BEIJING -- The two sides of China flashed in full view last week, and the Dodgers were a part of it. They played the Padres before a packed crowd here in a new Olympic stadium in this sprawling land’s first major-league game. This was the good side.
Elsewhere, peaceful protests against Chinese rule by Buddhist monks that began in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa a week ago have spread into violence in Sichuan province and other parts of western China. Some reports say 80 people have died in the clashes. This was the ugly side.
The baseball was fantastic and Beijing is as dynamic a city as one can imagine. The Chinese are focusing laser energy on making sure the city shines for this summer’s Olympics. But just below the surface, there are fault lines caused by paranoia and a hardened, old-school approach to dealing with dissent.
After spending the last several days in high-security Beijing, I got a sinking sense that those fault lines just might become wide, gaping fissures when the world shows up come August.
China, it appears, has a problem. A self-image problem. Walk around Beijing, a place teeming now with police and soldiers and manic 24-hour construction and you get a gut-level sense that this is a nation too worried about what others think, too concerned with looking good, new and perfect. It’s a self-image that, despite evolving openness, still leads to an obsession with control.
All around Beijing and the Dodgers last week were signs of paranoia. It was the black hotel TV screen that appeared every time CNN aired a story that gave light to China’s problems. It was the Internet sites about the latest troubles in China you could not find and the phalanx of police who pushed and argued with Dodgers pitcher Chan Ho Park, keeping him through sheer force from walking where he wanted to sign autographs.
It was also the man who followed me as I interviewed fans at Wukesong Stadium, the “hidden” cameras, the stern-faced police, soldiers and security guards that seemed to be everywhere. By my count, 67 of them stood outside the Dodgers’ clubhouse after the game Sunday.
Of course, this was because of the unrest linked to Tibet.
The games at Wukesong Stadium had all the trappings of home. Hip-hop blared, fans cheered and booed. There was “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the seventh-inning stretch. There were cheerleaders. As the games were played, in Tibet there was misery. Soldiers had put boots to the necks of protesters. The Chinese government was sending a message, loud and clear: Do not make a move that might embarrass, especially not now.
Nobody really wanted to talk about this at Wukesong Stadium. I approached Chinese fans there and when I mentioned Tibet, they stared blankly or scurried. I tried to get Dodgers officials to speak about it but they mostly smiled and waved me off.
At least Joe Torre spoke. Of trying to watch CNN and finding the news censored, he told my colleague, Dylan Hernandez: “At home with that stuff about freedom of speech and expression you think sometimes it’s overdone. But when you see the other side it doesn’t feel right.”
Other than Torre’s soft words, the silence was lamentable, but understandable. China is a fantastic place, but it is also a bully to many of its own people. Bullies inspire fear and loathing, that’s why the fans were hesitant. For the Dodgers and baseball, and any business seeking to cash in on this land flush with millions of potential new customers, speaking out would not pay.
It would be great to see baseball speak out about human rights as it attempts to open a new market in China, just as it would be great to see our athletes and teams speak out against our own social problems. Those days are over, it appears. The almighty dollar trumps the mere mention of what is right.
So we will watch the Olympics unfold and hope China begins to feel a bit better about itself, more able to handle people raising questions and witness imperfection.
If not, we may see a journalist this summer, probably more than one, get a swift boot home for going against the rules. We may see protesters bringing up Tibet or unfurling banners in Tiananmen Square, site of the deadly 1989 protests, and we will fear the response. As happened last week, if the government gets its anger up, boots may come down on necks.
It was hard not to think of this as the Dodgers played baseball games at Wukesong Stadium last week.
Kurt Streeter can be reached at email@example.com. To read previous columns by Streeter, go to latimes.com/streeter.