Copyright The Guardian
July 14, 2008
I live and work in China, but it’s easy to forget how special China can be.
I’ve just returned from travel abroad, and the main topic of conversation
overjoyed with Spain’s victory over Germany.
In Israel, my friends cheered against Germany for obvious reasons. In
Austria, they cheered against Germany for less obvious reasons: Germans are
viewed as arrogant and somewhat uncouth. In Hungary, my friends cheered
against Germany for more widely-shared reasons: the Spanish play more
exciting football, they were clearly the better team throughout the
tournament, and it seemed just that they should win after such a long
More than once, I was told that only Germans cheer for Germany. But there’s
one exception: in China, Germany was the clear fan favorite. On the way home
from the airport, our driver, a serious football fan, explained why. Their
disciplined and team-oriented form of football, to her, is more inspiring
than the fancy moves of Spanish players. She knows the German players and
developed an attachment for the team by following German football on Chinese
TV over the years.
There are other factors at work. Chinese fans support traditional football
powers such as Germany, England, Brazil, Argentina, and Italy. It is
difficult to overestimate the passion for such teams. In the 2002 World Cup,
the CCTV hostess Sheng Bing wept openly at Argentina’s early exit. In 2006,
China’s best-known football announcer,
barely able to control his enthusiasm when Italy beat Australia on a last
minute penalty kick.
Partly, the preference for traditional football powers can be explained by
love of the game: Chinese fans support teams that have performed well in the
past and are likely to generate exciting games in the future. But football
lovers elsewhere tend to prefer the stylish Spaniards over the dull Germans,
so that can’t be the whole story.
The key underlying emotion is a special form of internationalist
nationalism. The support for established teams may be an expression of a
more general appreciation for nations with long histories and cultures. As
director of the Institute of Italian Culture in Beijing, Francesco Sisci
could find common ground with his Chinese counterparts by appealing to their
love of history, by showing how Italy served as an important cradle of
western civilisation, just as China served as the cradle of East Asian
Conversely, the Chinese won’t cheer for underdogs â€šÃ„Ã¬ in fact, it is
impossible to translate the word “underdog” in Chinese with the right
nuances. Nor will they cheer for teams with a long track record of losing
(such as Spain prior to this year’s European Cup) or relatively small teams
and countries without substantial talent, global impact, or long histories.
Does any of this matter, other than for Hollywood producers marketing movies
that end with the triumph of underdog athletes and teams? It matters for
those of us who sympathise with the aspirations of small nations or
minorities, such as the francophones of Quebec. A sure way to upset my
Chinese father-in-law â€šÃ„Ã¬ a veteran of three revolutionary wars â€šÃ„Ã¬ is to tell
him that my francophone mother supports independence for Quebec. Why would
she want to break up the country, he wonders? Bigger is better, isn’t it?
In the same vein, the Chinese are often baffled by Tibetans who seem to
value political autonomy and religious freedom over material wellbeing. The
Chinese government is bringing economic benefits to the Tibetans, why can’t
they appreciate it, why do they want to separate from a big country?
The way to address the concerns of Tibetans is not by asking the Chinese to
change their mental outlooks. For one thing, political independence for
Tibetans is a complete non-starter: I’ve yet to meet a single Chinese person
who favours breaking up the country so that a minority group can enjoy its
own way of life.
What is feasible as a way of securing the interests of minority groups â€šÃ„Ã¬
and culturally-sensitive, in a Chinese context â€šÃ„Ã¬ is to promote Confucian
ideals of soft power. When China was weak and bullied by foreign powers, it
seemed natural to emphasise military power to unify the country and build
the state’s capacity to protect itself from foreign interference and
internal chaos. Mao himself justified his actions with reference to such
and compared himself to the anti-Confucian first Qin emperor who used brutal
tactics to unify China after centuries of chaos and warfare.
But now China is stronger than before, and it doesn’t have to worry as much
about foreign incursions. The political context allows for the reassertion
of traditional Confucian ideas of virtue: moral example and persuasion
rather than force is the right way to win the “hearts and minds” of people
in outlying lands. The Confucian ideal of “tian xia” defended by such
contemporary intellectuals as Zhao Tingyang of Chinese Academy of Social
Sciences is a peaceful and harmonious unified world where rulers rule by
means of informal norms and rituals.
In the Confucian moral framework, it may be the case that other cultures and
moral systems are implicitly downgraded to second-class status. But that’s
no different than Christianity and other universalising traditions that aim
to spread their values to the rest of the world. And for minority groups in
China, the practical choice is between harsh legalism and hands-off
Confucianism. Clearly the latter is preferable.
Let Tibetans have freedom to worship as they see fit, but the Chinese should
also have the freedom to show the moral power of their way of life within
unified boundaries, so long as no coercion is involved. And both sides
should interact with an open-minded attitude. Buddhism has enriched Chinese
culture in the past (and vice versa) and such engagements can continue in
Just as the Chinese won’t cheer for underdogs in sports, so they won’t
sympathise with minority groups that seek to wall themselves off from larger
Daniel Bell – The Guardian
Copyright The Guardian