Dissident Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei, employed by a Western firm to design the iconic “Birdsnest” Olympic stadium in Beijing, exclaims that he now hates the stadium because it symbolises China’s relentless march toward modernism. He says that the carnival atmosphere of the games masks what is really going on in the world’s most populated nation and has called upon others to boycott the games in protest.
There’s no doubt that the 2008 Olympiad will be the biggest and most impressive live stage show in history and China quite rightly wants to put on a good performance for its coming out parade. But lingering concerns remain that the games hoop-la is simply a facade beyond which there lies an overbearing state machine that has made little real progress on human rights and environmental issues since it secured rights to hold the the games. I have already read several media reports of foreign journalists being shadowed by plain clothes police who then used standover tactics to dissuade ordinary citizens from being interviewed.
Games officials are ecstatic that by removing a million vehicles from Beijing’s roads and shutting down dozens of factories, they have reduced the airborne particulate matter concentration to a mere three times that of recommended World Health Organisation standards. They also proudly advise foreign journalists that there will be no blocking of Internet websites from within the Games media centre. But the irony of such concessions is probably lost on the more affluent members of the local populace who can afford to attend and are completely absorbed in nationalistic fervour.
And who are we to criticise anyway? Where else on the planet could such an economic transformation have taken place so rapidly? When the Chinese take on a project, they really commit! Our plodding Reserve Bank gnomes would send interest rates through the roof if New Zealand enjoyed even a miserable 4% GDP growth. But growth rates twice that are ensuring that China is rapidly making up for the previous half century of disengagement.
I could also name a few Western nations that haven’t exactly been shining examples of democratic freedom themselves lately. Bush’s swansong swipe at China’s human rights record was enormously hypocritical when you consider America’s appalling disregard for its poor and homeless, its record on air bombings of civilians and the suspension of civil rights for terror detainees.
The dragon is awakening and there is no question that China will rise to become the most powerful economic and military force we’ve ever seen. The recently signed free trade agreement between China and New Zealand may well be largely symbolic, but symbolism and relationship both mean a great deal to the Chinese. Furthermore, it is only through trade and dialogue that small nations can hope to influence change.