When the Olympic Games kicked off in Beijing and the arguments commenced over how one should respond to such an event being held in an authoritarian, human rights-violating state, it was difficult to know where one’s sympathies would be best invested. The ardent protesters who rattled off China’s various crimes, who criticized its role in the Darfur genocide, and who railed against the ban on ethnic Tibetans working the events most certainly had their hearts in the right place. But so did those who argued that there was reason to restrain the outcry; that the Olympics are supposed to represent a supra-national ideal; that there was value, too, in proving that national pride could coexist alongside civilized, rule-driven competition.
The supposed lesson of the restraint camp was, of course, that if we can mutually respect our nation, our fellow countrymen, and our international competitors in the swimming pool or on the uneven bars, we can do it in the politico-economic sphere as well. Since the Games commenced last week, however, an entirely different set of far more cynical lessons has been on display, courtesy of the Chinese themselves. From faked CGI opening ceremony fireworks to “16-year-old” gymnasts, China has squashed the arguments of the supra-national idealists like it squashed the Tiananmen Square protests: ruthlessly, decisively, and with a brazen disregard for how bad it makes them look on the world stage.
The first question that comes to mind is: should this come as a surprise? It isn’t as if China thinks we’re ignorant of their internal repression and human rights abuses. It also can’t be that we think those gymnasts are 16. Coming as it has in a time when formerly communist Russia has brutally flexed its own muscles for the world to see, not only should none of this come as a shock, but it can be read as part of an emerging and consistent theme. Hubris, these days attributed almost exclusively by most of the world to the United States, is not indigenous to America. Communist empires were never exactly humble and, despite their deceptive makeovers, their post-’89 incarnations aren’t either. China’s behavior at the Games reminds us that, in the great game of power politics, looking big is often more important than not looking bad.