PRUDEN: Learning Olympics lessons

“When China spits,” so the ancient folk wisdom east of Suez goes, “Asia swims.” Size matters.

Spitting is the national sport of China, but the Chinese are trying mightily to change that with the ‘08 Olympics, opening today in Beijing. The games are meant to be a great coming-out party - “coming out” as in introducing a debutante. The Communists have grown up. The commissars have been housebroken, bathing regularly now, and they’ve learned to use indoor plumbing. They’re eager to put their new man on world display at the XXIX Olympiad.

But dowager debutantes spit like dragons. On the eve of the opening, with a monstrous smog settling over the spectacular Bird’s Nest Stadium barely visible in what the Chinese insist on calling “a gentle mist,” the ham-handed regime went about doing what it does best, pushing, bullying, and knocking people around. Three Christian advocates from the United States were detained when they attempted to pray on Tiananmen Square for Chinese Christians imprisoned for practicing their faith. In another incident, two young Britons and two young Americans were ordered deported when they unfurled banners in the iconic square, proclaiming “One World, One Dream, Free Tibet.” The banners gave the Chinese a particularly painful bout of heartburn because they mocked the official slogan of the games, “One World, One Dream.” The only dreams allowed are dreams issued by the Ministry of Dreams.

Dissident Muslims in the remote, predominantly Muslim Xinjiang province seemed to promise a new terrorist threat to the games, broadcasting a warning yesterday to Muslim parents to keep their children away from the games, not to “stay on the same train, on the same plane, in the same buildings, or any place the Chinese are.” Only Beijing could tempt (but only tempt) the civilized world to root for the radical Muslims.

If all this were not enough to put a pall on the festivities, the Chinese took the bait George W. put out in his stopover in Bangkok and sparked a welcoming row over Beijing’s nasty record of abusing basic human rights. The president, reluctantly bowing to pressure back home, scolded China severely - for someone named Bush - and invited Beijing into the 21st century. “America stands in firm opposition to China’s detention of political dissidents and human rights advocates and religious activists,” he said. “We press for openness and justice, not to impose our beliefs but to allow the Chinese people to express theirs.”

Semi-tough stuff, and the Chinese predictably told George W. to butt out. His demonstration of gold mettle would have been even tougher, still giving the old men in Beijing considerably less than they deserve, if he had delivered the scolding after he arrived in China. That might have been perceived as bad manners, and the president, true to his raising, couldn’t bring himself to impose on his hosts, however ill-mannered, crude and thuggish they may be.

The Chinese promised the International Olympic Committee, which awards the games, that they would behave for the duration of the games. The committee, which knows about dumbbells, jockstraps and other appurtenances of the perspiring arts, knows not very much about politics and history, and took the Chinese at their word. The Chinese, to the surprise of no one who reads the newspapers, have been reneging on the promises since.

They’re learning a painful and expensive lesson, too. Tyrants who invite 16,000 athletes and 30,000 journalists from 205 nations to the party should not expect to keep trouble shut out and everything else buttoned down and locked up. “The world needs to note that this is a sporting event, yes,” says Christine Brennan, a sports author and commentator who has written extensively about the Olympics, “but it’s much more than that. The [International Olympic Committee] gave China the greatest gift it could give, the Olympic Games, and with the gift the Chinese have used it to crack down even more on people who are speaking out. It’s reprehensible.” The spittle gets everybody wet.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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