China, the Olympics, and what it all means

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Commentary: Andy Scott

Tomorrow will mark one year until the Beijing Olympics. The games, which have been called everything from China’s great coming-out party to the genocide Olympics, will undoubtedly put the country under a media spotlight the likes of which most people living here have never seen.

Officials have been scrambling to make sure it all goes off without a hitch, from practicing clearing the gridlocked streets of the capital city to revoking draconian press laws. A 24/7 bonanza of construction-meets-the-eye in a city where once the bicycle ruled, and critics of all stripes are finding it relatively easy to find something wrong with Beijing’s Olympic push, be it environmentalists, capitalists, or Marxists. Foreign companies are chomping at the bit for a piece of the pie, Chinese companies are marketing themselves crazy and Liu Xiang is smiling and cashing his checks.

For those of us in China, it’s sometimes hard to think of a world that doesn’t hang on every Ministry of Commerce news release or China stock fluctuation. And while most American’s can be seen as caring more about Iraq and the state of infrastructure in their home state, and Europeans are caught up in an ugly debate over an EU with Turkey as a member, the amount of world attention that China has garnered in the past several months has tended to be towards the negative; lax standards for food and toys, kiln slavery scandals, an undervalued RMB. That is all about to change.

The Olympics will open China to the world, but not in the way that most are thinking. Sure there will be an NBC-sponsored tour of the Forbidden City, the intrepid feature producer who sends their reported into a hutong for a glimpse of regular Beijing city life. Reporters will take the opportunity to travel to the middle of the country, returning dirty and dazed from places most people – even Chinese – have never heard of. China will officially be declared to have opened to the world. But despite all the spin and hoopla, all those big GDP growth percentages and shiny new skyscrapers, China is still very much a developing nation in the mold of India and South America. But even that sounds like a cliché these days, as it has been too often used as an excuse by this minister or that minister.

The Olympics are unlikely to shed new light on the search for “real China.” The story of China is not in the capital or in the booming financial districts of Shanghai and Shenzhen. It’s also not inside the walls of Zhongnanhai, despite what Xinhua may say. The story of China is not the rising middle class – they tend to live in the developed east coast, have money, and unfortunately the bad habits of those who are new to wealth. The story of China is also not the coal workers who die on an average of 13 per day – their deaths so routine that double digit tragedies read like weather reports. It’s not the get-rich-quick-grannies with their life savings invested in the bullish stock markets of Shanghai and Shenzhen, or the 1,000 news cars that hit the streets of Beijing daily. It’s not the increasingly assertive foreign policy, nor its pollution-prone waterways.

The story of China is none of these things, and it’s all of these things. That is the story; it’s too complex for a BBC vignette, too big for a CBS live feed, too unwieldy for one New York Times series, too disparate for another “China book.” So then, what will the Olympics bring? An understanding that China no longer exists in a vacuum; that it is no longer “over there,” and it’s not about to change anytime soon. As James Fallows says in his latest Atlantic Monthly article, “If a country does not like the terms of its business dealings with the world, it needs to change its own policies, not expect the world to change.”