The 2008 Summer Olympics start at 8.00pm today, 08/08/2008, in Beijing in the “People’s Republic” of China, the number eight being a lucky number in Chinese culture of course. I don’t usually follow the Olympics as I find most sporting events incredibly boring, but I probably will follow this one more closely in terms of the organisation and politics of it, rather than the sporting events themselves. These games have been controversial from the very start due to the IOC‘s decision to hold them in such a politically controversial country with a very questionable record on human rights.
China is an awfully strange place. It’s still, technically, communist, a political system that has proven to be unworkable for the most part. China has opened itself up to some western ways, most notably those that benefit it economically, so it’s not quite like it was in the old Soviet Union, but is still a long way off from democracy and all the trappings that democracy brings, things that we in the west very much take for granted every day. When it suits the Chinese government they hold scant regard for their citizens and this has been illustrated with some alarming blatency with the organisation of the games with the government forcibly evicting some 1.5 million people from their homes so that they can be bullsdozed to make way for the spectacular Olympic venues, including the “Bird’s Nest” and the “Water Cube“.
The Chinese authorities have also been accused of not honouring agreements regarding censorship and Internet access and their methods of complying with pledges to cut pollution in time for the games are also very questionable since they have achieved this by ordering polluting businesses to simply stop operating in the run up to and during the games themselves. That could never and would never happen anywhere else, you can’t just order businesses to arbitrarily shut down temporarily so that it makes you look better for an international event, only to return to the same environmental problems with no real long-term plan or intention to deal with them afterwards.
There have been numerous recent documentaries on the telly about China, most with some very alarming footage shot by British journalists highlighting the quite frankly sinister attitude held by the Chinese authorities to foreign journalists, especially when confronted with questions that they would rather not talk about. Freedom of information is a distant dream for that country and there are few signs that it’s going to change any time soon. It’s easy to forget about it because China is so far away and so far removed from our daily lives in the west, so when you see such material on the television it shocks you and makes you ask “blimey, does that sort of thing still go on, in 2008?”. It went on all the time in the 20th Century of course, it was almost normal, but not these days, the world has, for the most part, moved on.
Even the more technical documentaries, such as those on National Geographic Channel concerned with the construction of the Olympic venues, carry subtle references to the strict controls on information that the Chinese authorities maintain. During a documentary about the Bird’s Nest, the commentator remarked that “at least two” construction workers lost their lives during the construction of the stadium. They didn’t make a big thing about it, as it wasn’t a programme that concerned itself with anything other than an engineering project, and indeed the remark was very subtle and easy to miss, but it was very telling. In any other country in the world we would know exactly how many people were hurt during the construction of any building, but all they were able to report was that “at least” two were, thereby suggesting that they had probably received reports that more people than that lost their lives, but that the figure of two was the official figure released by the authorities.
The Chinese are famous for misreporting such figures. Industrial accidents are almost almost misreported, with the authorities claiming that far fewer people were killed and/or hurt than there actually were. The same is true for other statistics, such as the displacement enacted in order to make way for the Olympic venues. Although 1.5 million people were displaced, the Chinese authorities claim that only 6,037 were. It’s blatant lying, for the purpose of presenting their citizens and the rest of the world with the impression that life in China is a lot better than it actually is, but of course there’s nothing that anyone can do about it. They’re stuck in a culture of information control, it’s second nature to them now, and neither authority nor citizen can probably imagine a world without it.
I personally am very concerned that something awful is going to happen during the games. We’ve already had a terrorist attack and numerous protests and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there was some nasty atrocity, perhaps like what happened at the Munich games, where Israeli athletes were kidnapped and killed, or some sort of other significantly disruptive event that will marr the whole thing. I hope I’m wrong of course, but the whole world’s eyes are on China now and so it would be a perfect opportunity for someone to bring our attention to one or more of the various wrongs in China while we’re looking and before we go back to our normal lives after the games have finished.
Finally, I’d like to quote from a 2DTV sketch, which I think is very apt:
BEIJING 2008, ONLY ON PAY PER VIEW, YOU WILL VIEW, OR YOU WILL PAY!