China's Olympics: a view from Brazil

Arthur Ituassu
11 August 2008

Brazilian people's feelings about the Olympicgames in Beijing are as diverse as the nation itself - so much so that it wouldbe ambitious (even impossible) even totry to summarise them. But in a broad sense, three clear and distinctive"positions" can be discerned.

Among openDemocracy's articles on China in 2008:

Li Datong, "The Weng'an model: China'sfix-it governance"(30 July 2008)

Kerry Brown, "The Olympics countdown: Beijingto Shanghai" (7 August 2008)

Tarek Osman, "China and the Olympics: a viewfrom Egypt" (7 August 2008)

Irfan Husain, "China and the Olympics: a viewfrom Pakistan" (8 August 2008)

Peter Kimani, "China and theOlympics: a view from Kenya" (10 August 2008)
The first is pragmatic: China is a new greatpower, and Brazilians should be friends of the Chinese more than they should beenemies or even rivals.

The second is anti-American: China representsan expression of power in the international arena different from the UnitedStates, and should be praised and respected for that.

The third is principled: this sportingspectacular needs to be viewed critically in light of the principles and valuesunderlying political life.

The first view echoes Brasília's management ofthe country's foreign policy over the last few years. The core idea of thispolicy is indeed to be "pragmatic", and this allows flexibility on a range ofissues and relationships. The results of this explicit pragmatism are varied:there is no concern (for example) about President Lula being photographedalongside Muammar al-Gaddafi of Libya (notwithstanding the latter's wayward andsometimes extreme statements), there is readiness to let Venezuela enterMercosul / Mercosur (though this regional agreement specifies that members mustobey democratic standards, and there are many questions over Hugo Chávez's).

This "pragmatism" was also invoked byBrazilian diplomats in excusing the country's stance at the decisive 21-26 July2008 meeting in Geneva of the World Trade Organisation's Doha-round negotiations - when Brasília changed its position at the last minute to align with the majorityproposal (backed also by China). This reflects a broader and very popular viewin Brazil: that China is now a major power, and there is no reason to cause problems forthe Chinese. Moreover, their political system is their political system; andafter all, this is a country of one billion people - would it work if it were ademocracy?

There is nothing wrong with pragmatism -unless it itself is or becomes an ideology disguised as a non-ideologicaldoctrine. The idea of living in a pragmatic world is itself a choice and anideology. Brazilian nationalists try to sell it as a perspective that is both value-freeand in the national interest. In this understanding, the Olympics in China arejust another event, where the main attitude is one of "let's see the athletes".

True, Lula's foreign policy does not declareitself value-free - since it undoubtedly carries the social-justice stamp. Butit does not emphasise democracy so strongly, and its focus on commercialrelationships is reflected in the huge entourage that accompanied Lula on his state visit to China in May 2004.

Arthur Ituassu is professor of internationalrelations at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His website is here

Among Arthur Ituassu's articles on Brazil in openDemocracy:

"Brazil, let's talk" (4 October 2006)

"Welcome to politics, Brazil" (1 November 2006)The second view is to see China as inopposition to United States hegemony. For Brazilians who fought theauthoritarianism of the military regime that seized power in 1964, it can befrightening to see young Brazilians looking at China as an admired model fordevelopment and of a way to defend the nation's international power. "China isnot a democracy? But what about the United States, is it a democracy either?",one such person told me recently. A Brazilian columnist in Folha de São Paulo wrote that the American cyclists who arrived inBeijing wearing masks had left an even more polluted city: New York. Even if itwere true, can one example of pollution be used to "justify" the other? Theseare the same people who laud the Olympics in China for Beijing's new andwonderful high-tech buildings - from the Bird's Nest stadium to the new CCTVbuilding. But to move poor families away from their homes to build such amonuments of the new Chinese capitalism is a heavy price to pay for theircountry's march to becoming a global power.

The third view in Brazil of the Olympics inChina is a critical - and very much a minority - one. A more "traditional"columnist, Arthur Dapieve, writes in OGlobo: "It is difficult to celebrate the union of the peoples of the worldwithout some degree of hypocrisy, when the Chinese violently act against theTibetans and the domestic opposition". But there are only a few such voices; Iwonder indeed if there are more than two of us.

A more general comment is this: more than twodecades after the end of the military regime in Brazil in 1985, democracy isdeeply established in Brazilian society but is also now a secondary idea behindthe perceived need for social justice and economic egalitarianism. This trendis very influential in the way Brazilians are seeing the Olympics games inChina. It is clearly reflected in and strengthened by the Braziliangovernment's "pragmatic" rhetoric and foreign policy behaviour; and it is moreand more reinforced too by the aggressively ideological foreign policy ofsuccessive conservative administrations in the United States.

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