China’s Sporting Spirit
Beijing, the city where I live and work, is now in a period of frantic preparation for the opening of the Olympic Games on August 8. Perhaps because almost all sports bore me to tears, I look at the Olympics as a period of temporary madness that humans go through at precise four-year intervals, not unlike a U.S. election campaign. I can only agree with George Orwell, who in his essay “The Sporting Spirit” seemed baffled by
…nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe – at any rate for short periods – that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue.
China has worked itself not so much into a fury as into a lather of anticipation. In recent weeks, various Olympic-themed decorations have appeared (see photo), new subway lines have opened, and the informal streetside economy of pedlars and vegetable-sellers has been sharply curtailed. Canadians who visit Beijing for the Olympics will find a city that is tidier and more user-friendly than the one I’ve come to know since I moved here last October, but the bustling spontaneity of the place has suffered slightly as a result.
It’s easy to understand why Beijing is taking its role as host so seriously. This is China’s great chance to impress the world, following a long period of relative isolation. Equally, many activists in the west make no secret of their desire to spoil China’s party with disruptive protests. Some world leaders have been publicly agonising over whether or not to attend the opening ceremonies, balancing worries over Tibet and Darfur against friendship with China. (Stephen Harper will not be going, but then, Canadian Prime Ministers traditionally do not attend anyway.)
In my opinion, all the criticism is beginning to sound a bit mean-spirited. Of course there are areas of friction, but they should not overshadow China’s recent accomplishments. In the past 150 years, China has experienced extremes of brutality, humiliation and deprivation that would be difficult for many Canadians to imagine. To have risen above these historical vicissitudes to become an economic powerhouse with a credible space program is a spectacular achievement. In September we can go back to geopolitics as usual, but meanwhile China deserves a round of sincere and uncritical applause. The Olympics, trivial as they may seem to curmudgeons like myself, are an appropriate occasion.