Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Olympic fatigue, part 2

A New York Times article published today tells how the IOC had no choice but to give in to a Chinese ultimatum to censor journalists’ Internet access to certain webpages during the Olympics. There’s a mood of depression and cynicism setting in among those of us who are following the prelude to the Games. Visas are heavily restricted but the Beijing events are sold out: the audience will be mostly Chinese. The news about Olympic preparations in China is all positive, the news abroad is mostly negative. I feel like the Olympics are mainly for the Chinese; everyone else is shut out; who on earth is making these xenophobic decisions? There must be some kind of debate going on inside the government: between those who have lived abroad and understand the hole the country is digging itself into, and those conservatives who don’t understand how Westerners think and who don’t want to relinquish their control. It’s a real shame the latter seem to be winning out.

This quote from an anonymous IOC official, published in a previous Times article, says it all:

Had the I.O.C., and those vested with the decision to award the host city contract, known seven years ago that there would be severe restrictions on people being able to enter China simply to watch the Olympics, or that live broadcasting from Tiananmen Square would essentially be banned, or that reporters would be corralled at the whim of local security, then I seriously doubt whether Beijing would have been awarded the Olympics.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Olympic fatigue

The Olympics are still more than two weeks away, and already I'm sensing some Olympic fatigue.

My own annoyances are both petty and easy to document. For one thing, pirated DVDs are now difficult to find! Another is that the police are paying more attention to foreigners. They’re actually stopping us on the street and asking to see our passports—the law stating foreigners must always have their passports with them has long been on the books, but has rarely been enforced. I also got a personal house call from my friendly local policeman. I guess waiting a few months while they checked out my background, getting a health check, being interviewed by my news company's local handler (for the press card), being interviewed by some toughs at the public security bureau (for the press visa), and registering multiple times at my local police station wasn't enough—they had to send someone around to check on me as well (who proceeded to copy down information from my press card, which one would assume he would already have, since the card was issued by them). I asked him if he was paying me a visit because of the Olympics, and he said, “No, it's for your safety! It's to protect you!” Classic.

But Olympic fatigue from Chinese is much more interesting than my own silly squabbles. Today I had a chat with a workmate in Beijing on MSN (we talked in English and it's mostly unedited):

I just feel weird that it seems the whole country's preparing for the games, everybody~~~but r we really connected to the games...... I mean, its just should be fun, relaxing..... but see BJ right now.....even missiles around the famous 鸟巢 [Bird's Nest]....what the hell~~~ok, we should protect the games from terrorists.........but its not that fun now.

It seems that we should [be connected to the games] ...the government makes me feel that I should get myself prepared for the games as a host who lives in BJ… it just makes me nervous ... not fun and interesting as i expected… these slogans~~~you can see them everywhere in BJ…. like "give the world a smile"...something like that~~~i may be too emotional....but what if I don't wanna give a smile?

I think this attitude is a symptom of the immense controversy that has surrounded the Games, and the realization by many Chinese that the Games are politicized—not just by foreign protesters, but by the Chinese government as well. In my opinion, the Chinese government, with its absurd insecurity, is more to blame for this souring attitude than foreign protesters (though protesters' glee in disparaging China, and their unwillingness to listen to intelligent Chinese opinions, is sometimes sickening to behold). The government is too anxious about how it will look to the outside world, so it puts up signs outlining in amusing detail how one should behave towards foreigners.


It seems that many people didn't realize the Games have always been politicized and always will be politicized. They just viewed the Olympics as China's chance to show its modernity off to the world, and to be a good host to foreign guests and to the foreign gaze. My workmate expressed some profound sadness about the path the Games have taken:

[I feel] like i wanna hold and host a party~~~as the host, I surely want this party to go well....but I also wanna have fun—that's the reason why i wanna hold a party......if it was not that fun to me, it failed me.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Natural disasters and national formation

When Premier Wen Jiabao visited the Beichuan Middle School in Sichuan soon after the May earthquake, he wrote “Numerous hardships make a nation strong” (多难兴邦), a Chinese aphorism, on the school’s blackboard. The phrase was quickly quoted throughout Chinese media, and the blackboard itself was even preserved, along with Wen's calligraphy. But what of the saying itself? The latest issue of Chinese National Geography includes an interesting article that explores the background of the saying, arguing that it is rooted in the idea that the Chinese nation was fundamentally shaped by the experience of natural disasters.

The article (which is an editorial and hence unsigned) harkens back to the first famous natural disaster in China: the floods that Da Yu, the mythical founder of the Xia dynasty in the 21st century BCE, struggled to control. The author argues that the fact that Da Yu, whose great contribution was flood management, is credited with founding China demonstrates the importance of natural disasters in the makeup of the Chinese nation: “The reason we wanted to found a nation-state (民族国家) was to safeguard ourselves—to combat foreign aggression and to resist natural disasters.” Da Yu, the author writes, was the founder (奠基人) of the nation-state because “one of the most important missions [of the nation-state] is to combat natural disasters.”

This idea has several implications. First, it reinforces the notion of historical continuity and progress, vital preconditions in conceptualizations of nation. The author argues that Chinese history is comprised of an unbroken series of natural disasters, which challenged the Chinese nation and made it stronger, forcing it to progress. This process is evident from the beginning of recorded Chinese history—one of the main preoccupations of the Shang oracle bones was predicting when and where natural disasters might strike (a preoccupation that was certainly seen throughout dynastic history, such as Zhang Heng and his famous seismometer)—and has continued until today:

A culture needs to confront challenge after challenge. In the process of standing up to challenges, [a nation] will have true leaders and the whole country will become united. Only then will there be enough impetus for culture to continue to develop and progress…. It is precisely because the Chinese nation (中华民族) was successful in confronting so many natural disasters that it was able to continuously safeguard Chinese culture over 4000 unbroken years.

Second, the idea of natural disasters as a vital part of the Chinese nation offers a partial explanation for the (alleged) powerful unity of the Chinese people by closely linking the national body and its geography. Focusing on the Warring States period to illustrate this point, the author agues that the problem of surviving natural disasters was a significant factor behind the ideal of eventual (re)unification that ran through the period. The author uses famines as an example: if one of the seven states of the period was suffering a famine, it would look towards one of the other states for relief. That such relief was rarely forthcoming strengthened the desire for unity. “Natural disaster after natural disaster forged the most important thing for the Chinese people—a united national consciousness,” the author concludes. “A baptism of blood and fire that lasted for thousands of years resulted in the obtainment of this priceless treasure.” This is why the Chinese people value unity so much: “I believe an important reason why the idea of unity has so deeply entered the marrow of the Chinese people is natural disasters.”

The article also points to the future, offering the certainty of future natural disasters as a reason to continue civilizational progress. In so doing, the author makes a subtle but interesting comparison between Japan’s handling of natural disasters and Da Yu’s. The author points out that in Japan, another very earthquake-prone country, the numbers of deaths and toppled buildings caused by earthquakes have diminished. “The real tragedy is that, even though we [here in China] have seen earthquakes again and again, we still pay the price of massive numbers of dead. [In the latest earthquake] we saw how school buildings collapsed while buildings standing beside them were safe and sound. We must admit that our civilization has a problem.” (Something many readers will know is that many of the buildings that survived the earthquake were government buildings; anti-corruption measures might therefore be part of the author’s vision of national progress.)

How has Japan managed to lower its earthquake casualties? By following Da Yu’s example, the article implies. “[Da Yu] treated flood control as a long process, a process that, though it had many difficulties, was nevertheless on the whole unremarkable…. The essence of Da Yu’s flood control efforts was that natural disasters are part of normal life.” The author writes that natural disasters create many short-term heroes, but Da Yu, though his efforts were not dramatic, was a long-term hero because he labored over many years to create a strong infrastructure against the potential of natural disasters. Again, while not saying so explicitly, this remark perhaps points to media coverage of the Sichuan earthquake, which focused on the individual heroism of rescuers but often failed to address the larger problems of poorly-constructed buildings, the frequent ineffectiveness of government response, and other issues.

Numerous hardships may make a nation strong, but intelligent safeguards represent true progress. The article ends with a final exhortation: to build a statue of Da Yu in front of an earthquake museum in Sichuan. The implication is that Da Yu’s example, if less dramatic, would be far more useful than the image of countless soldiers clawing through rubble with their hands.