be called panicky: “US Sees Much to Fear in a Hostile Russia”.
How true those words are. To them can be added “a hostile China.” But while China has been all show and no go. Russia is already rolling. These developments up end the foreign consensus that has dominated the American policy elite since the end of the Cold War. They present a new and unexpected set of possible problems. Most importantly, perhaps, they change the way we have assessed ourselves and Russia and China.
In retrospect, then, the Beijing Olympics are turning out to be a revelation but not at all of the sort planned. The Chinese spectacle was sufficiently blemished by lies, misrepresentations, and cheating to vitiate its initial purpose, which was to overwhelm psychologically. Instead of doing that it revealed the weakness -- the underlying fear and sense of vulnerability of the Chinese regime.
More than that, during the period when the world was supposed to be holding its breath watching gymnastics, old-fashioned big power politics stirred back into life. The Russian invasion of Georgia was to be sure no carefully planned, well-oiled or decisive operation. It was, however, genuinely violent, and illegal under international law--which, the international community demonstrated mattered made not a bit of difference. The new player on the world stage in August 2008 was not China but Russia.
To sum up, we may perhaps designate with the following terms what we really saw during the Olympics and the period following. From China: fraud and fear. From the West: weakness and unpreparedness. And from Russia: guts. As the late columnist Joseph Alsop was fond of observing, “hard cuts soft.”