Shiny Olympics shouldn't disguise China's dark reality

Published in Turkish Daily News, 1 September

I still remember the inquisitive looks of the Chinese students who listened carefully to a presentation I gave on Turkey while I was doing a course at a university in central China. Following a few relatively legitimate questions, one postgraduate student left me answerless (if there is such a word in English). With confidence and a heavy accent he asked; “what are the Chinese influences in Turkey?”

This was some 7 years ago and there were hardly any Chinese present in Turkey, only a handful of odd Chinese restaurants in the big cities. When I explained that we did consume Chinese products, but that there is really no tangible Chinese influence or involvement in Turkey, his tone turned sharper and more aggressive. He said; “surely there are Chinese communities, towns, businessmen and Chinese government investments in Turkey.” And subjected me to a tiresome mini-lecture on Chinese civilization and what great inspiration it has been for people in the world. Having been almost beaten up by two drunk Chinese men the night before, who thought I was an American, I humbly accepted that China rules!

What the Olympics showed:

All throughout the Beijing 2008 Olympics, I kept thinking about that postgraduate student. What did he make of the Olympics? Or more importantly, what do the millions of educated and increasingly dangerous patriotic Chinese youth see the international legacy of the Beijing Olympics to be? Has the world bowed down in front of the raising Dragon? Has the Middle-Kingdom (literal translation of the Chinese word for China; Zhonguo) finally assumed the central position it has always thought itself to deserve? Yes and No, but mostly No!

China has showed us that it can deliver the cookies, meet the deadlines and meet all expected infrastructure standards to a good quality. Great Britain, still haunted with the memories of Wembley Stadium and the Millennium Dome, will struggle to match the Chinese success on this front.

China has showed us that it has a remarkable amount of money it can dispose of for an event. That's one thing the UK will never be able to do, as the British public will never accept their government spending 25 billion pounds on an ego boost. It is already struggling to justify its humble 9 billion pound budget, which is higher than the initial estimations.

China has showed us that is has a remarkable amount of human resources it can dispose of with great control. Zhang Yimou, the artistic mind behind the opening and closing ceremonies, noted rather proudly that after North Korea, only the Chinese had the skills to perform such mass choreographies that we saw. According to the renowned director, Westerners lack the necessary discipline. I am not sure if it can ever be a point of pride to declare that only the country who can top China with its social management skills is a country with work (read death) camps and absolute totalitarian brutality.

Behind the scenes:

China showed us that it can be, or at least attempt to be, trendy, cool and warm, in its own way and with its own charm. But China has also inevitably showed us the face behind the mask. The computer animated fireworks and the cute girl lip-syncing the next-door-neighbors-kid's voice are the simplest confirmations that short term beautifying projects can't wipe away long-term ugliness.

Before, during and after the Olympic Games, the Chinese police detained, harassed, ‘cracked down' on, and forcefully removed from their homes those subversive people who stubbornly continued to insist on being treated as human beings. Others were banned from entering Beijing all together. The Chinese activists, religious leaders, and victims, who gave interviews to international media, disappeared after the interviews. The Tibet issue has always been the sexiest of the human rights issues in China, yet so much suffering was airbrushed over during the Olympics.

China's horrible domestic human rights track record, extremely dark and aggressive involvement in Africa and the dodgy backing of all possible dodgy countries of the world remain unshaken. So, after all that has been said and done, the arguments that the Olympics might bring an improvement on the human rights situation and force a maverick country into genuine relationship with the rest of the world have been washed away with that famous itsy-bitsy spider.

The outcome of the other main argument, that the Olympics and the number of foreign visitors to the country will help in opening the eyes of the Chinese society, has yet to prove itself true or be declared hallow. Given the internet terror launched by patriotic Chinese hackers and the self-gratification that the completion of the games without any major glitch gave birth to, it seems that none of the reactions against the Olympic torch or concerns of the international community have gone deeply under the skin.

The global public opinion, which has an extremely short memory span, will mainly remember the amazing World Records we witnessed, and then every now and then the magnificent opening ceremony. It is the sport - athletes and athletic achievements that makes the Olympics what it is, not the excess of narcissism maintenance efforts of its temporary host. To that extent, the legacy of the Beijing Olympics will always be remembered as ‘that Olympics where we have seen the super-human beings who ran and swam way faster than we could have imagined.