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Will China's Caged Birds Soar?

12:03 PM, Jul 29, 2008 • By JENNIFER CHOU
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During his recent visit to Qatar, Chinese vice president Xi Jinping told a group of Hong Kong reporters traveling with him that the chaotic series of incidents leading up to the Beijing Games, including the Lhasa riot and the frequently interrupted torch relay, should be treated with this mindset:

We cannot worry too much whether people like the fact that Beijing is hosting the Olympics. The world is a big bustling place made up of all sorts of people. There are all kinds of birds in the cage. If we remove the ones making the most noise, the cage would no longer be a bustling place…

Despite Xi's "bustling-cage theory," the noisiest of the birds in China have been silenced or put on notice with less than two weeks to go before the Games. Chinese media remain characteristically mum about these arrests and detentions. Instead, they have inundated the public with reports that the Beijing Olympics is the realization of a century-old dream that started in 1908 with these three questions raised by the magazine Tianjin Youth:

When will China send an athlete to the Olympics? When will China send a team to the Olympics? When will China host the Olympics?

The first Chinese athlete to compete in the Olympics was sprinter Liu Changchun. He was eliminated in the preliminary heats of both the 100m- and 200m-dash at the 1932 Los Angeles Games. Chinese media have emphasized that Liu was a patriot who represented a poor nation considered by many as "the sick man of East Asia" and widely viewed with "suspicion, disdain, and ridicule."

The second question raised by Tianjin Youth was answered in 1984, when Beijing sent a team to the Los Angeles Games. This marked the People's Republic of China's first full participation in the Olympics. Chinese media find it poignantly significant that it was in Los Angeles, more than half a century after Liu Changchun's humiliating defeat there, that China won its first-ever Olympic gold medal.

On August 8, Beijing will meet the magazine's third challenge as more than 80 heads-of-state attend the opening ceremony of the 29th Olympic Games. The magnitude of this moment of glory is not lost on the Chinese people, as evidenced by this Internet posting:

As foreign leaders gather in Beijing for the opening ceremony of the Olympics, they would not dare to sit when the Chinese master of ceremonies yells "stand," just as they would not dare to stand when they are told to "sit." They must listen to the Chinese national anthem. And they must be on their feet while they gaze at the Chinese national flag with respect...Ten thousand states have come to pay tribute to the Middle Kingdom, just as the Chinese anticipated a century ago.

A century ago, the famed Chinese educator Zhang Bolin predicted that "the day China hosts the Olympics is the day when China soars into the blue sky."

The question is, how far can a nation of caged birds soar?