Peripatetic Times columnist Tom Friedman was in China for the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, and his Wednesday column "A Biblical Seven Years" praised the host country for the Games' "magnificent $43 billion infrastructure," built over the past seven years while the U.S. has been stuck fighting Al Qaeda,. Friedman also praised the Communist nation's "planning, concentrated state power" and "national mobilization." Don't those words have more than a little echo of Stalinism?
After attending the spectacular closing ceremony at the Beijing Olympics and feeling the vibrations from hundreds of Chinese drummers pulsating in my own chest, I was tempted to conclude two things: "Holy mackerel, the energy coming out of this country is unrivaled." And, two: "We are so cooked. Start teaching your kids Mandarin."
However, I've learned over the years not to over-interpret any two-week event. Olympics don't change history. They are mere snapshots - a country posing in its Sunday bests for all the world too see. But, as snapshots go, the one China presented through the Olympics was enormously powerful - and it's one that Americans need to reflect upon this election season.
China did not build the magnificent $43 billion infrastructure for these games, or put on the unparalleled opening and closing ceremonies, simply by the dumb luck of discovering oil. No, it was the culmination of seven years of national investment, planning, concentrated state power, national mobilization and hard work.
What Friedman apparently has not "learned over the years" is the phrase "Potemkin Village." And perhaps some reprioritizing of that $43 billion in infrastructure spending is in order, given the state of China's schools, hundreds of which collapsed during the recent earthquakes, resulting in grievous loss of young life.
And how did the Chinese government "mobilize" its country? Partly by bulldozing the homes of its citizens. The Times Olympic Blog reported earlier this month on the displacement of people to make room for the Olympics. The left-wing Guardian newspaper puts the number at around 1.5 million displaced Chinese. That figure makes Friedman's breezy celebration of "concentrated state power" and "national mobilization" more than a little sinister.