Bring on the Bitchy Brits

Looking forward to the 2012 London Olympics.

Check out Slate’s complete coverage of the Beijing Games.

The Olympic flag

“Closing ceremony of Beijing Olympics draws world attention, praise.” That was how Xinhua, the Chinese press agency, described Sunday’s final Olympic celebration, and for once they weren’t exaggerating. Just before moving rapidly on to the next mass TV event in Denver, American headline writers did indeed pause to heap attention and praise on China’s Olympics. “As Games Close With Pageantry, U.S. and Chinese Teams Can Smile Over Successes,” declared the Washington Post. These were “Truly Exceptional Games,” trumpeted NBC’s Olympics Web site, not exactly unexpectedly. The Los Angeles Times kept it simple: “Beijing’s Olympic Triumph.” But Americans were not unique: Xinhua quotes Mongolians, South Koreans, Pakistanis, and Iraqis, all saying more or less the same thing.

The only truly sour notes appeared in Britain, where, by contrast, every single member of the media, from the sleaziest tabloid hack to the snootiest highbrow columnist, is gearing up to criticize every conceivable aspect of the London Olympics, due to take place in 2012. This time, the Daily Telegraph was first out of the starting gate, declaring the eight-minute handover ceremony—involving a red London bus, umbrellas, and soccer star David Beckham—a “British fiasco.” In particular, their correspondent objected to the “raddled, sweat-drenched face of Led Zeppelin lead guitarist Jimmy Page” whose music resembled “a badly tuned transistor radio in a tin bucket.”

And when I read that sentence, I sighed with relief. Thank you, Britain, for giving the world the gift of nasty, negative, snarky journalism, along with the culture of free speech that sustains it. In fact, there isn’t the slightest chance that the London Olympics will resemble the Beijing Olympics: not in choreography, not in pyrotechnics, not in quantities of identically dressed, supercoordinated dancers—and not in suppression of political dissidents, either.

For the truth is that the Beijing Olympics truly were—as was widely predicted—an international triumph for Chinese authoritarianism, which is precisely what they were intended to be. When treated uncritically, propaganda works. What you saw on the screen was the triumph, the glory, Michael Phelps, and the fireworks. What you did not see, and what the Chinese public did not see, were the arrests, detentions, and jail sentences—not to mention the threats and intimidation—that the Chinese government thought necessary to make the Games run smoothly, though these were no secret.

In fact, Amnesty International has produced an excellent catalog of the “continued deterioration” in the treatment of human rights advocates, journalists, and lawyers in the run up to the Games. Human Rights Watch went even further, calling the Olympics a “catalyst for human rights abuses,” and declaring that the 2008 Games “have put an end—once and for all—to the notion that these Olympics are a ‘force for good’ ” Multiple media accounts have documented the massive forced evictions as well as the destruction, often without proper compensation, of houses and livelihoods in Beijing to make way for stadiums and other Olympic construction.

But although some human rights organizations and journalists did their jobs, most of the hundreds of politicians, statesmen, and celebrities in attendance said nothing about any of that. Although the U.S. Embassy in Beijing did issue an irritable statement or two following the arrest of eight Americans who tried to protest Chinese treatment of Tibet, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, the White House’s representative at the closing ceremony, used the embassy’s Web site to declare the Olympics a “unique opportunity for the Chinese people to demonstrate the progress they have made and their sincere desire to engage with the world at every level.” Thus did she help reinforce the Chinese regime’s legitimacy among its own people, cover up its bad record, and buffer its image around the world—which was precisely what the Chinese regime had hoped people like her would do.

To his credit, the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, looked ill at ease during that eight-minute handover ceremony. But he cheered up afterward, giving a stirring speech touching on the origins of Ping-Pong (“invented on the dining tables of England”), and thus inspiring the crowd not to stand solemnly, in awe of the political significance of the coming national endeavor, but to laugh. And here’s a prediction: In the run-up to the 2012 Olympics, Londoners will complain about the traffic; politicians will carp about the cost; critics will call the ceremonies tasteless; no one will use the phrase Olympic triumph. But there won’t be arrests or police intimidation; there won’t be forced expropriation of property; there won’t be stony-faced acrobats marching in formation—and in the end, the whole thing will be a lot less sinister, a lot less damaging, and a lot more fun.