From the Beijing Bureau
July 22, 2008
Editor’s note: Two weeks ago, our correspondent in Beijing issued a call to Park Record readers for questions about the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. So far, his mailbox remains empty. We’ve taken this silence itself as a question, which we’ve put to him on your behalf: Why should we in Park City care about the Beijing Games?
This was fortitude of historical proportions. On September 11, 2001, just as people in northern Utah had started decorating their cities in earnest for the Winter Olympics, a global party more than a decade in the making, two planes veered murderously off course 2000 miles to the east. The story from there hardly bears repeating: tens of thousands killed, a nation plunged into morning and, months later, an Olympics held despite it all. For years, it seemed the 2002 Winter Games would go down in history as the only Olympic gathering to take place so fast on the heels of a national disaster.
On May 12th this year, with Beijing entering the feverish final stages of preparation for China’s first Olympics, a magnitude 8.0 earthquake struck roughly a thousand miles away, in rural Sichuan Province. Seventy thousand were killed, the nation was plunged into mourning. And next month, yes, the Beijing Games will go ahead despite it all.
On the surface, Beijing 2008 has so little in common with Salt Lake City 2002 it seems ludicrous to even begin to compare them. The 100-meter dash versus the downhill. The Forbidden City versus the Mormon Temple. Five hundred thousand volunteers for one versus 22,000 for the other. The two Olympics feel about as comparable as the foods for which each city is best known: Roast Duck, meet Jell-O Salad. But look a little harder and striking parallels begin to emerge-parallels that suggest Utahns are in better position than most to understand what may be going through the minds of people in Beijing as their big day approaches.
The background of catastrophic national misfortune is far and away the most obvious, and wrenching, of the similarities that tie Utah to Beijing. Parkites who remember the torn American flag recovered from Ground Zero being carried into the opening ceremonies in Salt Lake, and the string of solemn 9/11 tributes from American medal winners that followed, can expect something similar in Beijing.
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Park City tennis fans who watched Wimbledon last month already saw a preview of this when Chinese player Zheng Jie, a native of Sichuan ranked No. 133, make an improbable run to the Wimbledon women’s semi-finals, then went on to donate her winnings to victims of the earthquake.
But there is more.
The fear of protests by "anti-China forces" and possible terrorist attacks by extremists amongst China’s marginalized Uighur Muslim community-a fear sharpened by two bus explosions in the southern city of Kunming this week-has led in recent months to a new slogan for the Games: "Olympics, Security First."
They are not empty words. Yesterday while traveling around town, your correspondent was forced to put his bags through three baggage screening devices and saw a pair of visitors pulled over on the side of a major highway being guarded by a soldier carting an assault rifle. If that sounds familiar, it might be because several of the anti-terror experts brought into secure Salt Lake City for the Olympics in the wake of 9/11 have been hired by Beijing to do the same in China.
Perhaps more importantly, China shares with Utah the misfortune of being both a complex and a polarizing place. As a result, China, like Utah, is susceptible to being rendered by the lazy or the polemical in the broad strokes of stereotype and caricature.
Last October, a reporter for the UK’s Channel 4, in town to do a story on China’s illegal detention of petitioners, confounded residents of Beijing by describing their city as a "disaster zone," full of "unhappy people" standing in "piles of faeces" and seething with discontent-this despite the fact that most piles of feces to be found on the Beijing streets come from the hordes of well-manicured mini-dogs kept as pets by the city’s generally content middle class.
Where Utahns had to endure endless comments about polygamy and questions about whether Salt Lake 2002 would end up being the "Mo-lympics," residents of Beijing have been subject to a barrage of commentary about life in a police state and have had their games re-branded, with similar lack of imagination, the "Genocide Olympics."
As with the Salt Lake Games, the cartoonish portrayals of Beijing have some basis in fact. But these pictures have been sketched with a prejudice against complicating details and exaggerated for effect. None of this is to suggest the Beijing’s Games are a mirror of Utah’s. Considered a coming out party by many Chinese and a judgment day of sort by outsiders, the Beijing 2008 Olympics have no precedent. But if anyone is in a position to understand-maybe even sympathize with-the hordes of average Beijing residents clutching their Olympic tickets to their chest as they bounce dizzily back and forth between anticipation and apprehension, it is the readers of this paper.
Josh Chin, a Park City native, was in Beijing in 1993 on the day both China and Salt Lake City lost their first Olympic bids and was there again in 2001 the day China finally succeeded. He is covering the Games for the Wall Street Journal. For more musings on China visit Josh Chin’s blog: http://chinfamous.com/blog/ and don’t forget to send your questions to email@example.com