BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is out this week. I'm Bob Garfield.
In April, this was Jacques Rogge, chairman of the International Olympic Committee. [CLIP] JACQUES ROGGE: We knew, of course, there was a controversy on human rights. We are not naive. We are not blind. But we did the choice in the belief that the Games would open up China, and that is exactly what is happening now.
You would not have the media attention to what happens in Tibet or China were it not that the games would be organized in August, here in Beijing. So we still believe that opening up the games will change China’s society, maybe not today, but tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. [END CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: Maybe tomorrow. Definitely not today. On the advent of the Olympic Games in Beijing, the Chinese government and the IOC were scandalized by the revelation that the media covering the Games will not have the unfettered Internet access they had been promised, the result of a backroom deal that appalled even the IOC’s own chief spokesman. [CLIP] KEVIN GOSPER: In these short hours I've made it quite plain that I've not conveyed full information to the media, for which I apologize. I am concerned that I was put into that position, but I really am not concerned about myself. I'm concerned that the international media, whom we rely on for reporting the Games, has been caught by surprise. That, for me, is unacceptable. [END CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: IOC spokesman Kevin Gosper. This development came on the heels of a report released Monday by Amnesty International alleging that Chinese media repression, arrests of dissidents and other human rights abuses have not gone down in anticipation of the world’s focus on Beijing, but sharply up.
These embarrassments themselves, on the wake of the Tibet clampdown and large protests before the Olympic Torch procession in cities around the globe, would seem to undermine China’s dream of showcasing its economic miracle for the world.
But the Asia Society’s Orville Schell says that to know China’s history was to see this behavior coming. ORVILLE SCHELL: Well, you know, I think initially China really did sort of hope that it would evolve slowly and open up and these things would come to be true. However, after the Tibetan demonstrations that began in March and then the very kind of humiliating serial episodes of protests around the world against the Chinese Olympic Torch, I think China was sort of provoked back into a spasm of contraction and control, got very anxious, very hurt. In fact, there’s this expression in Chinese, [SPEAKS CHINESE], to wound the feelings of the Chinese people.
And really, I think, what they're saying, in effect, is that China feels preyed upon, still, victimized. And the antidote to this was to be the Olympic Games. BOB GARFIELD: Well, on the subject of showcases, you know, clearly China imagined this Olympics to be its opportunity to show the world the fruits of its economic miracle and to show the world China’s new modern face. But that’s kind of eerily reminiscent of the Berlin Games in 1936, which were meant to be a similar showcase for Nazi Germany. But, thanks to [LAUGHS] Jesse Owens, history recalls that as a humiliation for Hitler and his regime.
Do you think that China’s conduct, you know, its reneging on the agreements, the repression, the sort of fascistic tendencies with respect to the Internet, are apt to blow up on its face and overshadow the economic miracle and everything else? ORVILLE SCHELL: Well, I think that’s the tragedy of these Games into which China has really poured its heart. And now they seem to confront the prospect of all this snapping back in their face.
China is a control society. Traditionally, Confucianism emphasized obedience, hierarchy, order, orthodoxy, as did Leninism. So when the going gets rough, China’s almost autonomic response to problems is control. And this is what we see operating now.
But I think you have to see behind it and understand that although it seems like a kind of strength, it is actually born of the sense of weakness and insecurity. You know, the only way to understand it is as a series of contradictions where parallel opposites can be true at the same time. BOB GARFIELD: You know, I think the IOC’s bet, and in many ways the bet of the Western world since, you know, 19 – whatever it was – 70, is that China will gradually emerge to become a democratic society and that by rooting for them, by participating, by encouraging them as a society, we will all be better served.
Do you have any sense as to whether the bet was a winning one at this point, or a losing one? ORVILLE SCHELL: You know, one [LAUGHS] way to look at China is it’s always in between transitions. BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] ORVILLE SCHELL: They've developed, without quite intending it, a kind of new form of authoritarian capitalism that actually works and that defies all of the common wisdom of liberals that openness on one side of the ledger leads to openness on the other.
You know, nobody’s gotten China right in terms of [LAUGHS] predictions over the last 30 years. It’s very hard to say where it’s going. We know where it is now. But we do know with certainty one thing. That is not where it will stay.
And, yes, there are lots of critiques one can make of China and there'll be many people who want to make them, and they find the Games a very enticing place to do that, to mount the stage of global public opinion.
But, if it does work out in an embarrassing fashion for China, I think we'll be paying for this for a long time to come. BOB GARFIELD: Orville, as always, thank you very much for joining us. ORVILLE SCHELL: Well, it’s been a great pleasure talking with you. BOB GARFIELD: Orville Schell is the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, formerly Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. You can read his piece about China in the current issue of Newsweek.