Today – 08-08-08 – at 8:08:08 p.m. in Beijing the 2008 Olympic Games open.
They'll showcase some of the best in human nature: Physical vigor, perseverance and obstacles overcome. The games promote an idealistic dream, to rise above politics, national strife and worldly troubles and dwell, for a few weeks, in a realm of peaceful competition.
China, the host country, has a horrible human rights record.
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China has no freedom of speech, of the press or of religion.
Beijing, the host city, has some of the world's most polluted air.
The Chinese government, of course, wants to show the world that China is no longer backward and is worthy of the honor of hosting the Olympics.
But in the process it's getting a most uncomfortable lesson in what it means to have the world's attention focused on you.
The world now knows, for instance, that journalists in China can be beaten and kicked by police, as happened to two Japanese journalists this week. This came despite China's now-broken promise, made to win hosting rights, of complete freedom for international media.
Police have been pummeling journalists in China for years, of course. But now the world is paying attention.
And China's industrial growth – which many Americans blame for U.S. job losses – has created vast pollution problems, not least of which is poisonous air. To improve the atmosphere, the government had to shut factories, stop construction and order many cars off the road. Even so, the air in recent days was hazy; some U.S. cyclists decided to don pollution-cutting masks upon arriving at the airport this week – and got in trouble for it.
Although the supposed Olympics ideal is to rise above politics, President Bush got political this week, lambasting China for its repression and lack of freedom.
China is responding, unfortunately, in its habitual way: rounding up political opponents and trying – probably in vain – to stifle all protests as soon as they emerge.
The world is watching, and China is not looking good.
Once the games start in earnest, many people will pay more attention to athletics than politics. Because the athletes aren't to blame for the sins of the host nation, that's OK, while the games last.
But afterward? China should recognize what a gigantic, global black eye it is getting, and start serious reform.
Based on the past, we're not optimistic.