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China is Bigger Than the Olympics: Why the Protestors Have Got it Wrong

Fri 18th Apr 2008

It is partly a love of playing devil’s advocate, it is partly out of an inherent cynicism with any opinion that appears too popular. It is rare among progressive thought that one should view protest against vile political domination as a bad thing. Such occasions do occur, and I believe that the recent uproar surrounding the Olympic torch relay constitute just such a situation.

It is a sad reality, but a reality all the same: anything that is international can, and therefore will, be made political. The Chinese government would like to use their games to highlight a desired Chinese unity at the forefront of the international stage. This of course is nothing new, as Alexa Van Sickle mentioned in her article last week referencing the 1936 games in Berlin. An image of legitimacy was the motivation behind Albert Speer’s re-introduction of the Olympic torch relay, and no doubt the reason behind China’s own ambitious stunt. They can hardly be faulted for that; I for one find this tradition particularly moving. It is just this sentimentality that makes it such a perfect PR weapon, a reality clearly not overlooked by the government of the People’s Republic of China.

While comparison with Nazism is generally but lazy shorthand for evil, the comparisons between those Olympics and the ones to be held this summer in Beijing do seem striking. Both countries are not living up to the “promises” one would like to expect from a nation holding the Olympic games. Both are horribly in the wrong. And both, despite a chorus of complaint from protestors the world over, will indeed hold the games themselves just as planned, and to a greater or lesser degree the voices of dissent across the world will fall silent with time.

From London to Paris to San Francisco, these well-meaning protesters are seizing their one opportunity to have their voice “heard”, at times leading to little more than an anarchic mob. During the torches journey through Paris, for example, protestors took to throwing plastic soda bottles at the relay, which is to say, they were throwing garbage at a live human being during what would otherwise be the highlight of their entire professional life.

Among such individuals was a woman named Jin Jing, a former fencer. This particular torch-bearer is wheelchair bound, having had a leg amputated many years before. It ought to be noted, in case my reader is unaware: However justified you believe your political message, if ever in your life you find yourself throwing garbage at a disabled woman, you ought to take a second and re-evaluate your politics.

She is also a Chinese citizen. Does that, perhaps, justify this sort of behaviour towards an apolitical stranger? Is that the nature of this strand of the political left, that it may condemn individuals based upon their country or origin, or, dare I say, their “race”? Are there so many politically bankrupt that such inherent affiliation is grounds for condemnation? Is this the meaning of political dissent? No thank you; that is no politics of mine.

The result of this lunacy, so far as Ms Jing is concerned, was this: she suffered scrapes and bruises as a result of this unruly mob, presenting a ready-made, wholly pitiable hero with which the state-run Chinese media could condemn the protests and give legitimacy to the “China-as-victim” party line. Every thud of a Fanta container off her head did not free a Tibetan citizen locked away by the oppressive Chinese occupier. It did however show the ignorance and shamelessness of some of the protestors themselves. It disgraced their own people, it disgraced their cause, and, ultimately, it gave power to the very entity they sought to protest against.

Whether or not the protests should be “allowed” ought not even be in question. Of course they should be allowed: such is the nature of our political freedom. The fact that that that same freedom does not exist elsewhere is indeed regrettable, but, so far as a few overzealous Parisians (or Londoners, or San Franciscans) are concerned, it remains unyielding.

It would also be pertinent to consider the actors themselves in this sordid tale: what is it about Tibet and China as respective images in the contemporary western consciousness that has generated so much passion?

If the games were held in Istanbul, would protestors be waving flags saying “Free Kurdistan”? Or in Madrid, “Free Euskal Herria”? I seriously doubt it. One could argue that these minority peoples are not subjected to the same authoritative crack-down presently suffered by Tibet, and one would be right. However, can you be certain that Spain, or Turkey or Iraq or Iran, would not resort to similar measures were they faced with such popular opposition, as opposed to the comparatively sparse actions of separatist “terrorists”? The fact is that Kurdistan, Basqueland, or really anywhere else lack the mystique held by Tibet in the western popular imagination. The cause of Tibet, while noble, has become a trendy passion for the well-meaning yet politically fashionable.

Conversely, China (to the non-Chinese, anyway) perfectly represents the 21st century oppressor. It denies freedom of speech, it economically and culturally bullies conquered peoples, it somehow maintains its under-dog mentality – if only to itself - while growing ever more dominant on the world stage.

So great has this dominance become that it has managed to strike fear into the rest of the world, another reason the Olympic torch relay has been so contentious. Other similarly un-ethical regimes, such as the one in Saudi Arabia, for example, would fail to generate the outpouring of protest generated by China. Saudi Arabia is not China, it is not the growing international power the rest of the world is beginning to fear.

I watched a video a few months ago in which a reporter asked the various American Republican candidates in turn where they thought the next military threat maight come from. An difficult question, no doubt – whatever answer they give might cause some awkward silences at the next black-tie dinner party with said nation. Every one of them, including John McCain, mentioned China first and foremost. Softly, vaguely, distant. “It may not happen soon, but it’s going to happen” their answers suggested.

I think it is this fear, too, which generates this fervour against China. This growing superpower could be described as sinister, and totally out of the control of any governing body, let alone the Olympic governing body. Please. China gets away with murder because they can, and all the plastic bottles in the world are not going to deter them, not in any meaningful way.

When the media has gone home and the noise of the crowds have died from Beijing’s Olympic venues, the Olympic Games of 2008 will only have brought legitimacy and international respect to a regime if the we believe it to be so. Even without these unruly protests, the only country that would make this mistake is China itself, and the protests aren’t going to make a damned bit of difference there anyway.

I admire the spirit of the protestors, but their actions are futile, and their means misguided. This political struggle, like the games themselves, will have its conclusion far from the streets of London or Paris, in a competition that has yet to take place.
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Site Comments

#70: Posted by Darrell Goodliffe on Mon 21 Apr 2008 00:00

Dear Sirs,

Richard Maidu's recent article 'China is bigger than the Olympics: Why the Protestors got it wrong' makes some points that seem reasonable on the surface but collapse under further examination.

Richard acknowledges the politicising of the Games by the Chinese government but then goes on to state that;

“They can hardly be faulted for that; I for one find this tradition particularly moving. It is just this sentimentality that makes it such a perfect PR weapon, a reality clearly not overlooked by the government of the People’s Republic of China.”

Of course they can be 'blamed' for using it as a PR weapon especially since the central plank of the Beijing regimes case against the protesters has been that they are the ones unfairly 'politicising' the Olympics. You cannot have your cake and eat it, excuse the use and abuse of the Games as a propaganda weapon by one side and then decry the other for responding. If you do then you cannot avoid the charge that you are siding with that regime, giving it special prerogative to do as it pleases while the other 'well-meaning' side is told to leave well alone.

Characterisations of the protesters as a 'mob' find their unfortunate echo in the same language that the Chinese government uses to repress the people of Tibet. It is unfortunate that the athletes have had to suffer this but whether they like it or not they are the dupes of a brutal dictatorship and are acting as it's PR people in taking part in the whole exercise. They had the option to withdraw, to make a clear statement as there have been isolated instances of people choosing too; if they are angry with this then we should be clear, the blame lies with the International Olympic Committee for failing to uphold it's own charter and the Chinese government for enacting these policies in the first place. Never does the blame lie with the people who choose to fight back and express legitimate grievance.

Richard's piece appeals to our bleeding hearts when he cites the case of Jin Jing. He simply cannot have it both ways; on the one hand acknowledge that the whole exercise is a shameless attempt at self-promotion by the Peoples Republic and then say Jin Jing is a “apolitical citizen” and express concern about “the nature of this strand of the political left, that it may condemn individuals based upon their country or origin”.Jin Jing may well be an apolitical citizen but she was taking part in a political event staged by the PRC, something that I have to emphasis again Richard does acknowledge in his article. She has simply ceased to be a neutral party and is an active party in a propaganda event, whether she perceives it that way or not is academic.

I think his point about the Tibetan cause being 'trendy' is wide of the mark. The truth in his remarks is that China is a rising world power and thus its profile in the public consciousness does raise so issues surrounding it are likely to be 'higher-profile'. However, that does not equate to the protests being the result of 'fear' of China's growing power. The protests were a genuine show of solidarity across national borders by the people of the West with a people who are, to put it crudely, under the jackboot of a brutal dictatorship. On the political left that tradition of solidarity, of internationalism and of fraternity with the oppressed is a proud one; long may it continue and grow so that the foreign policy disasters that have recently been pursued by the right find it harder and harder to win popular support. It is something that had been lost in the ideological chaos and confusion of the Cold War when it became a dirty word, a cover for slavish toadyism to the Soviet Union. However, I think we have seen the beginnings of a rebirth.

Finally, I do agree that the outcome of this struggle will be decided long after the Games themselves. This is why it is important to keep the momentum going beyond the Games; to continue to bring the actions of the government of China out into the light and campaign against them for solidarity both with the Tibetans and those Chinese who suffer under the same regime.

Yours Faithfully,