From the lip-syncing imbroglio, to reports on tween gymnasts and Han Chinese kids posing as ethnic minorities, to coverage that's focused on human rights, pollution and China's challenge to West, one could argue that Beijing is getting kicked in the teeth on a daily basis by the Western press.
Are we being too tough?
Some people, like Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia, think it's a legitimate question to ask. Others in the fraternity of journalists say "we're just doing our job." A few more think we're pathetic and should be tougher on the Red Chinese.
My view of it, as usual, is a muddle. On the factual stuff, what's happening in and around the Games, I say let 'em have it. I've spent years reporting in China, wrote lots of tough stories, got tossed out after the June 4th crackdown in 1989, had my share of run-ins with the local authorities, and saw the thuggishness of the one-party state up close and personal. I have no problem with tough pieces.
But as to the big-think on the meaning of the Beijing Olympics, my basic take is this: the Games are to the punditocracy what a hanging curveball is to an aging home-run hitter. Slamming China is the simplest way out and if you whiff, well, at least that's better than trying to beat out a grounder. Context, nuance, background, depth of reporting, all that kind of stuff really messes up the prevailing narrative which is this - China is a systemic challenge to our way of life and these Olympics prove it.
Let's take two recent pieces from pundits. To be fair, I chose a piece from the New York Times and from the Post.
The Times piece is an Aug. 11 column by David Brooks -- Harmony and the Dream -- in which he says that the world can be divided up into two types of societies - individualist and collectivist. America is individualist and China is collectivist. Brooks then goes on to say that individualist countries tend to put rights and privacy first while "people in collective societies tend to value harmony and duty." So with that Brooks has handily explained why China is a one-party state and we're a democracy. It really is that simple. I guess.
Then Brooks goes on: The Olympics, and particularly the opening ceremony, is a sign of the rise of a collectivist society "to rival the West."
"It was part of China's assertion that development doesn't come only through Western, liberal means, but also through Eastern and collective ones," Brooks states. He then broadens this theory to say: "If Asia's success reopens the debate between individualism and collectivism (which seemed closed after the cold war), then it's unlikely that the forces of individualism will sweep the field or even gain an edge." Takeaway? China is a challenge. Not just because it's big and bad but because they think different over there and the Olympic Ceremony proves it.
I wonder if Brooks has ever seen American marching bands, or line dancing, or visited a high school where the coolest kids are always part of a group - say, the football or basketball teams. I would argue that in many way Americans bow more to the group than the Chinese, which explains why the Chinese party-state has been so intent on forcing comformity.
Even more, I wonder if Brooks has ever driven in China (look out for grandma!), or sharpened his elbows in the scrum that forms each time you try to get off an airplane, or tried to get Chinese co-workers to band together. Let's just say in the decade that I've lived in China (over the course of 30 years), I haven't seen or heard much collectivist impulse except when it was rammed down the throats of ordinary Chinese.
And as to Brooks' point about China's rise being attributed somehow to collectivist impulses. Wait a second. The most dynamic sector of China's economy is the private one. It's a nation of entrepreneurs. It's a culture of entrepreneurs. Look at Hong Kong, or Sydney, or Main Street Flushing and now Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Chengdu. That's Chinese and it's "individualist" up the wazoo.
Harold Meyerson's piece Aug. 13 - The Drums of Change - got my goat for a different reason. First, comparing the Russian attack on Georgia with the Chinese opening ceremony he opined that it's the Chinese we really have to fear. A 4-hour extravaganza over an invasion. Hmmm.
Meyerson noted that during the parade of athletes China's flag bearer, Yao Ming, was accompanied by a 9-year-old boy who dug two classmates out of the rubble of the Sichuan earthquake. When asked by NBC why he did it, the boy said "he was a hall monitor and that it was his job to take care of his schoolmates," Meyerson wrote, adding "that answer may tell us more than we want to know."
The boy "was a responsible little part of a well-ordered hierarchy," said Meyerson.From that he concludes that the answer "works brilliantly as an advertisement for an authoritarian power bent on convincing the world that its social and political model is as benign as any democracy's."
What am I missing here? How is a sense of responsibility, instilled in any leader, no matter how small, in any society (ever hear of a class president?), taken as a sign of totalitarian brainwashing or a propaganda campaign? Don't we hear this kind of sentiment in the voices of Americans who go down into mines or back into fires to save their comrades? "I'm the fire chief, I couldn't leave my men behind." And so what if it's a 9-year-old? Bully for him. If anything, China's system discourages the type of initiative evidenced by pint-sized hero. Maybe that's the reason he was marching next to Yao.
Meyerson ends his piece with the following line: "A nation that can assemble 2,000 perfectly synchronized drummers has clearly staked its claim as the world's assembly line." That's definitely food for thought.