The China Monologues

It comes around every four years, and while I usually have little interest in it, this year I’m paying close attention. Of course I’m talking about Leap Year.

No, just kidding. Leap Year is stupid. I’m talking about the Olympics, to be held this August in the Chinese capital of Beijing. For the average person, the Olympics are usually nothing more than an opportunity to develop a sudden, passionate interest in obscure sports, and to indulge in some good-natured nationalism. (You suck, Albania!) But this year, there is controversy! Due to a crazy quirk of procedural irregularities, the International Olympic Committee accidentally awarded the Games to a backward, secretive country that regularly murders its own citizens! Whoops!

Just like the Olympics themselves, China’s human rights violations are usually only interesting to the people involved. The rest of us are vaguely aware that something is going on, but we know that if we think about it, we’ll just feel guilty for not thinking more about it. So we don’t think about it at all, and we figure someone else will deal with it. It’s the same mindset that usually kept the kitchen trash in my college apartment piled several feet high.

But being granted the significant privilege of hosting the Olympics has brought the matter to the forefront. (The matter of human rights in China, I mean, not my kitchen trash.) The protesters who have previously been ignored as they chanted “Free Tibet!” on metropolitan street corners are suddenly being heeded. “Go on,” we are saying, now listening attentively. “Tell us more about this free Tibet you’re offering.”

The deal with Tibet is that China says it has always been at least the de facto ruler of that territory, while Tibet says not so fast, there have been plenty of times over the centuries when Tibet has been autonomous. In 1950, China, now all communist and mean, tried to settle the matter once and for all by invading Tibet, figuring that if they wouldn’t respond to reason and diplomacy, then perhaps a little killing would change their minds. The Chinese army shot a lot of people, tore down hundreds of religious structures, and strong-armed Tibetan leaders into signing a treaty that said, basically, “You belong to China now! Oh, and you always have. So there.” Frankly, China seems a bit like an abusive boyfriend who becomes a dangerous stalker after being dumped, shouting, “If I can’t have you, no one can!!” as police put him in the back of the squad car and ask Tibet if it has someplace safe it can stay tonight.

There are differing points of view on China’s right to control Tibet. Some say that for a comparatively weak territory like Tibet, there are advantages to being part of a larger and more powerful country. For example, Tibetans are entitled to discounts at all Chinese buffets worldwide. Others say that we’re talking about land and the earth here, and none of it truly “belongs” to any man-made government. And then others say shut up, you dirty hippies, it has to belong to SOMEBODY. And then the protesters point out that most Tibetans didn’t want Chinese rule in the first place, and that even if they did, they certainly didn’t sign up for all the executions and murders and kidnappings and general abuse that have been a major part of China’s leadership style. That part was a total bait-and-switch.

And of course, that’s just how China treats its occupied territories. Its treatment of its own citizens, in mainland China, is no better. They execute a lot of people over there, even more than Texas does, including for crimes as minor as embezzlement and tax fraud. Anyone speaking out against the government tends to be imprisoned or killed. China also cruelly forces its citizens to eat with chopsticks, rather than with the more efficient knife and fork. That is why Chinese people are so thin. That, and poverty.

But China is eager to change that nasty ol’ reputation! It wants to clear the air, so to speak. (Not literally: Beijing’s air is dangerously polluted and will be a serious health hazard for the athletes.) The reason Chinese leaders wanted to host the Olympics in the first place was so they could show the world how modern, progressive, and easy-going they are. The Olympics are supposed to be fun, after all. To that end, Beijing is forcibly displacing as many as 1 million of its residents to make room for the Games, and local laws will banish the homeless and mentally ill from the city. See? Fun! The official slogan of the Beijing Olympics: “Come and enjoy yourself … OR WE WILL CRUSH YOU.”

Because of all this, many people are opposed to the Games being held in China and are calling for boycotts. It does seem a little incongruous to let China host an event that’s meant to be in the spirit of peaceful camaraderie among nations, and doing so could be seen as tacit endorsement of China’s behavior — or, at the very least, as indicating that China’s egregious misdeeds aren’t awful enough to warrant punishment. You have to wonder why the International Olympic Committee awarded Beijing the Games in the first place. The decision was made in 2001, and it’s not like China was a land of rainbows and buttercups then. The IOC should have said, “Now, China, if you want to host the Olympics, first you have to stop KILLING EVERYONE.” Then China would have looked down and shuffled its feet and said, “Aw, gee, guys.” And then, just when the IOC wasn’t looking, China would have killed them.

Alas, it’s too late for that. The IOC did award the Games to Beijing, and there’s nothing that can be done about that now. So should individual nations refuse to participate in the Games? That’s a tough one. No one wants to support China in anything. Their government is secretive and their laws are draconian. The toys they manufacture poison our children. Their virtual-gold farmers corrupt the sanctity of the World of Warcraft environment. They have that crazy system where their first and last names are reversed, so that when you see a Chinese name you’re never sure which one is the family name and which one is the individual name. Nobody wants to endorse that kind of behavior.

But if nations were to boycott the Games, it would be unfair to the athletes. With a lot of these sports, there’s a very narrow window of opportunity. For example, in 2004, an up-and-coming gymnast might have been only 12 years old and not ready for Olympic competition. Now, she’s 16 and ready to go for the gold — but if she skips this year and waits for 2012, then she’ll be 20, which is like 80 in gymnast years. She’ll be washed up and appearing on “Dancing with the Stars.” It’s now or never.

Many other athletes have been waiting their whole lives, too. There are world-class ping pong players who have dreamed since childhood of competing in the Olympics. They have trained and practiced tirelessly, ignoring the friends and family who kept telling them that ping pong wasn’t a sport and shouldn’t even be in the Olympics, and that they were stupid for wasting their time. Do you want to be the one to tell those poor saps that their friends were right? I know I don’t.

So for better or worse, it’ll be a Chinese Olympics this year. Beijing is ready. The Chinese have been practicing their fire drills, which it turns out are quite different from what I thought, and they’ve beefed up security. (All they had before was that really long wall, which anyone with a ladder could get past.) I say we should give China the same benefit of the doubt that the world gave Salt Lake City back in 2002: We’ll give ’em a chance to prove they’re not as hilariously backwards as everyone thinks … and then we’ll get the hell out of there before they kill us all.

When I mentioned the Dalai Lama being given the Congressional Gold Medal back in October, I said: "Apparently the U.S. has been wanting to give the Dalai Lama this award for a while but didn't want to upset China, which kind of hates His Holiness and is bitter about the whole Tibet thing, which is a very complicated and thorny issue that I don't feel like going to Wikipedia to learn more about." And now, coincidentally, the subject has come up again, and I went ahead and did some learning. (I was kind of kidding before about not knowing anything about it.) By the way, this page does a really good job of summarizing China's and Tibet's opposing points of view, if you're interested in that sort of thing.

Doing a column about China means trying to come up with all the stereotypical Chinese things to make jokes about, e.g., Chinese fire drills, buffets, etc. It crossed my mind to suggest that after we have the Chinese Olympics we'll be hungry again for more Olympics an hour later, but it seemed too obvious.

SnideCast intro & outro: "Chopsticks Mambo," Jack Constanzo & His Afro Cuban Band.