China's Agony of Defeat

By Schell, Orville | Newsweek, August 4, 2008 | Go to article overview

China's Agony of Defeat

Schell, Orville, Newsweek

It's impossible to understand what the Games mean to the Chinese without understanding their history of humiliation.

The Olympics are an irresistible stage for athletes--but also for those who wish to act out their grievances before the world. The Beijing Games, which kick off on Aug. 8, are hardly an exception. While Chinese leaders furiously insist they're not, and should not be, "political," these Olympics promise to become one of the most charged in history. Rarely has a more varied array of contentious issues crystallized around a single sporting event.

China is bedeviled by internal problems--human-rights violations, media censorship, corruption, pollution, labor abuses and lack of due process, to name a few. Several "domestic" issues--Tibet, Taiwan and Hong Kong--have also regularly spilled over into the international realm. At the same time, a host of relatively new, purely international problems have accrued to China as the country has aggressively sought access to natural resources around the world. By dealing with pariah states like Burma, Sudan, Zimbabwe and Iran in order to feed the country's voracious appetite for oil, timber and metals, Chinese leaders have been accused of playing an irresponsible global role. Their critics would like nothing more than to flay Beijing before a worldwide television audience of hundreds of millions.

Chinese officials are doing everything possible to block such protests. They've designated three remote sites in Beijing in which to corral a few neutered "demonstrations." Rarely have the Chinese military and police been more anxious or at a higher state of alert. Surveillance cameras are everywhere. Tens of thousands of police, paramilitary troops and regular soldiers have been deployed to guard Olympic facilities, major buildings and public spaces. Many foreign NGO staffers based in Beijing have been asked to leave for the summer. Visa applications to attend the Games--now requiring not only letters of invitation but hotel reservations, round-trip airline tickets and bank statements--have frequently been turned down with no explanation. Indeed, the whole bureaucratic structure of the Chinese government and party seems coiled like a spring, ready to release into action if any errant soul emerges to make a disturbance, or even express unacceptable views, in a public way.

Now, I am the first to admit that the Chinese government gives ample cause for protest. Nor is vigorous dissent always counterproductive when dealing with Beijing. But I would argue that this is not the time--and not just because any unauthorized protest is quite likely to fail. The Beijing Games present a fraught and sensitive moment. China has made a Herculean effort to prepare the way for this spectacle, in which ordinary Chinese, not just their leaders, can announce themselves to the world as having regained their national greatness. Protests would almost certainly spark the kind of nationalist and autocratic backlash that they're meant to remedy. Remember what followed the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations--a nearly 20-year period of reaction and restoration from which China has still not recovered.

This proud prickliness has deep historical roots that involve China, the West and even Japan. As I argue in the current New York Review of Books, the most critical element in the formation of China's modern identity has been the legacy of the country's "humiliation" at the hands of foreigners, beginning with its defeat in the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century and the shameful treatment of Chinese immigrants in America. The process was exacerbated by Japan's successful industrialization. Tokyo's invasion and occupation of the mainland during World War II was in many ways psychologically more devastating than Western interventions because Japan was an Asian power that had succeeded in modernizing, where China had failed.

This inferiority complex has been institutionalized in the Chinese mind. …

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