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Confucius lost in the fireworks

By K.C. Boey - posted Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Three weeks after, all soporific after effects of Beijing 2008 would have been worked out of the system.

The occasions when writer John Harms is able to steal away, having done his share of the domestics minding ankle-biter Theo, he’s still a mate at the neighbourhood local in working man’s Fitzroy in inner suburban Melbourne.

Which is eloquent commentary of the diversity of people - and their world-view - be it Melbourne or Kuala Lumpur, or the world over.


Watching the official Olympics telecaster in Australia, listening to the official radio broadcaster and other “shock jocks” on radio, and reading the “mainstream” newspapers, you would have gone away with a dreary view of Beijing’s Olympic performance.

Sure, Beijing put on a fireworks of a display. In less than a decade, China has powered its way from being an also-ran to being the most powerful sporting nation.

No visitor came away feeling ill-served. Beijing was super-efficient; clinical. But where was the humour?

Then there were all those broken promises. All those pledges of unfettered access to the Internet, freedom of speech, concessions to human rights that came to nought.

“Beijing’s triumph fails to transform a conflicted nation,” The Age in Melbourne concludes.

“There is little hope for lasting political change,” The Australian concurs.


“We hope (China’s) global exposure ... might help to reverse (its oppressive) situation,” Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid Herald Sun adds.

You’d think Harms would slink away from the pub, his voice in the wilderness. “Australians have a limited knowledge of China,” Harms had written in an article of his impression of the opening ceremony, commissioned by The Sunday Age .

“Our understandings have tended to be simplistic, based on deep-seated notions of Western superiority,” the independent freelance writer went on.

“We’ve been bombarded by Western prejudice for years. So much of the Australian media’s analysis of China over the past century has been on Western terms, serving Western ideological and political ends.”

Harms concedes that such understandings are not uniquely Australian. “The Chinese have had to deal with the implications of Western views for many years,” he observed.

Isn’t Harms a product of his time? How come he’s such an odd man out? The morning his article was published, he had been on the ABC TV sports program, Offsiders, and basically said the same thing.

The New Sunday Times caught up with Harms. No, he doesn’t accept that he’s the odd man out. Fellow Offsiders guest panellist Gerard Whateley shares his sentiment, he finds comfort. Harms offers as further evidence his Fitzroy beer mates.

Australians are known for their rite of passage travelling the world after their break from studies before they launch into work. There are those whom Harms describes as “yobbo” travellers as much as there are others socialised into “the spirit of human fraternity".

Harms sees himself as no different. It’s just incidentally that you discover that the former high school teacher is a student of culture.

He’d completed his Master’s in Australian Studies part-time. And he knows a bit about the Olympic ideal, having “graduated” from a two-month sabbatical at the International Olympic Academy in Olympia, where he gave a presentation on the nexus between sport and nationalism.

Harms affirms his published view, talking to the New Sunday Times: coverage of Beijing 2008 had been of Western expectations on Western terms. There is no concept of what China has been over its long history.

Harms’ is a view informed by University of Melbourne sociologist Dr Gao Jia, who hopes Beijing 2008 would mark a point of departure for China - and the world - from the trauma of imperialist intervention such as the Opium War.

Gao takes a view of the Olympics beyond the sporting arena of the founder of the modern Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin. It encompasses the sociology of politics, economics and international relations.

The Chinese national, who has lived in Melbourne for 20 years, is optimistic - for China, and the world. And not just out of wishful thinking.

Beijing 2008 validates a trend Gao had picked from the mid-1990s. That’s the “he” (Hanyu pinyin second tone) that Gao sensed from then, of a revivalism of Confucianism.

Where most of the world’s four billion people watching the Beijing 2008 opening ceremony live on TV were drawn by superficial marvel of the artistic expression of children painting, Gao grasped the symbolism of the Confucian tradition.

And Gao has no doubt. The Confucian revivalism comes from the top, he says. From the time of 1990s national leaders such as Li Ruihuan, chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, in the generation of President Jiang Zemin.

Political reality has held the hand of President Hu Jintao in directly sanctioning a return to Confucianism, but Zhang Yimou, ceremonial master of One World One Dream, would not have had the go-ahead had Hu not approved. “(The subtlety) is impossible for the Western journalist to understand,” says Gao.

The political elite has had to use “proxies” such as Li, and institutions such as Gao’s former university, Renmin University in Beijing, a centre of learning on Confucianism, which is now openly advancing its research on Confucius’ legacy.

The revivalism for Gao bodes well for the world. “He” in its root form translates into gentle, mild and kind; being harmonious, and on good terms. From this derive notions of peace, and being on friendly terms.

“For too long there has been this period of imperialist dominance. A Confucianist China will help rid the world of the confrontationist approach to international affairs.”

Academics Stephanie Hemelryk Donald and Julian Disney are cautiously optimistic of what Beijing 2008 has done for China and the world.

Stephanie, professor in Chinese media at the University of Sydney, is president of the Chinese Studies Association of Australia. It’s too early to say, Stephanie says of Beijing 2008 and its possible contribution to the social and political advancement within China.

One thing is clear, the Games are a reminder that China is effective and passionate. You sense Stephanie’s relief that she thinks Australia is far more nuanced than the US or even Britain in its attitude towards China.

Disney, professor of law and director of the social justice project at the University of New South Wales, is an advocate of regional fraternity who runs a Neighbours Programme linking Australia with Indonesia and Malaysia.

For him, the Games have given China and the Chinese new confidence in themselves.

Beijing 2008 holds promise for international affairs beyond sport. You’d wish it held more attention than so much of yesterday’s news that so quickly becomes today’s garden mulch. Or fish wrapper.

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First published in The New Straits Times on September 7, 2008.

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About the Author

K.C. Boey is a former editor of Malaysian Business and The Malay Mail. He now writes for The Malaysian Insider out of Melbourne.

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