LETTER FROM CHINA
Copyright The International Herald Tribune
By Howard W. French
Published: March 13, 2008
SHANGHAI: The official slogan of this summer’s Beijing Olympics may be “One World, One Dream,” but Beijing’s real mantra has been something more prosaic, and in the end, much more problematic: no politics.
Over the coming months, China will offer the world an astounding spectacle. Not the Games themselves, but rather the spectacle of a nation that is in the midst of breathtaking change and yet clings to habits of statecraft so dated that they seem like relics of the Middle Ages.
In elevating the Olympics to an official source of national pride, China has put its most precious commodities on the line: national face. And by investing so much face in the successful execution of the Games, it is making extreme demands on its citizens and on the world.
The following list is not exhaustive, but it gives an idea of what is being demanded: Smile, approve of us, behave, do not criticize, don’t dare protest and, back to the mantra, banish all thoughts of politics from your minds.
That’s asking an awful lot, and like requiring someone to hold their body rigid for an extended period, it will demand an immense and painful effort, and it brings the risk of self-injury.
Consider the government’s cascade of systematic denials of the pertinence of just about every critical issue that comes up, including human rights in Tibet, China’s Muslim northwest and the rights of the tens of thousands of migrant workers whose round-the-clock work in Beijing has made the hosting of the Games possible. All too often, they are phrased in the antique wooden tongue of an old imperial court.
On the migrant issue, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, responded to a report by Human Rights Watch detailing exploitation of the workers with a verbal equivalent of the stiff arm: “I believe that everybody is well aware that Human Rights Watch has some problem with its sight. It is biased. It has some problems with its eyes. It has weakness in seeing things properly.”
Boy, I guess that settles things.
Foreigners who persist in touching upon what are quaintly known in China as sensitive issues, thereby putting the government on the spot, risk being treated as unfriendly to the country, or even downgraded further to the status of enemies.
And this brings us to another aspect of the Olympics. As with so much the Chinese government does, the promotion of the Games and their protection from criticism contains a mildly disturbing element of popular manipulation, of managing people’s feelings for them, and of policing the divide between things Chinese and foreign.
The Olympics are intended to quicken Chinese heartbeats in their love for the motherland, and people will be encouraged to see nitpicking foreigners (Steven Spielberg, for example) for what they supposedly are, offensive outsiders who fall into a long tradition of hostility to China.
This brings to mind a saying about propaganda, which is defined as a kind of magic practiced by people who don’t believe in it for people who do.
A crude, practical example of how this all works was delivered last week after the Icelandic singer Bjâˆšâˆ‚rk ended a concert performance of her song “Declare Independence” in Shanghai with the cry “Tibet! Tibet!” Beijing said that act not only broke Chinese law, but even more preposterously, “hurt Chinese people’s feelings.”
Presumably, the infraction was the singing of a song not approved by the censors, who decide even what foreign performers can say here. Expect tighter controls in the future.
Let’s pause here to get an important item of business out of the way. China’s successes are good news for the world, not just for Chinese people, and one hopes that the Olympics will succeed. May they bring people closer, allowing curious outsiders to appreciate China as it really is, the scene of awesome recent achievement, but like every other country, also a dynamic mixture of good and bad.
The problem is that by turning the Games into a massive exercise in national face, it is the Chinese government itself which has politicized them. This all but compels anyone who is even slightly curious to meditate on what has been accomplished here, how this nation arrived at the place it finds itself today and where it is headed in the future.
And if in the end, the Chinese government finds it has to rethink its outdated communications strategy, a stubborn leftover of a not-too-distant past – when the state had almost total control over the lives and minds of its people, and foreign relations were limited at the height of Cultural Revolution to a single embassy in Albania – all the better.
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LETTER FROM CHINA