Crows and hawks peck for human guts,
Carry them in their beaks and hang them on the branches of withered trees.
Captains and soldiers smeared on the bushes and grass;
The General schemed in vain.
Know therefore that the sword is a cursed thing
Which the wise man uses only if he must. (trans. Arthur Waley)
The present Chinese government, unfortunately does not appear very well-versed in the poetry of Li Po, and seems only too willing to use force to stifle political dissent and to put down the initially non-violent uprising in Tibet, for example.
All of this, and much more, is well-known. Even as the world press was descending on Beijing over the past week or so, there were news stories of the Chinese government restricting reporters’ internet access in order to keep them from reporting on issues the government may not want to have discussed in public. But because of the incredible amount of broadcast and endorsement money involved in the Olympics, the International Olympic Committee and most governments are only too happy to turn a blind eye. Nothing unusual about that, sadly.
For its part, it seems pretty clear that China wants to use the Olympics to present a happy image to the rest of the world. Meanwhile it cracks down on protesters of various stripes when no one is looking too closely. I don’t mean to pick on China, since oppression is something that occurs all over the globe. And there are many great things about China, its poetic tradition being but one. However, I personally wouldn’t feel right indulging in “Olympic fever,” watching so-and-so win enough gold medals to get a Wheaties deal, knowing that all this is window-dressing covering over the fact that Tibetan protesters are simultaneously being tortured in Chinese jails. Sorry, just can’t do it.
I would’ve liked to watch some international baseball at least, but there will have to be one less viewer adding to the networks’ advertising revenues. I know I probably add to a lot of crap in my regular viewing and purchasing habits, but the Olympics are often symbolic (remember 1968, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave the Black Power salute), so I’m boycotting. There's nothing particularly original in this, and there’s nothing especially “poetic” about it either, I guess, except that poets have often been at the forefront of protest.
Writing in yesterday’s Irish Times about the opening Olympic ceremonies, Keith Duggan said, “For almost 20 years, Beijing has had to live with the image of a lone man standing in Tiananmen Square in front of an army tank as its abiding metaphor. Today has been promised as the new face of an ancient city. And if the infernal Beijing fog would only clear, we might just see it.” This seems to miss the point entirely. That lone man in front of the tank was quite possibly executed or killed on the spot, and not much has changed in China except that its economy is now awash in capital. So let that image stand as the abiding one, and the Beijing Olympics be seen as the exercise in propaganda that it is.