Gate-crashing the Olympics Party
China's leaders hoped the 2008 Beijing Olympics would mark China's arrival on the world stage. Having prepared a glittering array of venues, a panoply of pampering for visitors and a diverting visual feast of an opening celebration, Communist Party officials undoubtedly hoped the inevitable protesters would be ignored or regarded as cranks.
China planned the Olympics to be a party and parade like no other.
And nobody welcomes a party pooper or raining on a parade. That was exactly the tone they took when movie director Steven Spielberg backed out of choreographing celebrations: "You weren't invited anyway, you party pooper!"
The story was supposed to be of success, of how far China has come, of how well the Communist Party has promoted prosperity and created harmony.
While they anticipated some criticism on human rights, they clearly did not expect riots in country after country caused by the mere passing of the Olympic torch on its way to Beijing.
The shock of events in London, Paris and America has begun to show through the Chinese media's steely self- control and censorship. But instead of examining how they could have handled Tibet better and how they should reconsider Hu Jia's jailing and their human rights record in general, China's officials suspect an international conspiracy to ruin their Olympics.
There isn't one.
But that does not mean these events have no cause. They do.
The timing of the Tibet unrest could not have been foreseen but jailing of human rights activist Hu Jia now has merely added to the mistaken belief overseas that China is a police state little different from Hitler's 1936 Berlin. One hears that comparison more and more in Western media and blogs.
But Hu Jintao has not written a Mein Kampf, nor is China seeking conquest or race war. Yet neither that overwrought historical comparison nor the ill-timed and badly thought-out arrest of Hu Jia explains the tide of protest.
And that puzzles China's officials.
Just like Japan's 1964 Olympics, officials expected the global sports fete to offer an opportunity to showcase China's accomplishments in developing a world-class economy. And given the British and American abuses of human rights during the Iraq War and the downplaying of such issues by many other countries in the global war on terror, Chinese officials probably expected to get by this issue with minimal fuss. But circumstances have conspired to nix these hopes.
On the one hand, China has risen far faster and farther than anyone expected. In 1964 Japan was welcomed into the community of nations and feted for its economic progress and promise. Only 20 years later was it feared and denounced as a predatory nation bent on global economic domination.
Today we have forgotten just how resented the Japanese were in the 1980s.
The Ugly Japanese supplanted the Ugly American for a time after the 1975 US defeat in Vietnam. At one point Japanese became fond of noting that their property was so valuable relative to America's that if they would sell the Emperor's palace grounds in Tokyo at the going price of Tokyo real estate, they could buy all of California.
Imagine how Californians felt.
Japan's decline and sad state today have banished the fears once prevalent that we would all be working for Japanese corporations. But the Tokyo Olympics would have been regarded very differently if they had been in 1988 instead of 1964.
In a real sense China has risen too far too fast. And with severe economic downturns and financial upheavals hitting Western confidence and calling a halt to their party, China's contrasting good fortune and raucous celebrations are rubbing Western feelings the wrong way at just the wrong time.
No one welcomes a stranger's celebration parade in the midst of their own family's funeral, and that is what appears to be happening this summer. It's really bad timing, not bad feelings.
Chinese officials never expected they would make the leap so quickly from being welcomed as a new trading entity (recall China joined the World Trade Organization only in 2001) to being resented as a global economic powerhouse. But the era of the Ugly Chinese, fairly or not, has arrived.