09/21/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Gold Diggers: Why Only One Medal Matters to the Chinese

When I first arrived in Beijing, the only gold-digger stories I'd heard of were about Chinese girls who'd prick condoms with safety pins before they'd bed expats. Now, all that reaches my ears is talk of jin pai (gold medals). At events, Chinese fans only explode into applause when gold-medal winners -- and Chinese ones at that -- take the podium, barely mustering a clap for yin pai (silver medal) athletes and practically ignoring tong pai (bronze medal) winners. Gold, it seems, is all that matters to the Chinese.

"But WE still have more total medals," a Chinese-American woman said, claiming the latter of her labels, to her Chinese friend last night at the Bird's Nest. The friend didn't counter.

But as exciting (read: lame) as the debate on whether more gold medals or more total medals translates into world domination is, maybe the problem that people should be worrying about is: At the end of this Olympic insanity, how serious will China take its gold-medal tally? Will the new powerhouse believe that its golden supremacy means it has a pass on human rights issues and a get-out-of-Tibet-criticism-free card?

"The Chinese believe that if we have the most gold medals, it proves that the government is good and its policies are right," says Cecilia Wu, 24, who hails from the Yunnan province. "It also shows that China is getting better and stronger as a country." But a country that is so strong that it doesn't have to heed recommendations of countries that won fewer medals? Will Hu Jintao bring up China's ping-ponging power during visits with world leaders, and the future US president chuckle and then ask Hu to remember the basketball defeat? More ridiculous things have happened in politics, unfortunately.

However, the gold-medal obsession and the drive to win gold and only gold isn't surprising. When I scored 99 on a calculus test during my junior year of high school, my Chinese-émigré mother scolded me for not studying. Striving for perfection is embedded in the culture: This gold-medal excellence, at face value, shouldn't be feared or seen as robotic or unsportsmanlike. But at a deeper level, taking the most golds may only confirm to the Chinese people that their leaders have been doing right all along. And having 1.3 billion backing a government accused of censorship and flailing on human rights -- now that may be something to be afraid of.