Years ago, when I was a freshly minted foreign correspondent in Jerusalem, a colleague offered me a valuable insight into Israel's national psychology. The key word to know, he told me, was freier, which, loosely translated from the Yiddish, means sucker. For Israel, a country that rose out of the ashes of the Holocaust and a 2,000-year Diaspora, the national ethos was a gritty self-reliance and a determination never to be victims again. Countries have a way of weaving their historical lessons into the fabric of daily life. So in Israel, the injunction to never be a freier can color national-security judgments as well as affect the course of negotiations with your landlady.
As China gets ready for its grand Olympic coming-out, its own historical sensitivities are much on display. The regime's herculean transformation of its blighted capital city will no doubt awe visitors. Beijing is, at least temporarily, greener than ever, and it sparkles with architectural gems. But the government has also ruthlessly quashed dissent and is lashing out at foreign criticism. Its athletes could win the medals sweepstakes for the first time ever—but that success could come amid allegations that Chinese athletes who wanted to retire were forced to compete against their will. At this moment of triumph and vulnerability, we decided to take a deeper look at what drives China. To do so, we turned to Orville Schell, a journalist, scholar and China watcher for more than four decades. Schell attributes much of China's behavior to what he calls a "national inferiority complex." He traces its roots to more than 100 years of perceived humiliations at the hands of Japan and the West. And he argues that it's impossible to understand what these Games mean to the Chinese without understanding their sense of historical grievance. Schell has never shied from criticizing Beijing. But he makes the case that protesting the Olympics now—just when the Chinese are announcing themselves to the world as having regained their national greatness—would backfire. "The Beijing Games present a fraught and sensitive moment," he writes. "Protests would almost certainly spark the kind of nationalist and autocratic backlash that they're meant to remedy."
For Schell, these are not just scholarly observations. They are the culmination of years of experience in a country he loves, finds full of contradictions and knows that the West must find a way to get along with. "The 'face' question is always present," he says. "How often I've been at a meeting or conference when the presence of Chinese officials, or even scholars, emits a kind of warning pulse against certain kinds of analysis, using certain turns of phrase or even raising certain questions. These prohibitions radiate outward from a core of historical sensitivity that is still within most Chinese, and seems to have a long half-life indeed."
Also in our cover package, author and Washington Post associate editor David Maraniss offers a historical perspective. He argues that today's Games are marked by an excess that can obscure the authentic moments of brilliance and sportsmanship that define the Olympic ideal. Maraniss traces many vices that will surely be present in Beijing—politics, commercialism, doping, nonstop TV coverage—to another Olympics almost 50 years ago: Rome 1960 (the title, incidentally, of his latest book), an Olympics, he argues, that provided a window on a modern world coming into view.
And lest you thought we were not interested in the contests and athletes themselves, NEWSWEEK's Mark Starr has written an informative and slightly cheeky viewer's guide to all the events. So let the Games begin—but remember that to the Chinese, they're not just games.