It doesn’t matter whether we “want” the Olympics to succeed by mattsteinglass
July 28, 2008, 6:00 pm
Filed under: China

James Fallows, one of the world’s great journalists, writes that we ought to be rooting for the Olympics to succeed, not fail, because failure will just lead to angry, xenophobic Chinese recriminations against foreigners who wish China ill. I don’t think this is quite the right way to phrase things. The thing is, it doesn’t matter whether we “want” the Olympics to succeed or not: pollution in Beijing will either clear up or it won’t, the internet will either run at an acceptable speed despite censorship firewalls or it won’t, etc. What we foreigners can control is our reaction to these events.

Of course it doesn’t make sense to hope that the Olympics go badly. Think about it: the Chinese are resentful of “foreigners who wish China ill.” Well, if you’re hoping the Olympics go badly, then you are quite literally a foreigner who wishes China ill, and in your case Chinese resentment isn’t xenophobic, it’s just accurate. But let’s assume that we hope in all honesty that China will handle the Games well. How then shall we react if it doesn’t? Let’s say the air quality index is consistently over 100, unacceptable. Should athletes muzzle their complaints? Should Western commentators keep it quiet? What if China pressures Western networks to shut up about the smog, lest they be summarily kicked out of the Games or suffer unnamed future retaliation in the Chinese market. Is this acceptable, in the name of preserving Chinese popular good will towards foreigners? What about internet firewall problems? If journalists cannot access the website of the BBC or other critical media while working, should they keep quiet about it? If foreigners find they are hassled by police for their papers and visas, should they suppress this news? In the name of international harmony?

I don’t think such self-censorship would be good, and I don’t think it’s possible. There will be 22,000 journalists in Beijing next week. There is no way to shut up a journalistic mob of that size, each clambering over the next to get the story. China decided to invite the world in, to host the Olympics, in the expectation that it would receive a big boost in global respect and affection. It is about to find out what happens when you invite the world in. If Chinese don’t want foreigners viewing their country with a critical eye, they should kick the foreigners out. But you can’t throw an event to win the world’s respect and affection, screw up the event, and then complain that the world is biased against you.

Except, of course, that reports of any problems with the Olympics in terms of air quality should also talk about the infrastructural wonders Beijing has wrought over the last 6 years in preparing for the games. It’s not fair to talk about the air pollution and ignore the two new subway lines, miles of parks, incredible sports architecture, etc.

Add: Since Andrew Sullivan linked to this and it’s getting a lot of views, I just wanted to re-emphasize that last point: China really has worked infrastructural wonders in preparation for the Games. If a bias develops in overall coverage towards emphasizing the air quality problems and ignoring the extraordinary preparations China’s made, that would be wrong. Athens didn’t build two new subway lines for the ’04 Games. What I’m saying is that it would also be wrong to suppress any complaints about the Beijing Games.


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[…] perhaps, the press? There will be 22,000 journalists in Beijing next week. There is no way to shut up a journalistic […]

Pingback by The Crossed Pond » China Opens the Door to The Mob

As one of those 22,000 members of the media – albeit, a resident one – my hope is that the incoming press corps doesn’t just focus on the current state of Chinese human/economic/press rights. But, instead, takes a longer view of the current situation, in the context of 10, 20, 30 years of development. I’m no apologist, but I’ve been in shanghai six years, and I’ve had more than my share of government hassles – but also, I must admit, enough perspective to recognize that this country is more complex than what its foreign critics suggest.

Comment by elemitnal

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