Join our Mailing List

"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Essay: The Dream, The Reality of The Games

August 29, 2008

by Sarah Menkedick
Global Human
August 2008

It started with a sea of red flags. Walking past the university dorms
one afternoon - the sky a uniform grey, as usual (the composite of
factory wastes, cars, smokestacks, and coal fires) - I noticed
something strange. At least every other window had a bright red flag
dangling from it. The flags flapped in the wind and advertised
themselves to passersby. From one day to the next, the dorms had gone
from the average drab university housing to a bold nationalist
statement, a reactionary manifestation of solidarity with "China."
"China" being that vague concept of the motherland that is so
successfully exploited by the men in black Audis that call themselves
Communists, or Socialists, or whatever fits the moment they need to
shift the ideology again.My first reaction was somewhere between
confusion and outrage. I read the flags as a threat - this is China,
take it or leave it, and don't say a damn thing against it.

"How ridiculous," I said, "how utterly ridiculous. These kids just
absorb whatever the government tells them, whatever unbelievable
stance the Party takes on 'Western Media' and its supposed
inventions. It is just sad."

The last week had seen the Olympic torch pass through Europe and
North America to a wave of surprisingly fierce protests. In Paris,
protesters attempted to wrench the torch from a Chinese athlete in a
wheelchair, sparking a furious backlash in China against what were
seen as attempts by the West to bring China down in its moment of
glory. The Chinese reaction soon ballooned from hurt into outrage,
and finally into a full-on nationalist movement. We read about it in
our usual China media sources - blogs, Global Voices, Chinese English
dailies - but the flags brought it to life. It was yet another
reminder - this one with a harsh edge to it - of just what a separate
reality we came from. After 7 months in China, it still seemed that
the Chinese existed in a bubble of rhetoric-tainted information; a
bubble which, as foreigners in China, we could neither completely
enter nor escape from.

Our sympathies, at first, were with the protesters. We saw a picture
of the Free Tibet flag hung over the Golden Gate by protesters in San
Francisco, and we laughed.

"Badass," said my boyfriend, "let's see what China says about that."

Our support for the protesters was based more on instinct than on
nuanced intellectual arguments. We felt a natural solidarity with
people we recognized both culturally and physically, who had a basic
set of morals and values that paralleled ours. Freedom of speech,
individual rights, democracy, self-determination - these were
unspoken values we didn't fully realize we shared, or we held so
deeply and innately, until we moved East.

But our initial response to the torch protests went beyond the
allegiance we felt to our own assumptions. We were bitter. Seven
months in China had us feeling impotent and caged in. I knew of the
censorship and authoritarianism before I came (I had been warned by
other faculty not to say anything "political" or anything, god
forbid, against the Communist Party) but knowing this intellectually
and living it in the day-to-day are two very different things. I
suppose that, for good or bad, is why I travel. "How will it actually
feel to live this?" I wonder before going, and that exploration of
other realities with other parameters is what keeps me moving to new places.

Sure enough, the censorship quickly ceased to be an intellectual
curiosity and became a big annoyance. There was no access to blogs
(at times blogspot came unblocked, but 90% of the time I couldn't
access my own blog or anyone else's without a proxy, which was itself
eventually blocked), most of the time there was no access to
wikipedia (also randomly blocked and unblocked) and there was no
access to any site with mentions of Tibet, Tiananmen, "human rights
in China", or any other keyword selected by the 30,000 people
constantly policing the internet in China. The feeling of frustration
every day, trying to look something up and getting the same
straight-faced page reading "the connection has been reset" had me
furious. Add to this the sense of being stifled in the classroom as I
tried to tiptoe around issues of Tibet and the Olympic torch.

"This is insane!" I would shout. "How can they do this??! How can a
country like this have the Olympics??"

Then, I would go outside and wander through the haze of 400+
pollution. There were days in which I could not see the university
building where I taught, across the street from my apartment. I could
not see the high rises down the block through a fog that gave me
headaches and made my eyes burn. And again, I would grow furious. I
would rant to my boyfriend about the injustice of holding the most
important sporting event in the world in a place where it was not
recommended to leave the house on certain days, and a "blue sky day"
was cause for celebration.

And there were the migrant workers. There are the migrant workers, to
be accurate - although they have now been hurried out of the city and
back to the provinces while the foreigners explore China's dragons
and temples and charming young nymphs for the month of August. These
migrant men came to Beijing from impoverished regions of the Chinese
countryside, giving their entire lives over to work and returning
home to their families for one week in the spring and one in the
fall, during the national holidays. They wore rags and cloth shoes.
They smoked cigarettes, up to their knees in cement and rubble,
outside of the subway stations the government was building. They
slept in tents about ten meters long by five meters wide that held 30
men or more, crammed together in bunk beds on bedrolls they carted
across the country on trains. They ate squatting in the street,
slurping noodle soup and beer. They made about a hundred dollars a
month for a minimum of ten hours a day of work. China's runaway
capitalism trampled them, using them, as capitalism always does, as
expendable human fuel to accumulate wealth. The men who built the B&B
beside our apartment (in a period of six months) worked day and
night, non-stop. I would go for a glass of water at 4 a.m. and watch
them in the darkness, drilling and shouting and illuminating the
lumps of concrete for one another.

I raged: how could this country, its politicians and citizens be so
proud and so self-righteous, flaunting their country around with its
skyscrapers built by men who live 30 to a tent?

With all of this in mind, these sights and experiences on a daily
basis, I found myself strangely vindicated by the actions of the
protesters. All of the pent-up anger and frustration I could not
express in such a closed, censored society was finding its expression
in the West. I supported the protesters out of vindictiveness, and
the sense that China should not get away with something scandalous,
something awful, that no one in the country itself could or cared to
talk about.

And the Chinese reaction to the protests only seemed to verify what I
felt I already knew; that the country was sick, sick with a diseased
idea of modernity and what should be sacrificed for it, and that the
government had succeeded in thoroughly brainwashing the people. The
articles I read supported this idea, describing outrageous displays
of nationalism both abroad and in China. I read about a Chinese
student at Duke University who received thousands of death threats
for trying to mediate between Chinese students and Free Tibet
protesters. I read rants on Chinese blogs declaring death for anyone
who expressed sympathy with protesters, and declaring the protesters
themselves should be killed. I heard my students talking about
Western conspiracies to "bring China down" and, in the irony of all
ironies, disparaging the Western press for being so despicably
biased. I saw the dormitory windows go from dust brown to flaming red in a day.

All of this seemed to me repulsive. And the foreigners living in
China who justified it as merely "different", merely the result of a
different culture with different morals which could not be judged
according to Western standards, incensed me. At what point, I
wondered, do "cultural differences" become a pathetic excuse to stop
asking oneself difficult questions, and to excuse oppression and
poverty in the name of culture?

But in the midst of this anger I would get the nagging sensation that
everything didn't quite fit. I didn't agree with many Western
ex-pats' arguments that everyone should just let China be China
without problems or questions, but it was also too easy, too neat, to
write China off as an ecological and social disaster and argue for
robbing it of recognition as a rising power. Living in China,
teaching and talking and eating and riding the subway with Chinese
everyday, it wasn't as easy to maintain a sense of self-righteous
outrage. None of these people showed any hostile feelings towards me,
my country, or my hemisphere (I never thought in terms of hemispheres
before moving to Asia.) None of them were displaying the kind of
outrageous behavior described in the media, and they did not seem to
be brainwashed Communist zombies. No, rather, the man I bought milk
from and the waitresses at the orange-lit, cheapie restaurants we
frequented, and my students and the university deans, were
unmistakably human, real, and kind. Humanity always throws a wrench
into one's political convictions.

For as much anger as I felt with regards to the government, and the
way its policies had affected and continued to affect people and the
environment, I also felt a connection to the Chinese. These were
real, flesh-and-blood people, not issues or morals or stances or news
stories. And in this protest period, each time I interacted with
someone here, be it ordering beer or talking after class, I felt a
slight pang of guilt, a sense that I wasn't being entirely honest
with myself or fair to the Chinese. They were neither dupes of their
government nor of their history and culture, and I started to think
that maybe they were wiser to their country's problems, and more
willing to solve them through dialogue with the West, than I'd imagined.

Thus the more I found my initial observations and frustrations vented
in the Western press, the more I felt unsatisfied with them. They
were too clean-cut and flawless to explain why so many I people that
I met, liked, and felt were good and kind at heart could be so wrong
and misguided, and so hopeless with regards to pushing for change.
These Western arguments, including my own, neatly and swiftly
excluded the Chinese from the Olympic dialogue, assuming that it was
all or nothing - a Commie China that posed a grave threat to Western
(economic, cultural, moral) hegemony, or a tamed China that suddenly,
in the course of eight years, fully embraced Western values.

So, caught between worlds and perspectives, immersed in China with
solidly Western values, I came to see that the type of conversation
taking place between the West and China about the Olympics allowed
for very few Western voices to be heard in China or Chinese ones to
be heard in the West. The dialogue between the countries consisted of
closed circuits interrupted only by insults or threats. Neither
culture seemed to take into account the other's vastly different
viewpoints. The arguments stayed safely contained among their
respective hemispheres and communities.

Which led me to a question beyond the right or wrong of holding the
Olympics in Beijing: if change is going to take place in China to
deal with all the issues that make me and the protesters so angry,
how is it going to happen? Who should concede, and where should the
change come from?

I began to transition from reinforcing my negative ideas about
Beijing and validating my frustration with the Chinese government to
thinking from a Chinese point of view. Seeing my views and my anger
reflected in the Western press forced me to realize the difference
between understanding cultural differences and empathizing with them.
It is the difference between understanding the grammar of a language
and speaking it fluently. You can understand every verb tense but
until you can communicate without constantly relying on translating
your own language, until you can launch yourself into an uncertain
realm and trust the instinct of another language, you haven't really gotten it.

I had understood the differences before but had no empathy with them,
and figured that regardless of these differences the Chinese should
possess an innate morality similar to my own. Only when I began to
empathize could I see that moving beyond these differences was an
enormous but not unimaginable task, and that with respect for Chinese
history and culture it would be possible to open up a productive
dialogue about change between China and the West.

So I started thinking again about cultural differences and how they
were affecting these arguments about the meaning of the Olympics. I
looked at these differences now not with the goal of explaining why
China was sick, or why the Olympics should be banned, but with the
hope of finding a way to form some sort of mutual understanding.

The first place I found answers was the place where I had most
contact with the Chinese: my classroom.

I decided to go ahead and bring the protest issue up in the
classroom. I had avoided anything remotely sensitive for so long and
figured that with two months left in the semester, and with my
students' trust in me as a friend and not a sly political manipulator
looking to undo the revolution, I'd just go for it.

I started with the boycott of Carrefour, the issue du jour. Carrefour
is a French supermarket found in most Chinese cities. It is normally
packed to the gills with Chinese shoppers buying everything from
pickled chicken feet to 2004 Cotes-du-Rhone. However, in the wake of
the protests in Paris, the Chinese were passionately anti-French.
Millions of anonymous text messages were going out to cell phones,
claiming the French were responsible for the riots in Lhasa and
attempts to overthrow the Chinese government. The fact that people
actually believed in and rallied around these messages was an
incredible but classic example of Chinese propaganda. Soon enough, a
boycott of Carrefour was proposed for May 1st, and angry protesters
started to form around Carrefour stores in various cities. I knew my
students would be on board with it. I came into class, reiterated the
same points about the need for a clear thesis and creativity, and
then very tenderly, like nudging a soccer ball onto the field to see
if anyone will come up and kick it around, I brought up the boycott.

"So, let's talk about something else." The class was all ears. We
very rarely strayed off topic with my paranoia of being observed from
hidden rooms within the building.

"There's a lot of news this week about a boycott of Carrefour, the
French supermarket."

I waited. Silence. No one would take it up just yet. They were
waiting to see where I'd take it.

Very casually:

"How many of you support it?"

A surge of hands, like lollipops stuck straight into the air. The
students' faces were earnest, unwavering.

"You all support the boycott, then? Why do you think it's a good idea?"

One student, a sincere, determined girl who listened to everything I
said and gravely recorded it in her notebook, answered me.

"It's ridiculous," she said. "They don't understand anything. They
don't understand China, this is the new China. The Olympic Games are
not about this kind of fighting and it's very insulting to us. I
think it's terrible. I won't buy anything from Carrefour."

"Western media wants to keep China down." A bold, but slightly
nervous, male student threw this out. Nods around the room.

"Western media are so biased. They don't know anything about China.
They lie and manipulate. I think the boycott is a very good idea,"
said a girl, one of the few to express truly creative and original
opinions in her papers. She said this in a very calm and deferent
voice, as if she were explaining a preference for apples rather than
oranges and not her firm stance with regards to a political boycott
of France. Other students nodded. Not a single one questioned the
validity of the boycott, or of Chinese anger, although a few wondered
if boycotts would hurt the Chinese workers at Carrefour.

I pushed them a little bit - aren't the Olympic Games always
political? What about South Africa? What about certain countries
being banned? But the moment I asked the big question - "Why do you
think people are protesting the Olympics?" - they clammed up. It was
as sudden as plugging a drain. The water just stopped flowing. No
more facial expressions, no more nods, no more discussion, the whole
classroom went dry. That was the end of that.

"Ok!" I said, "See you Wednesday."

This conversation epitomized the two most important cultural
differences that stoked misunderstandings between the West and China:
1) the control of an authoritarian government vs. (relatively)
democratic ones and 2) the significance of arguing vs. achieving consensus.

The first was obvious in the fact that students were too scared to
clearly explain why people were protesting China. This was too
political for the classroom and much too touchy. They could
regurgitate the media and the government's rhetoric, but actually
identifying problems (Tibet, human rights, freedom of speech) out
loud was far too dangerous.

In China, the assumption that one puts one's faith (and one's life)
in authority has held for millennia. It has held partially because it
fits so well with Confucian and Buddhist philosophies, and the Asian
morality drawn from them - a morality that emphasizes humility,
deference to authority, harmony, and consensus. It has also held,
however, because of the very simple fact that questioning authority
in China often means death. And if not death, isolation, exile, and/or prison.

Thus religion and social morality, coupled with repression and a
well-honed instinct for self-preservation in the face of it, have
maintained Chinese authoritarianism for thousands of years. And
Chinese authorities have thus maintained their iron grip on
information and dialogue. Hence, my students' passive refusal to take
up discussion on anything outside of the official lines.

This refusal to question the boundaries of authority or to explore a
situation for themselves had been systematically programmed into them
since the first days of elementary school. They had grown up
memorizing textbooks, and I found them before class murmuring to
themselves in the hallways with their eyes closed, committing pages
to memory for their exams. Some of them memorized random essays from
the internet and wrote them out word for word in class; I wondered
how long it took them to memorize all that complicated grammar and
considered how twisted it was that they would stay up until 2 a.m.,
repeating those meaningless words to themselves, instead of trying to
come up with an original thesis. The single biggest challenge I faced
in the classroom was how to teach arguments, and individual, creative
thinking, to a class of people who have been taught from day one to
copy and repeat common mantras?

Which brings me to "Cultural Difference Number Two": integral to
maintaining and verifying authoritarianism is the Chinese emphasis on
consensus as the most important factor in social harmony.

The Chinese do not know how to argue like Americans. Arguing is a
lauded cultural, social, and political value in the U.S. It
demonstrates intelligence, commands respect, helps form and cement
friendships, and gets presidents elected. In China, arguing is not a
form of discourse. In many circumstances, an argument against the
existing government and social order has meant - and often still
means - jail or death. Arguing against a teacher, elder, or
(imagine!) revolutionary leader would be unthinkable. The job of
students is to burn the wisdom of Confucious and Mao into their
brains and use it, in university papers and job interviews, to make
their way up in society. The student who can express Maoist or
Confucian doctrine in the most "beautiful" and deferent way has the
best chance at success. Chinese writing is based on circular
reasoning—consensus is good for the society because a good society is
based on consensus - and common, unchallenged assumptions—consensus
is good for the society because it makes the society harmonious. The
idea of questioning what harmony actually is, or whether it is always
a good thing, is entirely alien to many Chinese. It was certainly
alien to my students, as I found out during the week I spent banging
my head against the wall trying to explain just what an assumption is.

When a society values consensus, agreement, and harmony above
individuality, creativity, and challenges to the status quo, what
might the reaction to outside criticisms be? In the case of the
Chinese, it was a outright rejection of such criticism and instant
solidarity between members of the group. Since the Chinese don't
accept argumentation as a tenable or valid form of communication,
they don't play by or even understand American/Western rules. This is
not because the Chinese are unintelligent. Rather, the basic rules of
effective arguing that Americans often take for granted - an argument
is immature and unconvincing when it gets too personal, an argument
has to be supported by logical and convincing evidence and
explanations, an argument needs to effectively address the other
side's beliefs and debunk them - don't exist in Chinese culture.

So when Americans and Westerners start arguing against Chinese
policies in ways that seem fair, logical, and normal to them, the
Chinese see it as a personal affront. They interpret it very
differently than an American might interpret an anti-war protest or
the French and the Mexicans might interpret a strike in opposition to
a government bill. And their response is not to argue with the West
on its terms, but rather to do what they have always done in school,
work, and at home - to achieve consensus among one another.

This is one major reason why I think many Westerners tend to look
down on the Chinese as being less intelligent or incapable of
defending themselves "logically" or convincingly. It is also one
major reason why I think Westerners and Chinese were unable to
achieve any sort of dialogue during the Olympic protests. Westerners
continued to feel angered and repelled by Chinese nationalism while
the Chinese felt increasingly offended by Western protests and
Westerners' supposed failure to understand China.

Frighteningly, this misunderstanding is affirmation of the Chinese
government's mandate. When the Chinese people feel the threat of
outside criticism and outside control, they head inside the imperial
walls. They give all those black-suited men and women in the National
Party Congress a reason to sit up a little straighter and smile a
little more smugly. This is a government of people who could care
less about the lives of millions of workers who live their lives from
sleeping bags and tents, throwing up high rise after high rise in the
suburbs. These are men and women who appropriate the land of millions
of farmers every year and silence the subsequent protests in the
blink of an eye. Who put several carloads of undercover policemen on
24-hour guard to make sure that a Chinese blogger's wife and newborn
don't escape their house arrest, and no one manages to get to them
with baby formula.

This is, in other words, a truly hideous regime, and one that I have
no doubt would protect itself at any cost. The fact that it can use
the Olympics to congratulate itself on its success as an
authoritarian police state makes me ill. But - and this is the "but"
that one has to allow once one has met real, complicated people
behind the government and the media - the people are not the
government. Even if they support it.

They are not the government and confusing the two is playing into
politicians' hands; or assuming they have complete control, that they
alone hold the power to make change. In China, the people want
change. They see the Olympics as a giant knockout symbol of change.
My students, and many people I met, wanted dialogue. They wanted to
know what the West was and is like, they wanted to go there, they
wanted Westerners to come to their country and explore it. They
wanted to show, volunteering hundreds of hours of their time, that
China is changing and its people want to become part of a wider
global community.

So imagine the reaction of these students of mine, who study by
candlelight into the early morning after the dorm electricity is shut
off at 11, who volunteered their weekends and summers to volunteer
for the Beijing Olympics, when they saw Westerners chastising Beijing
and saying China is not deserving of the Olympics. They were pissed.
They thought, we are doing all of this work to welcome people here
and to show them that we want to open up to them, and what do we get?
The same old censure and condescension from the West - that which the
West tends to reserve particularly for poorer countries that are
beginning to develop Western power in uncomfortable ways.

And while I think this criticism of the government is well-deserved,
and recognizing the government's power through the Olympic Games
makes me cringe, I could understand where my students and many
Chinese were coming from. I think it must be pretty insulting to see
a wave of angry, condescending protests as a response to all of the
work one has done in preparation for a grand entry into the
international community. My students saw themselves saying: "Take
China seriously. Take us seriously. Let us invite you here and let us
become part of your community." And the West responded by demanding
cultural and political changes that were not only so far from the
reach of these students and most people, but also a literal reversal
of thousands of years of history. These kinds of changes do not
happen in eight years.

The most tragic part of this is not only that it reinforced the power
of the Communist Party, but that it robbed my students and many young
Chinese of any curiosity for new ideas and forms. My students, and
the people I met on trains and in bars and on the streets, listened
to me and they took what I said about my beliefs and culture
seriously. They are being exposed, little by little, to more and more
ideas about what is acceptable, possible, healthy for a society, and
what drastically needs to be changed. Where might the country head if
the Olympic protests worked, Western countries boycotted the games,
and animosity between China and the West reached an all-time high?
Perhaps in five years I would not be allowed to teach. Perhaps the
exhibits about the drowned Yangtze and the destroyed Qianmen hutongs
would no longer be allowed to exist, and would be replaced with
laudatory documentaries about government figures.

Right now Beijing is both opening itself to and being pried open by
its citizens and the foreigners who reside there. My students listen
to Western punk rock, or watch Chinese documentaries about male
chauvinism, or take classes with American and Spanish and Japanese
teachers, or attend photography exhibits about the cost of China's
modernization. People are writing and making films and talking
non-stop about China, both inside the country and out. The more the
country closes in on itself, the fewer of these kinds of activity
there will be, and the easier it will be for the government to clamp
its grip psychologically and physically over its people. The goal of
the state in China is to perpetuate itself, to ensure that no matter
how many people die or go to jail or how many hypocritical
ideological flips it has to perform, it will stay in power. The
Western protests give it a boost, keeping it alive and popular just a
little longer. And meanwhile, Westerners only further isolate
themselves from the Chinese people.

I believe in the power of protest, but in contexts in which protest
is understood as a type of dialogue. Protest for protest's sake,
without concern for the political consequences seems to me an
arrogant demonstration of moral superiority. If all it achieves is
reuniting a people with their corrupt government, what, really, is
the point? Members of the Chinese government - secure in their Audis,
enjoying their banquets - need only seize these moments of tension as
opportunities for validation through solidarity. Westerners have to
ask whether we doing this for us, or for them? Is it a way of
demonstrating the strength of our values or of trying to enter into a dialogue?

I came around to feeling, by the time the torch protests dwindled and
Beijing focused itself once more on full-scale Olympic preparations,
that in spite of my own objections to the government and its
policies, the Olympics would serve a much greater purpose if
Westerner's looked at them from a Chinese perspective.

Traveling and living abroad is all about humility. Without humility,
travel is simply a way to verify pre-existing assumptions. Part of
this humility is the ability to back off one's own moral convictions
and values in order to give people a chance. To see one's own belief
system from a foreign perspective, and then to ask oneself: what is
valid about these beliefs? And if I really believe they are valid,
how can I start a fair dialogue with these people who see differently?

A dialogue with Beijing, and with China, is not only worthwhile but
immediately necessary. As the country pommels forward on its quest
for some extreme, annihilating modernity, the decaying ideological
structures need to be examined and challenged. This happens through
openness, and through the examples of other countries that have done
this before.

In the midst of the Olympic firestorm, we went to a soccer game at
Worker's Stadium. It was a qualifying match between the women's teams
from Brazil and Ghana. The whole stadium was decked out for the
Olympics, ceremonial music playing, banners everywhere, the place
overflowing with enthusiasm. We walked up to the security gates and
at least 15 Chinese kids, in their late teens or early twenties,
beamed at us and said, "hello, welcome, thank you for coming!" I
could tell they were so nervous and so excited, and they'd practiced
this phrase in English for months. Entering the gates, a young
Chinese volunteer gave us a huge grin and said, "Welcome to
Beijing!!" and we replied, "Thank you!", and suddenly I felt
tremendously sad for everything happening in the grand political
sphere when these volunteers were so excitedly and so earnestly
greeting us in our language, welcoming us to their country. It made
me wish we could all back up a little, and step a little bit out of
our self-righteous cultural and political boxes. "One World One
Dream" is just another communist slogan, but the Olympics could be a lot more.

CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
Developed by plank