Twofish's Blog

August 10, 2008

Two British articles about the Olympic opening ceremony

Filed under: china — Tags: , — twofish @ 5:10 am

Here is from the Daily Telegraph

And from Spiked Online

Alongside long-standing fears of the Easterner and his strange habits, there is a powerful element of Western self-doubt and even self-loathing in contemporary attitudes to China. In their alarm at China’s ‘obsession with winning’, sometimes gritty determination and demands for self-sacrifice to a ‘cause’ (gold, gold, gold), Western commentators and activists expose our own culture’s collapse of faith in single-minded human endeavour and our seeming unwillingness to rise above the mundane to do things awesome or historic. In the acres of tortured coverage of China’s ‘torture’ of its athletes, we can glimpse a key component of the West’s current confused approach to the Chinese: the new China reminds Western society of what it used to be like before it lost its cojones. The idea that tough training tramples on ‘basic human standards’ speaks to Western discomfort with self-sacrifice, with the idea that there is something bigger and better to which an individual might commit him or herself.


Some Western observers are so hostile to what we might call the ‘Olympian ideals’ of drive, zeal, aggression and the other stuff of the examined life that they see intensive training as ‘abuse’ and sport itself as effectively a form of torture. China is increasingly seen as ‘the Other’ precisely because it appears too Western: it is China’s ambition, growth, leaps forward – things that a more confident West might once have celebrated – which make it seem alien to Western observers who today prefer an all-must-have-prizes attitude over Olympian competition, carbon-counting over factory-building, and road tolls over road construction. Contemporary China-bashing is underpinned by a crisis of belief in the West in things such as elitism (the good kind), progress, growth and development.

It’s amusing reading that because the Daily Telegraph seems to show that sort of insecurity.

Yet suppose that, rather than westernising, China simply understands more coldly than we how the world now works. It has noticed that Westerners have become consumers and borrowers, and so it has become a producer and a saver. It has noticed that we live in a dream-world of our own films and computer games and celebrities, and it is happy to profit by furnishing the technological materials for these dreams. We play: it works: it wins.

Besides, the Olympic opening ceremony shows that China is now ready to glorify its own culture (not mentioning Communism, of course). “We Chinese invented writing and paper and printing and gunpowder and the compass,” it in effect told us yesterday, “and we spread our power by land and sea. We are exquisite, resourceful and unique.” “We are a high and ancient civilisation, growing in strength” was the message, conveyed with breath-taking elan. I bet the London Olympics in four years’ time will not dare tell Britain’s equivalent heroic stories.

It’s actually somewhat sad to read that, because there is no shortage of things that Great Britain can be proud of and can use in the 2012 Olympics.  Mother of Parliaments, creator of Common Law, creator of the language which I’m using to write this in, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Churchill’s “This was their finest hour” speech.  Sure there is plenty of things in British history that are embarrassing, just as there are in Chinese history.  But to be in a situation where you aren’t proud of some of the things that you’ve accomplished and to be not trying to use your history as both a warning and an inspration for the next generation, that is rather sad.

I suppose the crucial mistake is this:

I have in front of me a dispatch from The Spectator in August 1936: “Competent foreign residents here [Berlin] say that the German Government and people really do desire peace … and one has seen several things in this festival which suggest that Germany wants to impress her Olympic visitors not only with her efficiency … but also with her desire to be friendly.” “Harmony”, proclaimed the dominant Chinese character formed by the heaving choreography last night.

I am not predicting that, in three years’ time, the West will be at war with China. But I am pointing out the similarity of totalitarian political purpose. Youth! The future! Unity! National greatness! Cheering crowds, awed foreigners, dissent crushed! The Olympics offer all these things.

So basically any time anyone shows a bit of national pride and nationalism, the spector of totalitarianism and tyranny gets raised.  But that is a terrible, terrible mistake, because if nationalism is thought of as only the tool of totalitarianism and tyranny then only totalitarians and tyrants will be able to misuse nationalism, and nationalism is far too powerful a force to let that happen.  Nationalism is a tool, a power tool that can be used for horrible things, but it can also be used for great and glorious things.  If not for British nationalism and “King and Country”, Britain would have just given up after the Germans defeated the French, but instead Churchill went up to Parliament and offered nothing but “blood, toil, tears and sweat.

Sad if no one mentions that in London 2012.

April 10, 2008

Thoughts on the olympic torch – The real reason behind the protests

Filed under: china, tibet — Tags: — twofish @ 1:54 am

I don’t really think that it is much of a public relations disaster.  People who call it such seem to have this notion that there weren’t any protests that maybe the “free Tibet” and “human rights” crowd would suddenly realize the error of their ways and start singing the praises of the Communist Party.

Yeah right.

People are going to end up believing more strongly what they did before. The problem for the “human rights” crowd is that these protests are just going to strengthen the idea that “human rights” means “anti-China.”  But on the other hand, that battle was lost a decade ago when you had major Western NGO come out against China joining WTO.  That destroyed what existed of the overseas Chinese democracy movement, and at this point, it’s pounding rubble.

So why do people really demonstrate, if it actually hurts their cause, as it is doing in this case.

The conspiracy theorist would see all sorts of evil underhanded things happening.  But the reality is more prosaic.  Non-profits tend to be extremely underfunded, and they are always fighting against apathy.  If you have to “do nothing” then people just stay home and watch television, and the movement dissolves.  Whereas if you have a good old-fashion demonstration, you get everyone together “doing something” and that helps keep up morale.  The olympic torch is a convenient focus for all of the groups that have a problem with the Chinese government to get together and have a party.  The danger in these sorts of movements, is apathy and boredom, and most of all, of being totally ignored.  So getting people together to “DO SOMETHING” is something of a team building exercise, the fact that what you are doing might be useless or worse counterproductive to your stated goals isn’t all that important.  What is important is that you have something to do, and if you are lucky, you get noticed by the press, rather than being ignored.  And being ignored is the worst thing that can happen to a non-profit.

Which makes me wonder about these news article, about Tibetan monks once again protesting during a scripted Chinese government tour of Tibet.

It seems like a public relations disaster.  After all, the world thought that the Tibetans were happy under PRC rule, but surprise, surprise, Tibetan monks are complaining about freedom of religion and the Dalai Lama.  It makes you wonder why the Chinese government took foreign journalists to see this, unless they figure out that the first time it happens, it’s big news, the second time it happens, it’s less big, pretty soon you’ll have the Chinese government taking journalists out to see the monasteries with the expectation that there will be protesters, and at that point, it’s not news anymore.

This points out something about freedom of speech.  There is a lot of freedom of speech and a high degree of tolerence for demonstrations in major democracies, because most of the time it really doesn’t matter.  There are thousands of protests with hundreds of people that happen, and these are mostly ignored.  If you have a protest with tens of thousands of people, then it won’t get ignored, but if you can mobilize this amount of support, its in your interest to become part of the system rather than overthrowing or changing it in any fundamental way.

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