What's happened to the Olympics is getting surreal. We can't claim to understand it completely, but obviously Western concerns about Tibet, longterm and recent, are behind the protests wherever the torch is going. It's very possible to be sympathetic with the argument behind the protest and to be simultaneously thoroughly sick of the technique of disruption. It gets media attention, which is the goal of course, but it's just, well, it's just gotten old. Surely there is a more imaginative way to make the point.
Then you learn that the guards who are traveling with the torch are Chinese paramilitary who were previously used to crush Tibetan dissent, and what to do with that? Since when has the Olympic Torch needed a military guard? And isn't that sort of rubbing everyone's nose in it?
Australia has already said that the Chinese escort will not be allowed when the torch goes down under. Quite strikingly, new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who is fluent in Mandarin, spoke in China, in Mandarin, and criticized the government, which lately, everyone from the U.S. to the EU to Google and Microsoft have been unwilling to consider.
There has been talk of ending the traditional tour, and security everywhere else it will go has been tightened dramatically.
We realize that China is in a state of dramatic, perhaps unprecedented transition, and that they planned to use the Olympics as a sort of proud coming-out party on the international stage.
Instead, it's really underscored the tensions and contradictions. Some years ago, after the Soviets gave up and utter chaos ensued, the Chinese were said to be a better model for leaving Marxist-Leninism behind (the party of course would argue that they have not left it behind), that it was better to transition with a strong economy than to allow a total breakdown.
The Chinese have accomplished a lot in a very short period of time, but the government, or more precisely the party, has not yet found a way to allow dissent or free expression. The crackdown in Tibet, the jailing of dissidents like Hu Jia for "subverting state power," even the banning of bibles for visiting athletes (note - this was incorrect - the Chinese will allow one bible per athlete for those who wish to bring them) and the assertion that no free expression should be expected, that live TV broadcasts of the game may not be allowed - well, there should be a limit. We're not sure anyone signed up for this.
Everyone by now, even if only by seeing the Chinese of their diaspora, should understand the brilliance of the Chinese people and their return to global prominence deserves respect. Their government, though, is another matter.
Rather than showing off their progress, the lead up to the games has become a complete disaster. If Beijing has to be in a state of lockdown to allow the games, then perhaps those who are arguing for moving them to Sidney have a point.
Aside from the violence and repression, there is another real problem: the pollution in Beijing is staggering. The Chinese are going to be doing a number of things to curtail it - shutting down factories, parking cars for a few months, and so on - but will it be enough? There is some talk of moving events to different cities, but this raises another problem: it's one thing to control a relatively small area in one city. If the events are spread around the country, controlling everything, and everybody, will get much more difficult.
All things considered, this has the potential to turn into something more than just an embarrassment.