As China's biggest event begins, there is (besides an unfortunate veil of pale smog) a palpable tension in the air. A sense that something very bad could happen. To be sure, that feeling creeps in at every Olympics. But the stakes and the potential impact in Beijing could be greater than ever.
China is facing the threat of both protesters and terrorists ruining the party, spoiling the image of harmony the government has worked so hard to construct. But it's easy to forget: this isn't just about ensuring Beijing's big spectacle goes off smoothly, nor about giving the rest of the world a good impression. More than anything, these Games are about the future of China, about how its citizens see their country, and how it continues to progress.
Already, the Olympics have done much to affirm the central government's "mandate of heaven" -- the ancient power that kept emperors in power and countries stable. In June, after the IOC rebuked China over a speech by Tibet's Communist Party leader that denounced the Dalai Lama, April Rabkin wrote this in the Times:
What the committee and the rest of the world don't realize is how little China cares what they think. Here in Beijing, the Olympic Games are primarily for domestic consumption, justifying the government's new global power to its own people....
This August a few world leaders may boycott the opening ceremony. But the Games will go forward and be televised to what China will most likely declare is the largest worldwide audience ever. The Chinese government will have pulled off a modern Olympics -- as close to a mandate from heaven as could be imagined by any dynasty of any era.
And yet, despite all of the problems China has and the bad things the government may do, that mandate is not something we should hope breaks, certainly not dramatically, not now. Political and economic evolution in China is something that everyone can agree on. No one wants revolution.
Boycotts and rebukes are one thing -- and yes, most Chinese people are insulated from and care little about what the rest of the world says or thinks.
But what if something truly bad happens in Beijing? An event that no amount of planning can anticipate or prevent. How will the government, the people and the foreign media respond to that? What effect would that response have around the world, and more importantly, within China?
If a catastrophic incident happened -- like the riots in Tibet earlier this year -- the result will probably go something like this: Western criticism in politics and the media, Chinese governmental stubborness, and citizen anger. That could create an even deeper rift between China and the West.
To be sure, the criticism is important. But it's also important to consider the unintended consequences.
Much talk among Chinese over worst case scenarios centers around security concerns. Despite a lot of healthy skepticism about China's vilification of Muslim or Tibetan separatists, the possibility of a terrorist attack carried out by enemies of the state is a real one. It was a specter raised this week by an attack in the western province of Xinjiang, which followed mysterious bombings in Kunming and Shanghai. Others talk a bit fearfully about the millions of angry peasants who lose land or clean air to the schemes of corrupt officials. Friends of mine are avoiding the subway; some citizens say they will avoid public places and go outside as seldom as possible.
Among foreigners in Beijing, the talk is about another kind of disaster. When they say, "What if something bad happens?" they aren't just talking about a catastrophic attack or a protest. They mean, if one of those things happen -- and there is much certainty that at least many small incidents will happen -- what will the government do? Will it respond with an iron fist? Will it hold back, wary of drawing more international criticism?
In this speculation, it's hard not to detect a shred of bitterness, and the unmistakable scent of schadenfreude. A government built on control -- or more precisely, the appearance of control -- that has spared no expense and left virtually no stone unturned to hold a perfect party, is increasingly facing circumstances over which it has little control.
Some have muttered that a bad incident at the Olympics will finally show the anal Chinese leadership that it can't control everything.
But the Chinese leaders probably don't need to be reminded, especially not by some Olympic incident. Thousands upon thousands of cases of corruption, pollution, and protests already prove how little control it has.
What China and the world needs is for the Olympics to go off smoothly.
Let's be clear: politics has crept into the Olympics, and peaceful protest of China at a time like this is very valuable. But protest should also be careful not to do more harm than good. In China and during the "harmonious" moment of the Olympics, there's a fine line between the two. Crossing it can easily backfire.
If politics explodes into something devastating -- an attack, a serious protest, or worse -- the response by the central government the event could be something that nobody wants.
The world will draw their own serious conclusions about Beijing, even if the Games go well. But in the event of a violent or dramatic incident, Beijing's response will spur even more serious judgments about China. They may be fair, and they be informed, but most likely they will be soaked in the bias and misunderstanding that unfortunately typically surrounds Western discussion about China.
How will those conclusions impact the way the Chinese government deals with the rest of the world? How will it impact how Chinese citizens sees themselves and their country?
And apart from what the rest of the world thinks, more importantly, what conclusions will Chinese draw on their own?
The earthquake this year shook the country's confidence and affirmed it at the same time. It also helped to balance out the bitter nationalism stoked by the riots in Tibet with a new sense of social awareness, civic responsibility, and the rediscovered feeling of international solidarity.
But with the Games comes the slight possibility that that confidence, those ideals, that government mandate and the steadiness that follows it, and the links and openness that China has built with the rest of the world over the past decade, could be shattered.
These elements of Chinese society have already been broken too many times, by too many other dramatic events, many other tragic incidents.
We don't have to agree with the Chinese government -- and we may not think they should be hosting the Games to begin with. We might also be critical about the Potemkin Village-ish spectacle the city is putting on. But the Games have started, and to make the best of them as a moment for political progress will involve finding ways to disagree with the powerful Chinese government without hoping it will trip up.
This isn't a zero-sum Games. If the Olympics manages to improve international understanding between China and the West, between Westerners and Chinese, it's a Games that everyone can win.
Those of us who want China to improve should wish it good luck for the Games. Given all that could go wrong -- and all that could go right -- the country will surely need all the luck it can get.
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