Guy W. Farmer: Lovable pandas conceal the ugliness of the real China

As I follow the Beijing Olympic Games on TV, I wonder what effect the Games will have on future relations between the U.S. and China. Are we watching the dawning of a new era in U.S.-China relations or an unwelcome flashback to the 1936 Olympics in Hitler's Germany?

So far, China seems to be behaving itself, at least on the surface, but what's really going on behind the scenes away from prying TV cameras? NBC/TV and its parent company, GE, have a billion dollars worth of advertising at stake, so they're giving us a rosy picture of the host nation. Bob Costas, Matt Lauer, Brian Williams and a cast of thousands tell us ad nauseum, everything is wonderful in China, and getting better every day. What political repression? What air pollution? See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.

But Time magazine essayist James Poniewozik had a different take on China. "This Olympics will test whether Western broadcasters are exporting openness or importing censorship, whether China is growing more open or we just ignore its reality so we can make money," he wrote. I think NBC and other Western media conglomerates have decided to go for the money.

"Western audiences need and want to know more about this country that figures ever more in their lives in ways good, bad and ambiguous," Poniewozik added. "Let's not tell them to forget it and look at the cute panda." Well, so far at least, the cute panda has prevailed on American TV.

Looking behind the scenes, however, we see a different picture of China, a totalitarian dictatorship run by Communist apparatchiks with a weakness for capitalism. They too are going for the money and covering up the ugly side of Chinese life. In another Time magazine essay, Austin Ramzy, an American who lives in Beijing, described how his 700-year-old "traditional" neighborhood was torn up by government workers preparing for the Games.

"In a matter of months roads were repaved, streetlights were installed, sewage lines were overhauled, roofs were repaired, doors were painted and rooms that had been haphazardly added onto old homes were demolished," he wrote. The downside of these community improvement projects, he added, was that "as many as 1.5 million people were forcibly relocated" to the countryside, where they wouldn't be seen by Olympic visitors.


"Some, like the Yu family, which ran a snack shop north of Beijing's Forbidden City, hung on to the very end, wrapping their ramshackle shop in flags and photos of Chinese leaders in hopes it might stop the wrecking ball," Ramzy continued. "It didn't. Less than 48 hours after the store was demolished ... the spot where it stood was a flower bed." So much for property rights in Communist China.

China, Russia and the U.S. are running neck-and-neck in the highly publicized battle for Olympic medals. It's interesting to note how China has produced such an impressive crop of world-class athletes. Simple: They take promising young athletes away from their families and train them around the clock at state training schools. Exhibit A is "the image ambassador of China," NBA basketball star Yao Ming. According to Maureen Fan of the Washington Post, the 7-foot-6 athlete "is not only a towering global commodity" but also "a reflection of the China that many people hope the world will see during the Games."

How did Yao Ming get that way? It seems that his parents were accomplished basketball players whose marriage was arranged by the government, "which then measured him regularly as an infant, predicted his growth and trained him for years ... . By age 14 Yao was training ten hours a day." Eventually, Chinese officials allowed him to enter the (NBA) draft only after he pledged his loyalty to Beijing and agreed to donate half his multi-million-dollar salary to the government. Neither Yao nor his parents had much of a say in the matter. That's how they do it in China.

Despite the fact that President Bush condemned China's dismal human rights record on the eve of the Beijing Olympics, we're hearing a lot more about Yao Ming and lovable pandas than we are about the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, other human rights violations, the continuing crackdown on dissidents in Tibet, and the Chinese government's shameful role in propping-up the genocidal regime in Sudan (think Darfur). So I guess no news is good news for the media. Stay tuned.

PRIMARY ELECTION: Fewer than 40 percent of Carson City's eligible voters went to the polls in last Tuesday's Primary Election, and the statewide turnout was below 20 percent. In the end, we get the public officials we deserve. See you in November

Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.


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