Monday, June 23, 2008

A Painted Face

For the Chinese government, the Beijing Olympics are all about face, all about how China looks to the rest of the world. The more smoothly the Olympics go, the more face the government earns.

And that's important. Because face is power. Face is trust. Face is money. Face is the government's mandate to rule.

According to James Fallows, a man whose opinion I trust more and more the more I read him,* the government is working so hard to protect its face that it's putting its face in danger.

In other words, China had a look in the mirror, figured things needed a little touch up, busted out the makeup, and started slathering it on. But making that happen safely and gracefully is easier said than done. The makeup is toxic. It's clown colors, not skin tones. And the only tools around to apply it are kitchen sponges, broomhandles, and staple guns.

China is closing up and pretending to be something it's not, and, by doing that, it's making itself unnecessarily vulnerable.

Without the makeup, China is China. It's a terrifyingly enormous developing economy with an authoritarian government, an unprecedented income gap, and looming water, air, and soil crises. It has corruption problems, deforestation problems, and an AIDS problem far bigger than most people would guess. Its cities are dirty, stinky, crowded, and plagued by bike theft. At the same time, however, China's a wildly dynamic and inspiring place. A world of hustle and hope, of challenges embraced and budding creativity. Living there, it felt like THE place to be, the cutting edge of the world, an intensely heady intersection of growth and poverty, a country changing daily and often for the better.

As host to the Olympics, the real, unmasked China could be lovably human in its imperfection, a place that could gain much more from a humble admission of its faults than from a demonstration of its strength.

But add the makeup, and things change. Hidden imperfections don't invite empathy; they breed distrust. And, if Fallows is right (and, according to my friends that are over there, he is), China's facepaint isn't fooling anyone.

It's simply inviting eye rolls and reinforcing suspicion about the sincerity of China's commitment to increasing transparency.

And that's if something bad doesn't happen.

Imagine a made up China. Clean sidewalks. Clean air. No traffic. No spitting.

Smiles. Hugs. Handshakes. Gold medals.

Parties. Celebrations. Karaoke.

Tourists. The Forbidden City. The Wall. Tiananmen Square.

And imagine a spontaneous protest, a patient activist emerging at an opportune moment.

Foreigners. Journalists. Cameras.

Imagine terrified 18 year old kids in big, green, oversized uniforms. Imagine their training, their orders, their education, their nationalism, their fear. Their fists or clubs or guns.

Imagine the story.

And imagine the loss of face.

Anyway, my imagination tells me that open beats closed. Nothing surprising, I guess: I always pull for things to work that way. In love, in business, and in government. For everyone. Even the CCP.

*Note: Despite an inauspicious first impression, I think Fallows is brilliantly thoughtful about China. If you get a chance, read his worried thoughts on the pre-Olympics tightening. His guesses at the reasons for it are fascinating, and, it seems to me, quite likely spot on. The Chinese propaganda machine remains a mystery, but the Fallows hypotheses are certainly worth considering.