Of all the buzz around the Beijing Olympics, the most puzzling is the idea that the Games will "introduce" Americans to China. The world's oldest civilization? Home of 1.3 billion people? Tireless exporter of goods and importer of jobs? Introduced? Haven't we already met?
Where American media and pop culture are concerned, yes and no. Cable TV channels and news outlets have dutifully been trying to give Americans a crash course as the Games approach. But the country's biggest pre-Olympic exposure to Chinese culture this summer has been Kung Fu Panda, about a chubby bear (voiced by Jack Black) who becomes a warrior. The movie has grossed more than $200 million in the U.S. alone. As cartoon primers on Buddhist philosophy go, it's not bad.
So as far as Chinese Ursidae living in martial-arts monasteries--yeah, we're covered. But present-day, nonmagical, human China? Kung Fu Panda is set in a pre-industrial China, like Mulan and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The new Mummy sequel, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, set in the 1940s, is about an undead 2,000-year-old Han emperor (Jet Li) and an army of terra-cotta warriors. The China that appears in American pop culture is about as modern as Arthurian England.
Contemporary China is a trickier subject. It's vibrant and fascinating but also an economic rival with human-rights and environmental issues. And for the corporations that run studios and cut distribution, satellite and Internet deals with Beijing, it's a vast market with a growing middle class--and a government touchy about unflattering portrayals. To make the Mummy sequel, filmmakers had to submit scripts to the Chinese state co-producers. Western companies that embrace freedom of information on this side of the Pacific have acceded to Chinese censorship: Microsoft, Yahoo!, even Google--whose slogan, "Don't be evil," turned out not to be valid worldwide.
So with rare exceptions, like China's stint as the heavy in the latest season of 24, Hollywood acts as if modern China doesn't exist. Where the Soviet Union was a Hollywood baddie for decades, China lurks unobserved, like dark matter in the universe. Even the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate replaced the Chinese with an evil corporation.
In a way, Hollywood is reflecting our other institutions, which haven't quite figured out China either. Is it a rival? A partner? A repressive authoritarian state? An engine of prosperity? A sinister force that tortured Jack Bauer? Or a delightful panda that likes to gobble dumplings? We know that China matters and will matter more. But we don't exactly know how. So it floats undefined, a Middle Kingdom poised between fascination and fear. Kids collect Master Shifu Happy Meal toys at McDonald's while parents worry that they may end up flipping burgers there if their jobs go to China. Meanwhile, Hollywood sublimates the anxiety in the form of dragons and marauding statuary.
It may be just as well that pop culture doesn't want to take on China, given its history of cold war demonization and Charlie Chan caricatures. But the news media covering the Olympics don't have the luxury of ignoring it. Broadcasters have found their access restricted by China, which promised freedom to get the Games but is under scrutiny over Tibet, Darfur and internal human rights. Beijing is keeping Tiananmen Square, site of 1989's democracy protests, off limits to live TV for 18 hours a day.
And why shouldn't China expect to get its way? It's used to Western companies becoming morally flexible rather than risking lucrative business. The Games are worth $1 billion in advertising to NBC, and that's not counting parent company General Electric's investments in China.
NBC, which is sending Brian Williams to the Games as well as its sports crew, says it will cover breaking news in China even if it reflects poorly on the country's rulers. It owes its viewers to do at least that--and probably more. This Olympics isn't just a game. It's a chance for journalists to show their viewers the complexity and contradictions that Hollywood hasn't. That doesn't mean demonizing China; it does mean reporting on both the vitality and the repression, the economic growth and the political stagnation.
And it means doing that regardless of the business fallout. This Olympics will test whether Western broadcasters are exporting openness or importing censorship, whether China is growing more open or we just ignore its reality so we can make money. Western audiences need and want to know more about this country that figures ever more in their lives in ways good, bad and ambiguous. Let's not tell them to forget it and look at the cute panda. time.com/tunedin