Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Team China vs. the World

I realise how critical I can be about China. I recognise this critical attitude in the western media too. The western attitude has a big influence on the way people here look at foreigners, and consequently it influences the way Chinese see their own country. Chinese nationalism is reaching its climax this summer. Moreover, the Olympic Games are also recreating Chinese reality.


Part 1

The Critical Outsider

Why do I tend to criticise China? When I walk on Tiananmen Square, I always think about how many secret police officers there could be watching me, or how fast they could arrest me if I started shouting. Why do I love to take a Chinese newspaper and read it to my friends, saying how awful this propaganda machine is. Why do I feel uncomfortable when I see the commercials for the Olympics? Why do I speak about indoctrination, human rights and the lack of freedom every night at dinner? Worst of all, it’s not just me. It can be said about numerous western media too.

Western Media

The focus has been on China lately. Living here, I feel that the eyes of the world are turning towards this years climax in China’s capital. Browse through the newspapers and influential websites and you will see two things: people read and write about China, and they do it in a certain manner. The fact that institutions such as the New York Times, CNN or BBC are biased is common knowledge. It has been said before. Of course they are. The journalists from the BBC, whom I respect like a Chinese student respects his teacher, are human beings just like the rest of us. So naturally there will be a certain tendency to deviate from the objective reportage that is supposed to be the ethical standard. But still, when the Chinese government laments that the western media is against them, they have got a point. To see how biased the big western media are, you just have to look at the ten most recent articles and news items on China. They are all about human rights, thuggish security methods and absolutist rule. Why does America have an “administration”, and China a “regime”? What is the consequence of this western attitude?

Nationalism Revived

China has been suffering from a chronic minority complex for centuries. After the humiliation by their neighbors during the last days of the Empire, the Japanese invasion, a civil war and three decades of Maoist isolation, China has finally risen to the level of international relevance it deserves. What the Chinese people seem to be craving more than anything else, is respect. The Games in Beijing are not just a cry for attention from a developing country, they are the climax of a explosive rise to global hegemony, that allows the Chinese people to tell the world that they matter. What the Communist Party is giving the people this year is a reason to be proud of their country. To be a patriot, to love your country, is the latest big thing in China. It seems that everyone loves to be Chinese. And you can sense this nationalism throughout all the layers of the population. This wave of nationalism has been slowly developing for a while now, but recently it seems to be getting more and more extreme. It includes anti-Japanese sentiments, aggression to foreigners who work here and a fierce hostility to foreign media.

Chinese Counter-reaction

When the Chinese army troops marched into Tibet last month, two things happened at the same time. Western media lined up to condemn the government for their “crackdown on protests for freedom”, and Chinese media lined up to condemn western media for their biased coverage. The result of all this, apart from the bloodshed that we will never really be able to investigate, was that the people in the west felt assured in their opinion on the Chinese “regime”, and that the people in China felt harmed by the outside world. Again. We as foreign students in China spoke about the violation of human rights, desperately looking for recognition of our disapproval from the Chinese people around us. But almost all of us were disappointed, again, because our anger was not only not affirmed by the people here, but we were even met by anger from them, towards us.

Hostility Towards Foreigners

This anger is mostly hidden under the surface. But it is still there. They sense that our opinion on the actions of the Chinese government is different from theirs. They sense that we do not approve of some of the policies of the Party. Even if they don’t read the foreign media. When a foreign student was arrested last month for allegedly kicking a woman in a public bus in Beijing, the web logs discussing the news tumbled over each other to mention this incident, citing the state-run Xinhua news agency: “Foreign student kicks sixty year old Chinese woman out of the bus”. When the students were released from the police station, a complete assembly of Chinese reporters was waiting to photograph them, blocking their way and forcing them to cover themselves with their coats. Many people believe the west is conspiring with the Dalai Lama to overthrow the Chinese government. The websites claiming a foreign conspiracy to demonize China are numerous, and even though the government is involved in a lot of them, the general opinion of the Chinese people is still visible. is clearly sponsored by the Party, but the feelings expressed still seem to represent a genuine hostility towards western arrogance. You can sense the atmosphere in Beijing getting more hostile towards foreigners. This is where this summer’s Games fit in.

Olympic Pride

The Olympic Games serve as a platform from which the Communist Party can jump to greater heights. Everyone here is extremely proud of this event, and most people thank the Party for the success the Games will undoubtedly be. The Games “give face” to the nation. Ask the people here what the biggest progress is China has made in the past few decades, and they will all say the outside world finally respects them. Not wealth, development or any other form of material progress, but respect. They look at the newly built skyscrapers and know they will never enter such a building. They see that the cars on the streets in Beijing are becoming more luxurious every day, while they are still driving the three wheel bicycle. They hear the government saying, on one of the numerous CCTV-channels, that the average Chinese family lives in a three bedroom apartment, but when they look around them they know: that might be true, but not for us. There is only one thing that really gets to them, when they think about all the changes that China is going through. Pride. Because when those Games finally begin, the whole world will watch, and look on in awe at what China has achieved. Who else to thank for this than the Party?

Part 2

A constant frustration in my conversations with Chinese people is my failure to communicate with them what I feel is life in China. In this country, we are living under the rule of a “regime” with a violent history. Even though it is relatively quiet nowadays, once in a while horrible things happen to the people. You can sense a tense atmosphere, always and everywhere. But they don’t seem to care as much. They just shrug their shoulders and go on with their life. Why do the Olympics play such an important part in this Chinese reality?

Asking the Impossible

Anyone who has ever asked a Chinese friend about the events on Tiananmen-Square in 1989, knows what I mean. When I ask them if they know what happened those days in June, they will nod, while the look in their eyes turns vague, distant. They might say how awful it is that people died. They might tell you that they have never heard any such thing. They might get angry, saying that we foreigners are always looking for something to criticise. But what they will not in any case say is how criminal the actions of the government were. Not because they are afraid, or brainwashed, that’s too easy. But think about it. Those foreigners come here, thinking they know what is best for the Chinese people. They go around shouting terms like ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’, thinking the Chinese will just get up and start throwing stones at the nearest government building. What we are asking them, is to deny their identity. Of course they know that the Party at times crosses the line. They live here, remember? They know exactly what is going on. But what are they supposed to do? Condemn the Party like the BBC does? It is their country we are speaking about, not some study object.

Living in a Communist State

If you expect them to criticise their government, you ask them to deny everything they hear, everything they see and everything they were taught. Because the Party, the system, the government, and even the country is all the same thing. Your teacher is a member of the Communist Party. Your housing is supplied to you by the Party. The government speaks to you in the subway, on the highway. They communicate to you through red banners on the buildings you buy your groceries in. They write your newspaper and they choose which television shows you watch. They tell you which movie is worth seeing. ‘They’ are everywhere, because ‘they’ constitute the people. There is no such thing as independent cinema in China. Or independent supermarkets. Not even Google is independent. Consequently, Chinese Capitalism is Communist Capitalism. Finally, thought is not free. Nor independent. If your government tells you that the army is being mobilised in Tibet to protect the country, you tend to believe them. When the western media tell you the army is there to violate human rights, you look to your government for an explanation. When the Party (or the television or the bloggers on-line) answer that the foreign reporters are only trying to destroy China, you will accept what they say. And gratefully so, because no one wants to doubt their own people. I point to the mass support amongst the people in the United States for the war in Iraq. It took five years for the majority to start asking questions. How long will it take them to question what really happened on 9/11 in New York? The Chinese people don’t have many choices in their lives. They have to live here, they have to justify to themselves every step they take in this country. They have to justify their existence. And they have to survive. Which, for most Chinese people, is still a sizeable task.

The Pride Paradox

Moreover, when China was chosen to host the Olympics a new chapter in the development of Chinese nationalism began. Criticising China, the government or the system, means something much worse than being a critical citizen. It means bashing the Olympics. The Games might be a ceremony for the Party, but they also belong to the people. The Bird’s Nest wasn’t built by CCP-cadres. It was built by those people that will be expelled from Beijing next month. The workers who come from poor places like Gansu province to work in construction. The people that the government will try to hide by any means. The people. And general opinion here is, that however wrong the system is, these Olympics are an opportunity for the people. It is authentic pride they will feel when the Games begin. It is their every right to be pride of something as massive as the Olympics. Because it is the biggest sporting event in the world, and the Chinese athletes will participate in every field, in their own stadiums. “We built that”, the people will say when then see the matches on television. It is an honour.
China is putting itself in the limelight, and everyone knows what that means. There will be criticism. It can either go very well or terribly wrong. This puts the people on the spot as well. They will see themselves confronted with a choice. Not to cheer for Team China, is equal to criticising the Party. Are you in or are you out? Do you support China, will you cheer for Team China? Will you approve of the actions of this government? The choice is easy. It is like asking them if they want to survive.


I started this article asking myself why it is so tempting for me to criticize this country. One of the reasons might be that I am, and always will be, an outsider. I will always be the foreigner, no matter how fluent in Chinese I may become. The Chinese society is very closed to foreigners. Another very important reason for wanting to criticise China is the fact that I study Sinology. Many people have come here for a week and think that they understand everything. Some resident correspondents don’t even speak Mandarin. I feel that I should be able to say more about China than most people, because I spent the last three years studying everything about it. I live here. Somehow this makes me feel in the position to criticise the country. It is like criticising your best friends. But lately I find it more difficult to criticise China. Because it is getting harder and harder to see China as my best friend.

April 23rd 2008

Thomas de Groot, Beijing, PRC

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