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We have more to fear than cheap labor

Wow, what shows we witnessed at the opening and closing of the summer Olympics in China! The coliseum they named ‘The Bird’s Nest’ was itself a spectacular show with all its twining beams, technical wizardry and huge capacity of more than 90,000 spectators. The performances put every other production we have seen in the shadows. They will be showing it over and over again I’m sure. So if you missed live, do yourself a favor and catch it as it goes by again.
Everything was not only artistically dramatic but also symbolic of the Chinese story. There were thousands of synchronized drums, big plays on the circular nature of all life, and references linking past and the future. It wasn’t just a display of the spectacular. It was a purposeful presentation with an intended message.
What hit me most powerfully was the combination of extremely highly technical effects with the massive volume of human beings. And they were all working together. At one point the announcer said that the green illuminated costumes that 2,000 dancers wore had been delivered as 2,000 grey garments. The designer, seeing them six days before the show, announced they wouldn’t do and that new costumes needed to be sewn. The dancers were flitting around the stadium in new costumes in short order. Imagine the USA going through the customary processes of a free society and responding in the same short time.
Another display of undulating cubes flowed together and showed the forming of the earth. I said to myself, ‘Wow, and we think we are the nation with imagination in technology!’ Then out of the cubes jumped thousands of human beings who had directed the cube’s movements and now wore a uniform smile. People and equipment all directed by a totalitarian central command can act swiftly, effectively and overwhelmingly. This is China.
Off and on throughout the two weeks of the Olympics, broadcasters from the U.S. would show some treasure they had purchased in Beijing. They were thrilled to find what we might consider bargains: tailored pure silk dresses for $100 or natural pearls for $5. But who really paid the cost of these tourist souvenirs? We can’t let trinkets blind us to consequences of a country’s actions.
I have to wonder about a life in which experts search for potentially superior athletes amidst 3-year-old girls and boys and families see no other way out of their poverty and social condition than to allow them to be taken away to training camps for the rest of their childhood. I have to wonder about consideration for individual rights when a girl is allowed to use her voice in song but told she isn’t pretty enough and so a substitute is propped up to lip sync her words in the talent show called the Olympics.
I think I heard that the Chinese spent about $50 billion to host the Olympics. One has to ask who decided this was such a priority, where did the money come from, what else could a developing nation have done with the cash. These aren’t just questions for Chinese citizens and probably would never be uttered out loud there. These are our questions as we see what we are rubbing against as our competition and our partners in an international economy.
If it is true that our country is borrowing money from the Chinese to buy oil from the Saudis, we have a problem of many dimensions. If it is true that China is manipulating the value of our currency, we better look out. No longer is access to information the defining quality of a nation since everyone has access. Innovation, the new stated Chinese goal, has in the past been our country’s leg up on other countries. If we want to stay an economic leader, a moral standard bearer and an icon for democracy, we better wake up. While we have been basking in our comfort zone of the last hundred years, old forces of power in a human-dominated world have been reshaping into new threats of control.
Yet as I travel around the world, I hear criticism of the new face of America conflicting with the secret desire of many foreigners to move here if they could. Given a few more years of advancement in what we have called developing countries, the folks in those places might see themselves as equals who have a lot to offer investors and new partners.
When one sees and hears what we export to other countries, it is no wonder our values and lifestyle look a bit shallow. Movies, television and advertising present us as a money-and-glamour-focused society. We may come off as overweight, lazy, ineffective and spoiled children to the hordes of better trained and more disciplined citizens around the world, even though their little girls think they should replicate Brittany Spears and little boys make the tough-man moves of WWE stars in front of our cameras. Is that how we want to compete?
I meet people every day in Indiana who are really awesome. Smart, hard-working and caring people who do their best to make tomorrow better for everyone. They can stand with pride amidst the best the world has to offer. We need to look in a mirror and see those qualities in all of us and figure out how to keep the individual freedoms we value so in our country, export that image and yet work with others to be more than we can be alone.
I guess the framers of our constitution knew this would always be the great challenge for organized nations no matter what the culture looked like. It is more exciting and challenging than a crossword puzzle or an athletic feat.
Let’s figure it out together.