Well it’s 08/08/08 and the Beijing Olympics are now upon us.
Long term readers of ToK (The Tree of Knowledge) will appreciate that I’m something of a Sinophile, a predilection that isn’t particularly popular on either the left or the right in Australia at the moment.
While the human rights record of the Chinese government is obviously indefensible and deserves public attention and debate, I’ve been a little bothered at the increasingly overt hostility that’s entered into the public discourse on China in the lead up to the Olympics.
Beijing 2008-Berlin 1936 analogies are becoming increasingly prevalent and it is getting to the point where the only acceptable way to voice disquiet at China’s record on human rights at the moment is shrill, ALL CAPS absolutism, else you be viewed as some kind of Nazi collaborator.
In light of this, let me be clear about what I mean when I say I’m uncomfortable about the direction that the public debate about the Beijing Olympics has taken. In my view:
Chinese human rights offenses are indefensible and ought to be publicly criticised. However, the level of demonisation of the Chinese that has become prevalent in the lead up to the Olympics is both unrealistic and counter-productive.
Given that people will already be taking offence, let me explain in more detail.
I think the Nazi parallels that are being drawn at the moment are completely unjustified and evidence of how criticisms of China leading up to the Olympics have lost touch with reality. Let’s be frank - there are no gas ovens in Tibet, nor does China have designs to enslave a continent. Yes, there is a propagandistic element to the Beijing Olympics (as there is with many Olympics), but the Chinese aren’t holding themselves out to be the master race. There may be analogies with Moscow, 1980 or Mexico City 1960 depending on what goes on during the games, but certainly not Berlin.
I think the Nazi parallels are a symptom of broader misunderstandings of China by much of the West. Depictions of China in Op Eds and the blogosphere at the moment are depressingly simplistic. The more benign accounts are cartoon caricatures in which evil CCP Henchman and PLA Goons, supported by spineless Western governments out for Chinese Cash, repress a helpless population that yearns for democracy. The more malign pieces characterise the Chinese population as monolithic and almost inhuman, “a nation of 1.3 billion tightly-controlled, heavily-indoctrinated people”.
When I read accounts like this it makes me wonder whether the people writing them have ever visited the country or even met a Chinese national, because they certainly don’t square with my experiences. China is not a free society. Its citizens are constrained by the constant threat of brutal repression. But the trajectory of societal development is clearly towards increased personal freedom. There’s a legitimate discussion about whether the pace of this societal change is adequate and whether the propagandistic imperative of the Olympics has caused a regression, but nobody could argue that China under Hu Jintao is less free than it was under Jiang Zemin, or less free under Deng Xiaoping than it was under Mao. China today is more complex than the totalitarian police state caricature.
A good example is the “Great Firewall of China”. Western journalists and tourists are shocked that they can’t access Wikipedia on their fly-in fly-out China trips and assume that the Chinese people are brainwashed with a censored perspective of the world. However, as an excellent article in The New Yorker about Chinese Nationalists (not communists) recently described:
When people began rioting in Lhasa in March, Tang followed the news closely. As usual, he was receiving his information from American and European news sites, in addition to China’s official media. Like others his age, he has no hesitation about tunnelling under the government firewall, a vast infrastructure of digital filters and human censors which blocks politically objectionable content from reaching computers in China. Younger Chinese friends of mine regard the firewall as they would an officious lifeguard at a swimming pool - an occasional, largely irrelevant, intrusion.
To get around it, Tang detours through a proxy server - a digital way station overseas that connects a user with a blocked Web site. He watches television exclusively online, because he doesn’t have a TV in his room. Tang also receives foreign news clips from Chinese students abroad. (According to the Institute of International Education, the number of Chinese students in the United States - some sixty-seven thousand - has grown by nearly two-thirds in the past decade.) He’s baffled that foreigners might imagine that people of his generation are somehow unwise to the distortions of censorship.
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