August 24, 2008

Don’t Begrudge the Joy of Common Chinese Letter From Britain

By John F. Burns

It was something I'd not given much thought to in years. And, suddenly, as I rummaged this past week through the drawers of an old teak traveler's desk bought an age ago in China, there it was, as if fate had decreed it wait no longer to be rediscovered: my finisher's medal from a long-ago marathon in the city of great imperial gates and temples and palaces we Westerners used to call Peking.

It wasn't much of a race I ran that day, hardly deserving of a medal. And it isn't much of a medal either - more a lapel badge, golden runners against a white background heading for a red lantern etched with the year, 1973. Nor, as I recall, was it even a full marathon, foreshortened to accommodate runners weakened by the stresses of the Cultural Revolution, the murderous madness Mao Zedong unleashed in 1966.

A reporter for The Globe and Mail of Toronto at the time and the only foreigner in the race, I finished something like 1,147th in a field of about 2,500, and even that was made possible only by the two steelworkers who ran alongside me mile after mile, urging me to finish when my legs and lungs demanded that I quit.

If an unseen hand guided me to retrieve and burnish the emblem of that moment, it could hardly have chosen a better time, in the closing days of China's triumph in staging the most stunning Olympic Games of our era, at least visually, and in some of the athletic feats on the track and in the pool. It is a show that ends on Sunday with another men's marathon through the streets of the Chinese capital, beginning, as the 1973 event did, in Tiananmen Square.

The runners will gather, as we did, under the gaze of Mao's portrait on the great vermilion gate guarding the Forbidden City. And they will run down some of the same tree-lined boulevards. The crowds, though large, could hardly be more dense or clamorous than the million or more people who lined the sidewalks 35 years ago, when the race, like President Richard Nixon's visit the year before, was a watershed in the thawing of the Cultural Revolution.

I haven't set foot in China since 1986, when my second posting there for The New York Times ended with imprisonment and deportation on charges of using a motorcycle trip across the Chinese heartland as a cover for spying on the country's missile program. That imbroglio, long since settled by a private apology from the Chinese authorities, meant that I left China for the last time just as it began its ascent to its current wealth and power with Deng Xiaoping's repudiation of Mao and the reforms that put an end to the Maoist delusion of economic autarchy.

All of which has made me, perhaps more than most, a fascinated spectator, via television, of the Beijing Games. And my reaction, like that of many I know, has not been quite as anticipated. Last April, I reported on the running of the Olympic flame through the streets of London, along with the mayhem that ensued as human rights protesters tried to break through a praetorian guard around the flame composed of track-suited men from the People's Armed Police, the unit that, only a short time before, had opened fire on rioters in Tibet.

My sense, then, was that the Games could prove a serious embarrassment for China, attracting unwanted attention to the dark underside of Chinese life that has changed little since Mao - the suppression of minority rights in Tibet and Xinjiang; the archipelago of labor camps; and other outrages, like the unspeakable trade in human organs, some allegedly taken from executed prisoners.

Little of this has featured, at least with much prominence, in Western coverage of the Games. Just as the Chinese leaders gambled, the 20,000 journalists accredited in Beijing have marched onto the front pages of the world's newspapers and into the television newscasts with stories of Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt and other sporting heroes.

And long after the Games are over, who will forget the stunning images of the opening ceremony with its panorama of Chinese history, surely one of the most ravishing public spectacles mounted since the days of ancient Rome? How can the closing ceremony on Sunday top that?

In weighing my own wonderment at all this, and what it has conveyed of the power and confidence of the new China, I've been tempted to reproach myself for credulity. And, in truth, some of the worst instincts of the old China have poked through, most egregiously in the substitution of the pretty little girl in a red dress, and a voice-over, for the 7-year-old whose voice, but not teeth, met the Politburo's standards. Then there was the dancer paralyzed in a fall during rehearsals for the opening ceremony, whose tragedy was suppressed lest it, too, spoil the harmony of the opening night.

Those incidents have been ominously familiar to anyone who experienced the Mao years. But in reaching for a balanced view of the Games, there has been something else to borrow from the Cultural Revolution, something that kept me sanguine amid the persecution and chaos presided over by Mao.

Ironically enough, it was something taken from his Little Red Book, which sits beneath his porcelain bust in my living room here in England. In condemning the West, he said, the Chinese should be careful to distinguish between the "handful of capitalists and imperialists" who made it what it was, and the ordinary people, who were China's friends.

It's a dictum that can serve us, too. Whatever the Chinese leadership may have wanted from their Olympic extravaganza, one thing that has been beyond stage-management has been the joy and pride of ordinary Chinese that have permeated the images from Beijing. And who could begrudge them? Certainly not this once-upon- a-time runner. My memories of that far-gone winter day reside less in the reception staged by the race officials, who kept the shivering winners waiting more than an hour so the "foreign friend" could be feted, first, atop the podium in Tiananmen Square, than in the good will, and good humor, of the Chinese common man and woman.

It was they who kept me running long after my own willpower had collapsed. "Jia you! Jia you!" voices in the crowd shouted along those seemingly endless miles, meaning "add gas," their good- natured way of telling the exhausted foreigner to pick up the pace. And then there were the reed-thin steelworkers, who all but resorted to a fireman's lift to get me to the finish. As I watch Sunday's marathon, I shall be thinking of them, hoping they will be somewhere out there on Beijing's streets, urging other faltering runners to keep going after their legs begin to fail.


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Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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