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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

China's Moment: Referendum on a Nation

August 5, 2008

By George Vecsey
The New York Times
August 4, 2008

May the algae vanish. May the hot Gobi sands desist. May the noxious
air take a holiday. May peace settle over Beijing.

On the only planet we have, it would seem to be in everybody's best
interests that China produce a successful Summer Games. As an Olympic
host for the first time, China wants to be seen as capable and
friendly, more than the source of inexpensive goods for the First
World, more than an emerging consumer of oil and air and water. China
is a player.

Michael Phelps could win eight gold medals, but no athlete will
dominate the world's attention the way Jesse Owens did in 1936 or
Carl Lewis did in 1984 or the female athletes did in 1996. There is
only one star of these Games.

With 1.3 billion Chinese anticipating gold medals, the triumphs or
disappointments in China will not be about individual athletes as
much as the system – the hopes and dreams of the most populous nation on Earth.

The 63 Olympic sponsors are kowtowing to the host nation with
commercials urging the world to "like" China, which mostly means they
want to sell more of their goods in this huge market. But this set of
Summer Games is not merely 17 days of filler material on the tube,
mostly unknown athletes performing exotic sports, accompanied by
melodramatic personal histories and the blare of national anthems.

China sought these Games as a major step in its coming-out party, and
now China will be tested in front of the world – no retreating behind
walls, no slogans, no long marches. China is here to stay.

"They'll have a technically good Olympics, but the world will also
see a different China," said Peter Ueberroth, the chairman of the
United States Olympic Committee, whose stewardship of the Los Angeles
Summer Games in 1984 was helped immensely by China's decision not to
join the Soviet boycott. "I've been going there a longtime, and it's
changing by the minute," he said.

In that traditionally inward country, the domestic message from these
Games will undoubtedly be incessantly upbeat, but many people in
China are now connected to the world via the Internet and telephone.
If people around the world are ridiculing something violent or
unhealthy or even gauche about China during these Games, enough
people will know, in a nation that values face, self-esteem.

If the cyclists go out on the road on the first Saturday morning of
the Games and come back with grime in their eyes and lungs, if the
International Olympic Committee has to call off marathons or sailing
races because of blight, China will lose face.

Activists with righteous causes have been using the handy existence
of these Games to remind the world about the murders at Tiananmen
Square in 1989 and the current complicity with genocide in Darfur,
the absorption of Tibet, the suppression of the Falun Gong movement,
the control of the Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang Province.

If China is perceived as repressive during these Games -- muscling
journalists from access to public spaces – it could damage itself in
front of the world, although it is true that every set of Summer
Games comes with nationalism or regionalism. In 1988, the tear gas
from civil unrest had barely evaporated in Seoul when the Summer
Games began, but the success of those Games helped bring a new era to
South Korea. Now, the stakes for one nation could be even higher.

China has already been tested this year in the eyes of the world,
from the horrendous Sichuan earthquake that killed 69,000 people,
many of them children. As part of the maturation of Chinese society,
thousands of journalists and volunteers insisted on going to Sichuan
to learn and help, as public opinion had decided that the government
had not built adequate schools for their children.

Now it is time for the Games. Even though the Olympics are
theoretically about individual glory, Americans have been chanting
U-S-A and boasting of medals for decades, so it's hard to ask China
to restrain itself. China, which did not win its first gold medal
until 1984, has emphasized sports with the most medals -- rowing, for
example, with 14 golds, rather than basketball, with its two collective golds.

Children with athletic potential have been plucked from their homes
and sequestered in training centers, if only as cannon fodder for the
world-level individuals who may emerge from these grueling sessions.

This is not exactly the long march ordered by Chairman Mao, who
melted kitchen utensils to build military machines, making it
impossible for peasants to cook their rice. That was insane. This is
national will at its ultimate. China will win some gold medals. The
medal it needs most is respect for being a worldly host.

China will be judged by the language skills of its workers and
whether we finicky visitors like the food. China will also be judged
by shows of human spontaneity from parents, fans and athletes at the Games.

Just as important, China will be judged by the international camera
crews that get around Beijing or out into the countryside, depicting
humanity in unguarded moments — the elderly threatened by the
breakdown of socialism, the devastation from the earthquake, the
youth who are dancing and dressing in gaudy fashion unimagined two decades ago.

We all have to live with one another awhile longer. Wouldn't it be
good for everybody if the world came out of the Olympics knowing and
liking China a little more than before?

E-mail: geovec@nytimes.com
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