China’s apologists are wide-eyed and clueless

By Martin Samuel (THE TIMES, 27/08/08):

Poor old Robert Mugabe. Do you know what that guy needs? An Olympics. Harare 2012, he really missed a trick there. A well-run Games and nothing else matters. Put on a show, throw up a couple of impressive buildings and the world is your friend.

The road home from Beijing is lined with wide-eyed converts who’ve seen the light on totalitarianism. “China has set the bar very high,” Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, said. “There are some things that London will not be able to compare to, or equal – such as the ability to bring hundreds of thousands of volunteers to different sites.” Yes, Jacques, it is amazing what people can achieve once they appreciate there is no alternative.

And there isn’t in China. About 100 miles south of Beijing, an agricultural community has been destroyed because its water supply was rerouted to deliver a green and blooming Olympics. Road blocks stop people from that area travelling north, while taxi drivers were told to take any passengers with unusual requests directly to the police.

Official reports state, however, that the 31,000 people that lost homes or land are delighted to be making this sacrifice. “The legacy of these Games is ultimately up to the Chinese people,” Rogge added, but that is a lie too. Nothing can be decided by an oppressed people.

What happens next in China is no more determined by its citizens than the destiny of Iraq was in the hands of Iraqis. The West got rid of Saddam Hussein, not the locals. When the eyes of the world turn from Beijing, this regime will go back to its old ways quicker than a Jamaican sprinter out of the blocks.

Not that it made much pretence of reform while under scrutiny. There were 77 requests to protest in official zones agreed with the IOC, but none was granted. A number of applicants were sentenced to re-education through labour, including two women, aged 79 and 77, one of whom is disabled and almost blind.

“You can get big headlines back home by slating the oppressive regime, but there is a risk of going too far,” Tessa Jowell, the Minister for the Olympics, said. Quite right, Tessa. Oppressive regimes have feelings, too, don’t they? As a member of Tony Blair’s Government, Tessa clearly did not think that it was going too far to accuse an oppressive regime of possessing weapons of mass destruction, bombing it, invading it, and then finding none; but having got on the totalitarian happy pills in Beijing, she knows the pain that a media barb can bring. Worse than collateral damage, that is.

This is the most worrying legacy of the Beijing Games. It has shown our ministers, civil servants and sports administrators what could be achieved, if we could only suspend personal freedom. Change is afoot. There was a sketch in the infamous Brass Eye television comedy in which the predatory paedophile and child murderer Sidney Cooke was to be fired into space, only for it to be discovered that an eight-year-old boy was sealed in the capsule with him.

The London Games had its Brass Eye moment on Sunday night when a video, made by the tourist authority Visit London and screened at the handover party, was found to contain an image of Myra Hindley, from a portrait by Marcus Harvey, shown at the Royal Academy in 1997.

I admit that I laughed. There we are, trying to look all Cool Britannia and icily efficient, and a picture of a notorious child murderer finds its way into the show. At the very least, we should be thankful to live in a society in which freedom of artistic expression is allowed. Although maybe not for much longer.

“It is disgraceful this night of British pride has been sullied,” said a government spokesman. “Those responsible should be found and sacked.” Or sent for re-education through labour, maybe. Now there is someone who has been supping too deeply from the cup of governmental control in Beijing.

No surprise that Ken Livingstone was lavishly entertained by the Chinese Government. Having done so much to smooth Anglo-Chinese relations with his astute comparison of the Tiananmen Square massacre (death toll 2,000-3,000, according to the Chinese Red Cross) with the poll tax riots (death toll none, according to everybody), it is clear what appeals to him about the Chinese system.

He said this week: “When I first got interested in politics all the quality papers had an entire page reporting MPs’ speeches. There would be the most salient point reported each morning.” The pronouncements of the powerful, dutifully recorded and displayed without comment, Ken? The Chinese people would recognise that.

Of course the Beijing Games went without a hitch. Give anyone total, terrifying control over a population, with force, and they will make them march in unison, drum, smile, dance, mime, jump through hoops if necessary. “They don’t look very oppressed,” wrote one observer. No, pal, and neither would you if you knew the consequences of complaint.

The same columnist wrote that the young girls carrying the flags before events were “perfect examples of what a beautiful young Chinese woman looks like”. Yes, they were. This is how that was achieved. Those applying for the job, who numbered thousands, had to be above 1.66m tall, pretty of face and stripped naked for the judges, who measured their body proportions. Isn’t that healthy?

Those performing the three-minute umbrella dance at the opening ceremony trained for six months for 14-15 hours each day, while the 900 soldiers unrolling the scroll that was the centrepiece of the production wore nappies because they had to stay hidden for seven hours, with not even a trip to the toilet allowed. And this is the event that our Olympics Minister called wondrous? That Rogge thinks will be hard to beat?

The Beijing Olympics was China’s Triumph of the Will. Immaculately staged, but there is a bit more to it than just choreography.