Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Beijing Olympics 2008: Half awake in a fake empire
One of the great rock ‘n’ roll songs of the past year came from an American group called The National. It was called ‘Fake Empire’. A romantic sounding tune marked by a quiet declaration that “we’re half awake in a fake empire,” it married the lonely guy blues of a New York night to a veiled critique of American imperialism. In short, it expressed the feelings of being lost inside a dream.
The song could just as well serve as an anthem to the 2008 Beijing Olympics today: for the quickly dispersing illusion China has sought to construct of a harmonious Games – as well as just how much we in the West have been willing to cling to such lies, out of misguided idealism or a greed for business opportunities in the jaws of the Chinese tiger, not to mention a little fear about how strong that tiger is becoming.
There’s no doubt in my mind these Games are the most significant and politically dangerous since the Berlin Olympics of 1936. Hitler and the Nazi Party sought to use those Games as a propaganda tool for resurgent German nationalism and racist notions of Aryan superiority, and with it Germany’s right to rule the world.
Historical equations, of course, are always crude and lack nuance. But the parallels between Berlin 1936 and Beijing 2008 remain odiously apparent. Chinese nationalism is rampant, the poison by which the so-called Communist regime sustains its right to govern today.
Underlining it is the racist Han Chinese sensibility that Tibetans, Uighurs, and other minorities are lower-grade humans and ‘barbarians’. This kind of thinking includes us Western ‘long noses’. Talk to any semi-educated Han and you will hear all about China’s phenomenal 5,000 years of culture; dig into that talk and you will understand how the last hundred years of Chinese turbulence and misery are the fault of the West, which is still trying to hold China down today. Not for much longer. They’re the natural rulers of the world and they soon will be again.
Arguments in favour of a Beijing Games have always been related to liberalisation and democratization, as if exposing China to global influences would assure humanitarian and political progress. A similar hope has underlined long-running business interactions between China and the West ever since Deng Xiaoping opened the doors on a period of economic liberalisation in 1978 and encouraged everyone to “jump into the sea” [of money].
Unfortunately self-interest and greed now motivate most ‘political’ thinking in the Special Economic Zones (SEZ) of the coast. People there gluttonize themselves in endless banquets, celebrating forms of conspicuous consumption that would make Donald Trump blush while the rest of the country continues along in its peasant miseries, hobbling under exploitation, corruption and environmental abuses. Coal miners work in Dickensian conditions, dying ten a day in some of the most unsafe and polluted corners of the planet. Ironically enough the worst of these mines were re-opened to help power developments behind the Olympic ‘dream’.
Western interests are no better. Time and again we have prostituted our ideals to Chinese wishes. One simply has to examine a case like the continued imprisonment of the journalist Shi Tao, who was jailed for ten years in 2004 for revealing to an overseas website how the government planned to deal with the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Shi Tao was caught out because his email details were handed over to Chinese authorities by Yahoo, a company that took comfort in complying with Chinese law and sustaining their business interests on the Mainland.
A 2001 speech by News Corp’s James Murdoch denouncing the Falun Gong as “an apocalyptic cult” is another such moment of modern dialogue. Murdoch’s observation has a grain of truth to it, but the eager-to-please shrillness of his speech failed to justify the widespread detention, torture and death of Falun Gong members. All for the greater good, I’m sure.
In the meanwhile don’t put your faith in the younger generation of Chinese. The one child policy has bred a generation of ‘little Emperors’, selfish and spoilt by the adoring focus of their parents and grandparents, the recipients of what is what is known as a 4-2-1 inverted pyramid of family worship. These are the same youth who were bussed in to support the path of the Olympic flame across the world. As events in Canberra showed, they are vocal, organised and aggressive.
Almost a quarter of the Chinese population is now under 30. At home in China the more extreme among them are known as the fen qing or ‘angry youth’. You can see them gathered in McDonalds and Starbucks, in sneakers and baseball caps, bitching about how much they hate America. Brought up in a post-Mao era and a system that blanketed out events like Tiananmen Square, talk of such historical moments is as tiresome and vague to them as Woodstock and Altamont are to Western youth. Indeed young Chinese regard Tiananmen as the ultimate in sentimental Western fantasies, a cliché we hook ourselves on to slight their country’s ascendance.
It’s unclear how much the government will be able to ride the nationalist fervour of this new generation, and how much it has the potential of creating instability even for them. As China’s global public relations took a nosedive in the wake of the Tibetan riots and ugly protests and counter-protests around the progress of the Olympic flame, officials were forced to appeal for “rational patriotism”. Ironically the younger generations’ zeal is a by-product of the censorship and propaganda they have been suckled on. Many of these same youth could not understand why their government did not come down harder and sooner in Tibet. The thought these will be the leaders of tomorrow is chilling.
No article can come close to summarizing the complexities of China today. But the appeasements the West has surrendered itself too out of a desire to avoid upsetting ultra-sensitive Chinese feelings, and through downright opportunistic business interests, bodes ill for the future. Kevin Rudd’s recent bid to be seen as “zhengyou”, a friend who tells you the truth even if you don’t like it, was a brilliant diplomatic move. It remains to be seen how much that perspective becomes another way for China to let the West blow off steam while it moves coolly ahead.
The fact is these Games are not about China opening itself up the world. They’re about symbolically launching the Chinese Century to come, as well as affirming ‘the Mandate of Heaven’ upon the current rulers, an almost mystical form of nationalism updated to present-day needs: propaganda reshaped as marketing to launch China Inc. upon us all. Watching the Opening Ceremony I nonetheless found myself caught up in their beauty, and in the larger Olympic notions of unity and nobility that seem capable of enduring the ugliest of political spin jobs. As if in the end some grain of hope and communication might still be broached. As if a mere gesture might wake us all to something better.
- Mark Mordue
* An edited version of this article was published under the title 'Crouching tiger, hidden dragon' on the Opinion page of The Age newspaper (Melbourne, Australia), August 11th, 2008 along with the above powerful illustration by Andrew Dyson.