The summer Olympics of 2008 are now underway in Beijing (at least, I think they are...I always get confused by that International Date Line thing). The athletes are there (at least, the ones that were politically safe enough to get visas), the journalists are there (at least, the ones who have agreed to play by the rules), and tens of thousands of security people are there (to defend against terrorists, criminals, demonstrators, and those who would spit on the street).
For good or ill, it's China's time to shine. How much tarnish is on that shine will be pretty much up to the Chinese government. No one can argue that China hasn't pulled out all the stops to try and put on a fabulous event, just as any nation does when it sponsors the Olympic games...but for China, this is a particularly important event because - as every news report in the last six months reminds us - it's their opportunity to show the rest of the world that China has "arrived on the world stage."
The massive construction effort has transformed old Beijing, and the vast social reeducation of the population (be polite, don't demonstrate, don't spit on the street, take English lessons, etc) has aimed to produce the face of the "harmonious society" the Chinese government wants to show the world. How well it will all work remains to be seen.
There was a very interesting article by John Kamm in yesterday's Washington Post titled "Blinded by the Firewall: Why the Chinese Think the World Loves China" that is worth reading. The article summarizes the results of surveys by the Pew Research Center that looked at perceptions of China on the part of the Chinese, and on the part of persons in other countries. Those results are instructive for understanding modern China and why the Chinese act and react the way they do.
The key quote from the article is this: "Essentially, the people of China think twice as many people in the world like their country as actually do. This isn't a gap; it's a chasm. And the information bubble around the Chinese people explains a lot."
While China's government is far less draconian than in times past, it is still rigidly authoritarian and intent on maintaining the ruling primacy of the Chinese Communist Party. One way of ensuring that primacy is the control and manipulation of the information the Chinese people receive about the world around them. From state management of news broadcasts to the massive filtering of the internet known as "The Great Firewall of China," the Chinese people are exposed to a highly skewed view of the world that in turn skews their perception of how the rest of the world thinks of China. The result, Mr Kamm's article suggests, is the frequent outbursts of jingoistic national pride at the least suggestion that China might be in the wrong on any issue. Americans have come to grips with the sad fact that our image in much of the rest of the world has been badly damaged by the present administration, and there's widespread recognition that we need to fix that problem. The average Chinese person, on the other hand, has no idea that China is anything but wholeheartedly loved and admired by the rest of the world...and any hint that it isn't is despicable anti-Chinese agitation aimed at "humiliating" China and keeping it from its rightful place in the modern world.
Read the article - it gives you a useful perspective on modern China, and will open your eyes to the danger of over-management of the news and the pernicious effects of hearing only what someone wants you to hear. And it bears out Bilbo's First Law - don't let anyone do your thinking for you.
Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.