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Victim or Victor? China's Olympic Odyssey

June 8, 2008

Resurgent nationalists are counting on a torrent of gold medals to
erase centuries of humiliation. Will the Beijing Games complete a
restoration of Chinese greatness or arrogance?
The Wall Street Journal (USA)
June 7, 2008; Page W1

For many centuries China thought it was the center of the world, and
it expected foreigners to share this view. Foreign dignitaries were
received at the imperial court, but only as vassals paying tribute to
the Son of Heaven. This perception is now obsolete, of course, even
though Chairman Mao often behaved like an emperor toward his foreign
guests, but Chinese still care deeply about national honor. "Face,"
for want of a better word, still counts. This is why the Olympic
Games are so important, as well as the events leading up to them.

The tragic earthquake in Sichuan province showed the best of China,
and glimpses of the worst. Compared to the criminal negligence of the
Burmese regime's response to Cyclone Nargis, the Chinese authorities,
after some initial hesitation, did their best to cope with the
disaster. Not only did they allow rescue teams from Japan, Taiwan,
Singapore and Russia to come in and help, but contrary to their usual
practice they allowed domestic media to report on the full scale of
the disaster. This unexpected gust of press freedom inspired the most
extraordinary outpouring of spontaneous solidarity with the victims.
Volunteers rushed to the scene from all over China.

This is unlikely to have happened without the impending Olympic
Games. China's rulers knew the eyes of the world were on them,
especially after the crackdown on Tibetan demonstrators. So China is
suddenly looking rather better than before. A slender hope for more
freedom emerged out of a natural catastrophe that left more than
50,000 dead. Unfortunately, in the last few days, the Chinese
government appears to be reverting to its old ways. Web sites asking
critical questions of the government are being closed down. A scholar
from Nanjing Normal University was arrested for drawing attention to
the problems of having nuclear facilities near the earthquake zone.
Even civic groups with the most benevolent intentions can be seen as
a threat by a government that views all independent collective
activities with deep suspicion. Patriotism is encouraged in China,
but not when it runs outside of official control. How will this
affect that great jamboree of global patriotism, the Olympic Games?

In some ways China and the Olympic Games were made for each other.
The People's Republic of China can no longer really be described as a
Communist country, Marxism having been pretty much discarded on the
rush to economic wealth. But like most autocracies with strong
19th-century roots, China still is a society given to mass
spectacles, national pageants, officially boosted nationalism and
grand state-led projects. Chinese nationalism -- with its belief in
the Darwinian struggle of nations -- is rather anachronistic, and so
are the Olympic Games.

The founder of the modern Olympics, Pierre, Baron de Coubertin, was a
minor French aristocrat who was deeply affected by the French defeat
in the 1871 war against Prussia, and the popular uprising in Paris
that followed. France, in his view, had become a decadent country,
which needed invigorating, or "rebronzing," in his peculiar phrase.
Organized sports were the proper way to do this. Mr. Coubertin, like
many blazered grandees, was a great admirer of the British public
school system, with its stress on games and physical prowess. Sports,
he believed, would restore national health, and not only in France.
Vigorous competition would make people everywhere more industrious
and less rebellious. Wars would become obsolete. And so in 1896 the
modern Olympics were born, appropriately enough in Athens.

For a nobleman of his time, Mr. Coubertin actually had a relatively
liberal disposition. His brand of patriotism was never militant.
Following the British public school style, his motto for the Games
was that the important thing was not to win, but to take part.
Nineteenth-century France also saw a very different kind of
nationalism, however, marked by a loathing of liberals, Anglo-Saxons
and Jews, though not necessarily in that order. This brand was
represented by a slightly younger man than Mr. Coubertin, named
Charles Maurras, founder of the radical right movement Action
Francaise. He was a spectator at the 1896 Athens Games, despite his
initial distaste for a contest that he regarded as typical of
Anglo-Saxon cosmopolitanism. But as the Games went on, he began to
change his mind. He was hopeful that "when different races are thrown
together, and made to interact, they repel one another, estranging
themselves, even as they believe they are mixing." The cosmopolitan
gathering would surely become "the joyous battlefield of races and
languages," thus vindicating Mr. Maurras's view of the world.

Modern Chinese nationalism often veers between Mr. Coubertin's and
Mr. Maurras's ideas of nationhood. Officially, the government likes
to talk about friendship between peoples, and harmony and peace,
while at the same time promoting an injured sense of historical
Chinese victimhood at the hands of foreign powers. When
demonstrations of Chinese nationalism run out of control, with or
without official encouragement, the feeling of national hurt can turn
to violent aggression. It has been happening of late in the U.S.,
among other places, when Chinese students attacked Tibetans, or
indeed anyone who "offended the feelings of the Chinese people."


Nationalism is permeating Chinese culture. Here are some popular
movies and museums, plus insightful books on Chinese affairs.

What makes outbursts of aggressive Chinese nationalism Maurrasian
rather than Coubertinian is the tendency to collapse the borderlines
between race, culture and nation. At the Athens Olympics of 1896, Mr.
Maurras saw -- or hoped to see -- a racial and cultural clash, not a
strictly national one.

Chinese nationalism is complicated by the fact that it is not always
clear what people mean by China. Taiwan, also known as the Republic
of China, is officially part of China, but is in fact an independent
state. Chinese civilization is spread across the world, from
Singapore to Amsterdam. Different versions of the Chinese language
are spoken all over Southeast Asia, as well as in China and Taiwan.
Ethnically, many Chinese-Americans see themselves as Chinese, no less
than Chinese in China do. So when Yo-Yo Ma, an American born in
Paris, gave a concert in Hong Kong in 1997, to celebrate the return
of the British colony to China, this provided a boost for Chinese patriotism.

This kind of patriotism is not always political. The Sichuan
earthquake not only inspired a patriotic spirit of solidarity inside
China, but donations from overseas Chinese came pouring into the
country as well. Chinese, whatever their nationality, often say that
they love China, whoever rules it. "China," then, is much more than
just a nation-state.

Ethnic chauvinism is actually a relatively modern concept. Before the
19th century few people thought of nations in terms of race or
ethnicity. In fact, most people never looked beyond their regions, or
even villages. Ethnic Chinese nationalism was stimulated, however, by
the growing sense of humiliation of being ruled by Manchus, a
northern people with their own language and customs, since 1644.
Nineteenth-century rebellions against the Manchu Qing Dynasty were
often expressions of Han Chinese resentment. At the same time,
Western colonial powers, especially Britain, were dictating terms of
trade to the Chinese through the barrels of their vastly superior
guns. One reason why Mao, despite being one of the prime mass
murderers of the 20th century, is still admired in China, is that it
was he who restored full Han Chinese sovereignty for the first time
since the 17th century.

When the Manchu rulers were finally overthrown in 1912, the "three
principles of the people" promoted by Sun Yat-sen's new Nationalist
Party (now confined to Taiwan) were "nationalism, democracy and
welfare." The word used in nationalism is the same word used for
race. Not that Sun was necessarily a racist, but he wished to stress
that the founding of the Chinese republic was part of the Chinese
people's struggle to reclaim its nationhood. He once wrote that
"nationalistic ideas in China did not come from a foreign source;
they were inherited from our remote forefathers." This was not
strictly true. He himself was inspired by Abraham Lincoln, among
other historic figures. And like most forms of ethnic nationalism,
the Chinese variety owes something to German Romanticism.

When the German lands were conquered by Napoleon's army, in the name
of liberty and universal reason, German poets, philosophers and
intellectuals responded by devising a new type of nationalism, based
on language, blood and soil. This notion appealed to many romantics
in Europe. But it had a special appeal to Asian peoples who felt
dominated by the Western imperial powers.

The Olympic Games, as conceived by Mr. Coubertin, did not fit well
with Germanic nationalism. Like Charles Maurras, German nationalists
thought they smacked of unhealthy Anglo-Saxon individualism. Germans
liked calisthenics, and military drills, preferably in very large
groups. Since many American citizens were of German origin, there was
a sporting divide in the U.S. too, in the late 19th century, between
those who favored British team sports in public education and those
who wanted German-style calisthenics. The former eventually won, but
not without a struggle.

Competitive sports were not encouraged under Mao's dictatorship
either. Mass spectacles of the kind still common in North Korea,
celebrating revolutionary heroism and the crushing of reactionary
enemies, were more to the rulers' liking. This has changed, of
course. But not the strong whiff of nationalism. Even now, the common
view of Chinese competitors at international games is that they are
soldiers for a national cause. Defeat is not just seen as an
individual disappointment, but as a national disgrace. Such
sentiments are not confined to China, or even just to autocracies.
Soccer nationalism in Europe and South America can degenerate into a
form of collective madness. But Chinese sports nationalism is given
an especially sharp edge by the officially promoted grievance over
past humiliations.

When Communist ideology began to lose its potency in China, after the
death of Mao and his successors' turn towards capitalism, something
had to be found to replace it. The Deng era slogan, "to get rich is
glorious," was not quite enough. Chinese rulers have always needed
the legitimacy of an official orthodoxy, whether Confucian or
Communist, to justify their grip on power. The official post-Maoist
answer has been nationalism. Instead of studying Marx, Engels and
Mao's Little Red Book, Chinese have been subjected to regular doses
of what is known as patriotic education. China is now dotted with
so-called patriotic education sites, museums and memorials located in
places with a dark national significance. There is such a site on the
coast between Canton and Hong Kong, reminding visitors of China's
defeat in the Opium Wars. There are many more.

On a bitterly cold day a few years ago, I visited the 9.18 Museum in
Shenyang, built on the spot where Japanese soldiers blew up part of
the South Manchurian Railway line in 1931, to prepare for a military
occupation of Manchuria after blaming this act of "sabotage" on the
Chinese. The waxwork tableaux of fiendish Japanese torturing Chinese
partisans, of barbaric Japanese soldiers murdering and raping
innocent civilians, were striking enough. But more typical of the
kind of patriotic education encouraged since the death of Mao was the
text carved in the wall near the exit, right next to a painted pair
of Chinese eyes shedding tears of blood. It spoke of the "hatred
burning in all Chinese hearts" for "the criminal Japanese
militarists" who cruelly invaded "Great China, with its 5,000 years
of civilization." The message, as in all such patriotic exhortations,
disseminated in school textbooks, official speeches and indeed
sporting events, is that past wrongs can be righted only by the
resurgence of Chinese greatness, of a show of Chinese power, of the
restoration of pride among all Chinese people -- led by the Communist
Party of course.

This type of official patriotism is based on a peculiarly skewed view
of history. Rather than celebrate the high points of Chinese
civilization, the emphasis falls entirely on suffering at the hands
of foreigners. The sense of victimhood runs so deep that it is
impossible for most Chinese to view themselves as aggressors. The
idea that Tibetans, for example, might have some reason to see
themselves as victims of the Chinese, is absurd. More than that, many
Chinese genuinely believe that this type of Tibetan "propaganda" has
been deliberately taken up by the Western press to inflict yet
another humiliation on the Chinese people.

Protests around the Chinese Olympics are seen in the same light.
Staging an Olympic Games is a source of national pride everywhere,
not just in China. But to many Chinese it has a special significance,
because it is part of that promised restoration of Chinese greatness.
National pride has to be bolstered by international recognition. So
Westerners who use this occasion to criticize Chinese abuses of human
rights are not just wrongheaded, but enemies who wish to stop the
rise of Great China. And Chinese who support foreign criticisms of
China's human rights record are regarded as traitors.

To blame the Chinese government for this militancy is only half the
story. The collective sense of grievance can be, and often is, turned
against the government itself. One of the most influential mass
movements in modern Chinese history is the May Four Movement of 1919.
Students and intellectuals took part in huge antigovernment
demonstrations in Beijing, demanding Science and Democracy. Science
stood for modern rationalism, which would sweep away the old feudal
cobwebs of Confucian authoritarianism. May Four was about culture,
society and politics, but it was sparked by popular anger at the
alleged weakness of the Chinese government, which allowed Japan to
take over German concessions in China as part of the post-World War I
arrangements made in Versailles.

Not standing up vigorously enough to foreign pressure is a common
accusation thrown at Chinese governments by rebellious students and
intellectuals. This is why the rulers have to be very careful when
they unleash public indignation against the behavior of foreign
powers. It can suddenly be turned against them. This almost happened
a few times in the past 20 years, when the government was thought to
be soft on Japan. When the U.S. bombed the Chinese Embassy in
Belgrade in 1999, thousands of Chinese demonstrators attacked U.S.
and British embassies. Hu Jintao, then vice president, said that such
demonstrations fully reflected "the Chinese people's great fury at
the atrocity of the embassy attacks by NATO and the Chinese people's
strong patriotism." But as soon as the crowds looked like they were
running out of control, the government cracked down. The same thing
appears to be happening now, after protesters attacked French and
other foreign businesses because of Western support for the Tibetan
cause. Such attacks, if they go too far, are bad for business, for
the Olympic Games, and ultimately, for the government itself.

Aggressive nationalism usually goes together with authoritarian
politics. When people have no legitimate means to show dissent, vent
their frustrations, express critical opinions in public, and
generally take part in politics, nationalism fills the void. As long
as they can control it, this suits authoritarian rulers. In China, a
certain unspoken sense of guilt may also play a role. The same people
who demanded democracy in 1989, when they were students, are now
often among the fiercest nationalists. The educated urban elite has
prospered since the Tiananmen Massacre, and when people are reminded
of the political compromises this involved, resentment can flare up easily.

This does not mean, however, that democracy would be an automatic
cure. In the unlikely event that China were suddenly to have a
peaceful transformation to a liberal democracy, nationalism would not
go away. No party seen to be soft on foreign powers, especially Japan
and the U.S., would be. Modern Chinese history has been so bloody
that the scars will take a long time to heal. Ethnic nationalism can
be a kind of poison, especially when it is based on a feeling of
victimhood. Political freedom should help to soothe such feelings in
the long run, but this will not happen in time for the Beijing Olympics.

Movies: Kobal Collection "The Blue Kite"
The Oscar-nominated "Hero" by Zhang Yimou is one of the
highest-grossing -- and most controversial -- Chinese films of all
time. The 2002 film tells the story of China's first emperor, Qin Shi
Huang, who battled warring factions to unify the country. Some
interpret its theme of centralized power at all costs as an
endorsement of the Communist Party, and even the 1989 crackdown on
protestors at Tiananmen Square.
Ang Lee's 2007 "Lust, Caution" is set against the backdrop of the
brutal Japanese occupation of Shanghai during World War II. A
nationalistic Chinese assassin becomes entwined in an undercover
romance with a Chinese man collaborating with the Japanese she is
supposed to kill.
"The Blue Kite" (pictured above) follows a Beijing family during the
political and social turmoil of the 1950s and 1960s. The 1993 film,
directed by Tian Zhuangzhuang, shows how party policy touched the
lives of ordinary citizens.

Museums: Alamy 9.18 Museum
China is in the midst of a museum building boom. Some of the sites
are devoted to past victories, but others memorialize darker
chapters. The 9.18 Museum (pictured above) in Shenyang commemorates
Sept. 18, 1931, when Japanese soldiers attacked the Chinese army in
Manchuria. By February 1932, Japan occupied much of northeastern China.
The Memorial Hall of the Victims in Nanjing Massacre by Japanese
Invaders is dedicated to Japanese brutalities against the Chinese in
Nanjing in 1937. The museum contains historical records and outdoor
exhibits; bones from some of the victims are also on display.
In a small village called Ranzhuang in the northeast is the Tunnel
Warfare Museum, which depicts how the militias and village residents
defeated Japanese invaders through tunnel warfare. The tunnels and
village have been kept as they looked decades ago.

Books: Simon Leys (the pseudonym of China scholar Pierre Ryckmans)
gives a firsthand account of the effects of Maoism on Chinese culture
and society in "Chinese Shadows." The 1977 book is now out of print,
but it remains a classic. In the more recent "China Shakes the
World," James Kynge chronicles how the nation's growing appetite for
natural resources, jobs and food is changing global trade and politics.
Susan Shirk's "China: Fragile Superpower: How China's Internal
Politics Could Derail Its Peaceful Rise" explores the deep insecurity
of the country's leaders. Ms. Shirk, a professor at the University of
California, San Diego, was also a senior State Department official in
the Clinton administration.
Jeffrey Wasserstrom, an expert on popular protest in China, takes a
nonacademic approach in "China's Brave New World and Other Tales for
Global Times." In vignettes and essays, he covers a range of topics,
such as the nationalism behind anti-U.S. protests.

Ian Buruma, the author of 11 books, is a professor at Bard College.
His novel "The China Lover" will be published in September.
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