Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

birdsnest.jpgDissident 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.

2 thoughts on “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

  1. “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’re not the only ones. My lungs are really feeling the difference, especially compared to last summer.

    With such things as human rights, I think it’s important to recognise that although progress is painfully slow and there are occasional great leaps backwards, progress is happening. Also, a lot of China’s critics are approaching the situation from a purely modern, Western point of view as if all the West’s history has been entirely stationary. It would be more useful if they would stop and consider the long history of development of such concepts as human rights and democracy in the West, then take a good, hard look at the reality of China’s history and development.

    It’s also unfortunate that so much of the Chinese internet is inaccessible to the outside world due to linguistic factors. There just aren’t enough Chinese people writing in English or “bridge bloggers” translating Chinese voices. I don’t know if you read Chinese, but I assure you, I read quite a variety of different and often dissenting opinions expressed in Chinese by Chinese people in China on publicly open Chinese websites. The cynicism and sarcasm about the Olympics, for example, has been a lot of fun to read lately.

    It’s even more unfortunate that so few foreign journalists have either the balls or the basic background knowledge to report Chinese stories that break the usual evil Commie bastards or amazing economy templates. New Zealand’s media is particularly weak in this respect.

    With the environment, though, I disagree that there is a lack of progress. There are many respects in which New Zealand has a lot to learn from China. Yes, the situation is atrocious. It’s been several days since I’ve seen blue sky (although the weather is half to blame- constant southerly breezes blowing pollution from Tianjin, Langfang, Baoding and Shijiazhuang and humidity from the Yellow River valley and the sea in to Beijing, where it gets stuck. Downpours yesterday afternoon and all through last night have cleared the air, but the sky’s still grey) and what’s left of the canal 100 metres north of my place reeks to high heaven on a good day, but on the other hand China is making massive investments in renewable energy- the Guanting Wind Farm northwest of Beijing is one example that is supposed to be supplying a goodly proportion of power to the Olympic Village and is becoming a world leader in solar technology- solar water heaters are very, very common across the country, and although there isn’t much domestic consumption yet, China’s photovoltaic industry is phenomenally huge. Actually, you see more and more PV cells on top of street lights and railway signals, but I’d prefer to see the Beijing city government make their installation on every south-facing roof compulsory- or at least very strongly encouraged. New Zealand may also need to take a good hard look at China’s fight against desertification and apply that to projected climate changes in drought prone areas like Marlborough, Canterbury and Central Otago. Actually, it seems Gansu Province is putting a huge amount of energy and investment into wind power and things like installing biogas digestors in farm houses, and NZ really should exploit the Rewi Alley connection to get into some mutually beneficial projects out there then apply that experience back home. I mean, our own wind power industry is both growing and innovative, right? And I’ve read interesting and positive articles about Kiwi scientists and innovators coming up with interesting ways to turn waste into biofuel. I’m no businessman, but I can see stacks of opportunities for successful, profitable, mutually beneficial cooperation between NZ and China.

  2. That’s a good point about renewables. NZ is rapidly developing capability in this area.

    I tend to agree about the quality of reporting of China issues in the NZ media too. We don’t have many bilingual journalists in the mainstream media. Aside from these games, it’s rare that we get coverage about anything at all outside of sport and local politics, so the average NZer is not that well informed about global affairs.

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