China on Olympic eve: a globalisation of sentiment

Kerry Brown
11 July 2008

The long march to 8 August 2008 is nearly over. In less than a month the opening ceremony for the Olympics will start. Now is a good time to look at where China stands on the eve of its great showpiece, and how the jamboree might take its part among the events of this already tumultuous year in influencing China's relationship with the world.

Kerry Brown is the author of Struggling Giant: China in the 21st Century (Anthem Press, 2007)

Also by Kerry Brown on openDemocracy: "China goes global" (2 August 2007)

"China's party congress: getting serious" (5 October 2007) "Shanghai: Formula One's last ride" (15 October 2007) "Beijing's political tightrope-walk" (12 March 2008)

"China's Olympics: after the storm" (6 May 2008)

China in 2008 has already lived through a series of extraordinary events: dramatic, tragic, unexpected. No one anticipated the explosion of anger in Tibet and the neighbouring areas in March-April - least of all, it seems, the Chinese central government; no one foresaw the great earthquake on 12 May 2008 in southwest China that claimed the lives of over 60,000 people.

These two events, in very different ways, capture the fragility of modern China. This great economic juggernaut that scares and worries so many people outside China contains within it deep weaknesses and problems. The protests in Tibet showed that the diverse ethnic mixture that lives within the current geographical boundaries of the People's Republic of China (PRC) exist with an uneasy sort of truce that is inflected at every level by historical and political issues.

The cycles of history

The modern China that came into existence in 1949 is overshadowed by a host of previous "Chinas", which together are radically different to the current one in size, ethnic mixture and stability. These Chinas have left profound memory-traces. Tibet is only the most prominent; Xinjiang, inner Mongolia, even Yunnan - as well as other more profoundly Sinified provinces - also contain echoes of that diverse and disunited history. The events in Tibetan-populated areas are a sharp reminder that many people - inside and outside China - take the modern country's unity too lightly at their peril. Chinese dynastic history over the last two millennia has been a cycle of fragmentation and disunity followed by centralisation and strength. This history may grow silent, but it never goes away; the latest generation of Beijing leaders, in their reaction to the problems in Tibet, showed that negotiating in ways that compromise Chinese unity is not on its agenda.

The earthquake raises more complex issues. The history of devastating natural calamities in China is a long and terrible one. Earthquakes in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) wiped out whole cities and regions, killing hundreds of thousands. Floods carried devastation even further; the Yellow River was even called "China's sorrow" on account of its history of destroying whole communities through the centuries. Typhoons, droughts and tidal waves have all taken their toll. The political role of these events has sometimes been dramatic, with dynasties and states ended by the final onslaught not of man, but of nature.

The atheist central Chinese government - scientific rationalists to a man - supports active campaigns against superstition and cultism. But there is a question here over how far its campaigns reach or can reach today into the hearts of the Chinese population. To many, this recent series of disasters, man-made and natural, looks inauspicious and ominous. The members of the politburo may be obliged to project a look of outward strength, but there are many ways in which politically they have to treat every day as though it were their last. Why else would prime minister Wen Jiabao quite sincerely describe himself as the world's most worried man? He is right to be worried; he has a lot to worry about.

Among openDemocracy's articles on China in 2008: Robert Barnett, "Tibet: questions of revolt" (4 April 2008)

Wenran Jiang, "Tibetan unrest, Chinese lens" (7 April 2008)

Wang Lixiong, "China and Tibet: the true path" (15 April 2008)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "China's political colours: from monochrome to palette" (14 May 2008)

Li Datong, "China's soft-power failure" (16 May 2008)

Li Datong, "China and the earthquake" (2 June 2008)

Emily Lau, "Tiananmen, 1989-2008" (4 June 2008)

Li Datong, "China's leaders, the media, and the internet" (4 July 2008)

The global thread

John Keay, in his narrative China: A History, writes of the attempt in the late Song period (11th century) to create political associations that reformed and opened up the Chinese political elite from one-man absolutism. A scholar of the period, Quyen Xiu, attempted to convince the reigning emperor of the need for tolerance of political factions and organised interest groups. This idea was rejected. A contemporary scholar of Chinese imperial history bitterly noted: "China still struggles with the heritage of this 11th-century political failure."

This suggests that even in 2008, the deep roots of many unsettling phenomena in China can be detected; and that being aware of this at least helps both to put events in perspective, and to interpret them with a degree of balance.

In this light, for example, the disappointment Quyen Xiu must have felt after his learned recommendation was turned down can be seen as just one distant - and not so distant - antecedent of the anger of many Chinese bloggers today at the corruption, complacency and greed of the government and its agents.

But in this too, discontented Chinese citizens (bloggers or otherwise) may have much more in common with their counterparts in other parts of the world than many may think. Publics around the world - in the United States and Europe, in the middle east and India, in China itself - are all, it seems, fed up and disillusioned by our politicians. We are - especially in these times of economic stress - impatient with them, frustrated their inability to deliver the simplest things, irritated by their boasts. If the Chinese past and the Chinese present are connected in multiple ways, so in this sense is the Chinese present with that of its national equivalents across the world.

This "globalisation of sentiment" as it might be called is, too, part of the reality of things on the eve of the Olympic games. If people on all sides can begin to understand how much this experience connects rather than divides them, then the celebratory Olympic slogan "one world, one dream" reality may begin to acquire a reality of its own. The sight of George W Bush and Hu Jintao standing next to each other on the podium may even reinforce the sense that these elite figures exist almost in another universe, without real accountability to their peoples. In any case, we are about to find out. China's year is about to become even more interesting, more globalising - and more surprising.

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