August 9, 2008

Beijing Olympic Games Open – Smog Closes In

The spectacular opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic games took place yesterday. The four-hour event was choreographed by celebrated Chinese film director Zhang Yimou. The finale was in the style of a martial arts movie, and involved former Olympic gymnastics champion Li Ning "running" along the rim of the roof of the Bird's Nest stadium, before using his Olympic torch to light the huge Beijing cauldron, home of the Olympic flame for the next few days.

Beijing is also acting as a metaphorical cauldron at the moment. The opening ushered in protests about a lot more than just sport.

I suppose it was expected that the issue of Tibet would give rise to some form of criticism. Amongst a number of demonstrations within China, the Great Wall of China was adorned with a "Free Tibet" banner:

It seems likely that Islamic terrorists are also on the radar screens of the Chinese security forces. Last week in Kashgar 16 policemen were killed "by jihadists bent on disturbing the Olympic games", according to the Chinese government. However the UK's Daily Telegraph newspaper takes a slightly different tack. According to their correspondent Malcolm Moore:

Kashgar has revolted against Chinese rule several times in the past, the last real attempt came in 1864, and frankly the local population looks too terrified to consider trying again.

It did strike me, however, that the location of the bombing might be vaguely significant. The two alleged jihadists struck opposite the Tarim hotel, a four-star joint owned by the state petroleum company.

Xinjiang produces the bulk of China's oil and gas, which flows out of the Takalaman desert. Pipelines spider across the province, carrying the riches of Xinjiang directly to Beijing and Shanghai.

The oil is making the province rich – but the recipients of the wealth are not the local Uighurs, but their Han Chinese masters. Even if an Uighur wanted to work on a drill site or refinery, the Chinese government is too jittery about terrorism these days to allow them past security.

Now I'm not sure if it really counts as a protest or not, but this one certainly managed to slip through Chinese security too.

U.S. cyclist Mike Friedman and three other track cyclists on the U.S. Olympic Team caused some controversy by leaving the flight that took them to Beijing wearing masks over their noses and mouths. According to the New York Times the United States Olympic Committee had issued the specially designed masks to protect athletes from the potentially harmful air in Beijing. The U.S.O.C.’s lead exercise physiologist, Randy Wilber, had advised the athletes to wear the masks on the plane and as soon as they stepped foot in China. On his blog Mike Friedman says that:

I am only doing what I perceive as best for my health and upcoming competition. I, nor any of the other athletes involved were attempting to make a political statement of any sort. We meant no offense to the great host the Chinese have been and all appreciate the hard work and devotion they’ve displayed to provide this venue. We are honored to be here, and this has been a long time dream. The bottom line is that we are here to compete faster, higher, and stronger while doing so clean, brave, reverent, and courteous trying to represent our country in the best possible way.

Finally, here's what the Russian media machine makes out of the Chinese Olympic smog:

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