China with Polish Characteristics

April 20, 2008

Olympic potential: the good, the bad and the increasingly ugly?

Filed under: Uncategorized — chinatalk @ 4:24 pm

It’s Saturday night and together with a friend from Spain we’re sitting in a shabby, little restaurant tucked-away at the end of an alley in Haidian district. A chubby cook, now off work, sits by a table behind, having a beer with two shopkeepers and a local hairdresser. There are no decorations, but plenty of color to this 20 square meter room, especially above us – the whole ceiling is pasted with revolutionary posters, featuring socialist slogans and Chairman Mao in action, looking down onto our tables like a Sun King. We’re on the second bottle of “Red Star” erguotou (people’s booze) with the owner and his friend when the question of Carrefour boycott comes up.

“Perhaps it’s not a great idea but we’ll stay away from all those places – Carrefour, KFC, McDonalds,” the owner counts off different popular venues. “It might hurt the economy but we’ve got to make a statement, we need to show the people abroad their rude behavior will not be tolerated or accepted.”

This weekend was a witness to a number of protests against the severe disturbances of Olympic torch relay in Paris by pro-Tibetan activists. They went more-less like this:


Hundreds of protesters carrying Chinese flags and pictures of the late Communist Party chairman, Mao Zedong, gathered outside a Carrefour store in Wuhan in central Hubei province Saturday. (read the whole AP story for the background)


The French company is also suffering from the rumors that its top shareholders allegedly gave funding to the Dalai Lama and Chinese anger, fanned by the local and foreign media, is snowballing. China Digital Times has a good summary of the situation.

One could say people here are angry at being misunderstood over Tibet as they see it and the issues relating to their own country. It was always clear that Olympics are a consequence-charged event but the Tibetan demonstrations last month became a catalyst for their complexity – in the fallout of Lhasa violence we suddenly plunged into everything the Games touch upon: status, identity, politics, business, cultural communication. With the potential for so much change there is a lot of pressure and now as it turned ugly and started to boil over, it really seems many of opportunities from the Olympics could go to waste. China and the West have a chance to form strong ties, based on respect and understanding, but everyone’s so busy pointing fingers and shouting conceited accusations that hardly any thinking or progress gets done. There is a lot of cocky anxiety and ignorance on both sides and nobody interested in tackling that problem, since it’s easier to wave flags and gloat in self-righteous attitude. Will the actual Olympics be like that?

In the West many seem eager to play the “Told you so China” game, as if to assert themselves over the international “upstart,” waiting and passing ironic comments with that know-it-all air of superiority.

China on the other hand does not fare much better. Rather than standing its own ground and trying to discuss Tibet and nature of the protests it has embarked on a kind of a witch hunt, with “traitors of the motherland” and “foreign agents” blasted over the media and the internet. The top example which comes to mind is Jin Jing, the wheelchair-bound Olympic torch bearer who braved the hostile crowds in Paris. After she expressed some doubts over whether Carrefour protests were reasonable she was vilified as “an uncultured, brainless cunt” a “traitor” who “first lost her leg and now lost her mind.” The government seems quite content with such national unity and the state media effectively steered the whole situation towards Them vs. Us issue, double-crossing any progress on our differences in favor of crisis nationalism. How slick…

The question is will those things get better or go downhill from now on? The next six months and Beijing 2008 Games could have a profound effect on all of us, but too much herd mentality and heavy handed action could mean they will simply be superficial, even destructive. Is it naïve to hope for more than that?

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