The Olympics has revealed two Chinas. There is the one the Chinese government, the IOC and the CBC are doing their darnedest to portray -- modern, confident, competent, out-reaching. It is a very real and very genuine China. Yet it exists simultaneously with another very real China, the one no one wants to admit to -- violent, dictatorial, repressive.
The first China has a young face. It is the China of last Friday's opening ceremonies. It has grand, benign ambitions and is capable of pulling off the most remarkable public celebrations since conquering Caesars were treated to elaborate triumphal parades into Rome at the end of successful campaigns.
It craves to be a superpower, but a superpower of the mind and bank account.
It is the China of the Bird's Nest national stadium and the Water Cube aquatics site, the soaring skyscrapers of Shanghai and Beijing and the Ling Long Pagoda. It wants desperately to be accepted by the rest of the world, and appreciated for its accomplishments.
The other China is old. It is the China of pollution, Internet censorship, political executions, authoritarianism, suppression of Falun Gong and Tibet and the Uyghurs of Xinjiang province. It has secret police, fires missiles at Taiwan and props up tyrannies in places such as Sudan, North Korea, Burma and Zimbabwe.
The first China giggles at its own clumsy, yet sincere attempts to speak English to foreign journalists, while the other, darker one culls its universities and boardrooms for flawless English speakers it can put forward as official spokesmen so that no one would ever guess it was not perfect.
In short, the Olympics are revealing that in post-Mao China, the habits of Maoism are hard to shake for the Central Committee and much of the country's ruling caste. The Olympics exist within a New China bubble. Outside, the Old China security apparatus is working to keep that bubble from being burst. But at the same time, Old China's brutish methods threaten the bubble every bit as much as Tibetan monks, Muslim separatists and democracy protesters.
Ancient China thought of itself as the Middle Kingdom, suspended between heaven and Earth. Modern China is much the same, caught between the powerful grip of its old society -- which produced the horrors of 70 million dead in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution-- and the modern international world it seeks to be part of.
That's why at these Games the Great Helmsman has been recreated as sort of a rollie-pollie national mascot: Beibei, Jingjing, Huanhuan, Yingying, Nini and Mao Tse-tung. He is too beloved, still, by many older Chinese to be cast overboard completely. Yet in the new China his legacy is too horrific to venerate or even recall.
The China of the Olympics is not a false front. It's more a sort of parallel China to the old, bellicose, goose-stepping one. Defying the laws of political physics, the two occupy the same space simultaneously without cancelling one another out.
A friend with extensive experience in China explains this dichotomy by saying that ordinary Chinese are now nearly as free as anyone to express their disdain for their government, but as soon as their rantings attract an audience (as soon as they begin to compete for the loyalty of their countrymen with the China's communist rulers), then they will be arrested, tortured, imprisoned and perhaps even executed.
The freedom is real, but so is the threat.
So long as the world is prepared to see only the new, young China, the old cruel China -- the menacing military superpower-to-be -- will survive.
In this way, with its refusal to see China's human rights abuses and its willingness to rationalize away China's censorship, pollution and other warts, the IOC has become bad China's chief enabler.
You could see just how keen the IOC was to whitewash China's problems this week when Arne Ljungqvist, chairman of the IOC's medical commission, insisted the haze over Beijing was not smog, but a "mist" brought on by heat and humidity.
At no time during peak daytime hours this week has the air quality index in China's capital fallen below 91. In North America, when the index hits 50, environment agencies begin warning small children, the elderly and asthmatics to restrict outside activities. This is probably being overcautious. But were Dr. Ljungqvist the chief of public health in any major western city, at a reading of 91 he would be demanding action rather than making up cockamamie stories about misty mornings.
The IOC has covered for Old China ever since it awarded it the Games in 2001. Committee members may think that by diverting the world's attention to New China they are hastening the end of Maoist China, when in fact they are prolonging its life.