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February 5, 2008

The Dragon or the Snake?

by Sascha Matuszak

The biggest threat to the success of the Beijing Olympics this coming August is China itself. Come August, the world will see China for what it truly is, many for the first time.

Although China's human rights record, environmental issues, and recent export scandals are both widely reported and known, it will be the theatrical acumen of the Communist Party that will be the surprise actor in the coming Olympics. For those of us who have lived in China, coughing up black boogers is not only commonplace, we have even come to appreciate the orchestra of throat-clearing that comes with the rising sun in most Chinese cities. Beijing will be polluted for a long time to come, and the athletes from around the world who have any doubts about this immutable fact will achieve clarity soon enough.

China has promised all sorts of things for these Olympics – not only that they will be "green," which the world is now realizing will not come true, but also that freedom will be allowed to blossom alongside the specially crossbred flowers Beijing is preparing for the welcoming ceremony. Again, those of us who live here laughed heartily at that. If anything, Beijing will crack down harder than ever before, as many of us said when we first heard of this promise.

And so it is. Undesirables spanning the gamut of anti-China sentiment are being round up and imprisoned, deported, or executed. Uighurs, Tibetans, cultists, dissidents, refugees, dogs barking too loudly, spitting old men, cranky old women: anyone or thing that might spoil the party is being put away safely until the Olympics are over. The Internet is spottier than ever, with all manner of sites being interrupted or completely blocked. We here are used to it and have a variety of tools to get around the feeble Great Firewall, but for all those "unique visitors" this summer, it might be disconcerting to find blogs, photos, and videos blocked.

But this isn't surprising. That visa fees and rejection rates have risen brings a yawn and a weary grumble. That journalists – unlucky or foolish enough to have to register with the PSB – are being followed and listened to makes me chuckle.

What will really be interesting is the world's reaction to the show the communists put on. Will the world focus on the cover-ups as facts emerge? Or the red herring of massive development? When people really get a gander at the crude but effective methods the CCP uses to keep this country in check – and keep a party going – then the world will truly understand how far China has to go before it can become a leader on the world stage.

Which China will the world see? The Dragon, emerging from a slumber to spread its wings over the planet, or the Snake, vainly preening and puffing itself up for a crowd of ferrets?


China is a complex country with more contradictions than you can shake a stick at. Chinese have cultivated hospitality for thousands of years; there is a poem describing almost every aspect of a guest's visit. Yet China today is crude and still very racist after years of anti-everybody communist propaganda.

The Chinese political machine does not appreciate these idiosyncrasies. For foreigners coming to visit during the Olympics – the ultimate PR for a nation – only the dragon may take the stage. As far as the communists are concerned, the world may only view the China they present, just as during the Great Leap Forward, when foreigners were led to model villages with fat, red-cheeked Chinese peasants while people starved to death in the next valley.

What China has always failed to realize is that the world is a forgiving and loving place as well. Not every hairy foreigner is a devil intent on rapine and villainy. The world would appreciate nothing more than a bit of honesty, a bit of courage. The man who lies when all know the truth is considered weak and insecure. The man who admits to his failings receives a hand more often than a kick.

China throughout history has failed to learn this lesson. Foreigners were and still are treated to a spectacle of China that has little or no connection to reality. It is not only laughable, but insulting. Does the Chinese government really believe the world is that stupid? Are the Chinese still locked in the ancient and ridiculous belief that outsiders are dogs incapable of understanding the speech at the high court?

In my experience, yes, some are.

One small example is the time I strolled from my home outside of Chengdu and saw that the river near my home had turned neon blue. I live near a flower-manufacturing base, beautiful and peaceful but not without its disadvantages. Runoff from chemicals used to enhance color turns the river neon every so often.

I walked past a group of old men fishing contentedly in the glowing river and asked, "Hey fellows, catch anything?" They grunted a no. I said, "Man that river looks strange, huh?" They grunted a yes. One of them turned to me and said, "It's the pollution from the violets." I said, "Oh," then another yelled out, "China has no pollution. You laowai [essentially the n-word in this context] talk too much."

Now all you never-been-to-China types might see that as an isolated incident. Wrong. Not only is it commonplace, but that conversation can be extended all the way to dialogues between Chinese and foreign diplomats. I can't go up to one of my neighbors and say, "What the hell is wrong with you? The river is neon, for God's sake." Can't do that with the Chinese. They're sensitive. You have to talk around the issue. Maybe offer a cigarette first.

And so Olympic trainers from around the world are sneaking into China and taking their own measurements of Beijing's air to confirm what any local could have confirmed with a simple hock-and-spit. And so the American team will consider masks but probably not wear them to avoid offending the Chinese.

All this trickery and so much more could be avoided if China would just join us on the world's stage as both the glorious dragon it is and the lowly snake it and all of us are, at some point or another. A bit of honesty, a bit of courage, and so many problems are brushed away like so much chaff.

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  • Sascha Matuszak is a freelance writer living in Chengdu.

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