The Olympics are more or less political as the host country chooses to make them, and China was desperately eager to showcase itself through the Games as a modern powerhouse reassuming its rightful place at the center of world affairs. But the insular system that has reigned there over the last 60 years blinded its leadership to the costs of being noticed, and now they’re flailing around clueless about how to handle the unscripted developments related to Tibet.
Let’s dismiss without further ado the complaint that the Olympics are suddenly being ‘politicized’ instead of being treated as mere sporting competitions. There’s a long tradition of turning the Games into propaganda, dating at least back to Adolf Hitler’s 1936 spectacle of Aryan superiority, running through the wrecking of the 1980 Moscow games by Jimmy Carter over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the triumphalism of the 1984 version in Los Angeles, which the Soviet return boycott inadvertently turned into a Reaganite orgy of national chauvinism.
All the attention focused on China provided an obvious opportunity for the Tibetans, and a wiser Chinese leadership would have anticipated a way to defuse it with a more conciliatory stance, thus letting the notoriously corrupt IOC gang and politicians eager to avoid controversy off the hook. But that would be like asking an elm tree to grow pears.
Dictatorships like China’s become so brittle that they’re incapable of the flexibility sometimes required to neutralize a problem. No doubt the autocrats fear opening the dikes to any type of criticism or establishing the precedent of successful opposition to what the top guy says.
The Chinese are apparently determined to get their way and to pretend everything is going exactly as planned in the best-planned of all possible worlds. However, they’re not living in Mao’s autarkic retro-spaceship any more but in a vast worldwide bazaar where they occupy the biggest trading stall. When you need to sell a quadrillion plastic toys and a Mount Everest of T-shirts, you have to consider the subjective universe of the customers. Failure to do so is bad for business.