China’s Olympics: What’s Reality Got To Do With It?


As a huge fan of John Pomfret, based on his excellent book, Chinese Lessons, I was happy to learn that Pomfret has just starting a blog on China for the Washington Post. It took all of two posts for him to come out with a big money quote I must repeat. The quote is from the post, Don’t Expect Protests to Hurt Chinese Regime, regarding the impact of foreigners putting the heat on China for its conduct in Tibet that has been getting so much press lately:

So is this going to weaken China’s government? On the contrary. The more pressure the Chinese get from foreigners and barbarians –- which are actually synonymous in ancient Chinese -– the stronger the system becomes. Indeed, China’s system feeds off this kind of adversity. The Communist regime has a peculiar genius for turning these types of threats into opportunities.

Pomfret is absolutely right and this is pretty much what I said when interviewed a few weeks back on BBC Radio: if the goal is to effect positive change in China, back channel diplomacy is the way to go.

Do you agree?

27 responses to “China’s Olympics: What’s Reality Got To Do With It?”

  1. I think there are a lot of groups in China who would protest if they had the freedom to do so inside China’s borders.
    It’s not a question of weakening or strengthening the Chinese govt, but instead a question of speaking out and bringing awareness to issues that would otherwise be overlooked.

  2. Absolutely. So few Western governments seem to understand this about China and I don’t know if it’s because they really don’t get it or because their own domestic constituency requires them to be so vocal in shaming the Chinese government publicly. When you have a one-party government that has always been hypersensitive about their hold on power, it’s natural that they are hesitant to “encourage” domestic dissent by letting it yield any tangible progress.

  3. Completely. I am very concerned about the negative impact on T1***be*ans in T1b*t and elsewhere in China of the attacks on the Olympic torch. As you say, this will all fuel traditional China world views and certainly won’t solve a thing.
    I do appreciate the frustration that people feel although I suspect that many of the rent-a-mob ‘activists’ involved don’t understand the issues. I’m not sure who they think they’re helping.

  4. What about back-channel diplomacy would work? Exactly what could other countries say/ do to change this situation?
    I understand the logic behind opposing openly pressuring China, but I don’t really see any alternative, and I’m not convinced that pressure is actually counter-productive. I think the CCP wants international acceptance, though clearly self preservation is more important to them- though yet again international acceptance is an important part of promoting China as a great power, and therefore also benefits the CCP’s image.
    I personally think these demonstrations help belie the CCP’s claims that these issues don’t matter and that no one cares about them. The CCP may be able to tell many of its people that it’s just imperialist Westerners trying to hold China down, but hopefully at least some people will realize that such a broad reaction could only mean that there is some truth to the protester’s concerns. In the long run, I’d hope it would help illuminate the gap between the truth and CCP propaganda. Maybe I’m just being naive- but I really don’t see any better option.

  5. But can we still feel that human r1ghts are important?
    Can we still express support for people such as H* Jia or Yang Ch*nlin (recently jailed for five years saying that human rights are more important than the Olympics)?
    If we express support for such people, are we “criticizing the Chinese government”?

  6. Agree. As I watch the “sacred” progression of the “holy” torch I must confess I’m creeped out by the religious imagery conjured up by officials who are reeducating monks on the side and thrilled seeing free speech in action. I’m also appalled by some of the grosser forms of that free speech (trying to wrestle the torch from a wheel-chair bound carrier seems beyond the pale), and my heart goes out to all my Chinese friends who are justifiably proud of the many accomplishments of their country and, understandably, take attacks on the flame as attacks on them. It’s this group who constitute the market where the West needs to sell its ideas. Right now its marketing campaign is about as subtle and about as effective as China’s campaign to market a “non-political” Olympics to the West. Whatever his other faults, this is one point George Bush seems to understand.

  7. “The Communist regime has a peculiar genius for turning these types of threats into opportunities.”
    Really? How’d that work out for you in the Spring of 89′? Going back a bit further, explain to me again how the Gang of Four was good for China? Red Guards? Labor Reeducation? GLF?
    Opportunities…you keep using that word but I do not think it means what you think it means

  8. “When you have a one-party government that has always been hypersensitive about their hold on power, it’s natural that they are hesitant to “encourage” domestic dissent by letting it yield any tangible progress.”
    We all get this loud and clear. There is no misunderstanding of this at all. And this is exactly how we would like to irritate the Chinese government, and to tell the whole world of this God given truth.

  9. Surely the cause of these protest is the failure of back-channel diplomacy in this matter. As I have said before, I fully support engagement with China on a basis of allowing greater involvement by the Chinese government so long as they first make concessions. I think it is very unwise of international organisations to allow involvement by the communist government in expectation of concessions. Obviously Chinese pride must be accomodated and any such concession must be demanded via back-channels, but the IOC failed to do this. It was sheer foolishness to agree to granting the olympics to China on the expectation that they would improve the human rights situation when there was no way of ensuring that they would.
    A simple analogy demonstrates the point – If I run a factory which has a record for mistreating its employees which is likely to tarnish the reputation of the company which you represent – would you place a major order with my company in the hope that I would improve? Or would you wait until my record had improved before placing orders?
    Hence the protests – I live on the route of the torch relay through London, and the thought of the olympic flame being hustled through my neighbourhood by a bunch of tough-looking ‘attendants’ very nearly turned my stomach. The idea that my street was being used as a set for the creation of an advert for a government with which I deeply disagree meant that of course I showed out to show my opposition to this farce. I and the many others there were protesting as much against the bone-headed obstinance of the IOC and the British government in going ahead with what is essentially a PR stunt for a tyrannical regime as it was against the PRC government. We were also protesting against what seemed to be the imposition of the Chinese system on our streets through these toughs, who presumed to order our police about and who even Sebastian Coe (now Lord Coe), organiser of the 2012 games described as “Horrible thugs” who should not have been allowed to take part.
    The protest may not have convince many people in China (although I hope they have alarmed some in the government) but they have prevented the use of this torch relay to create the kind of atmosphere in which the current failings of the PRC government might have been glossed over. In short, I am very proud to have been there at the demonstrations and glad to have had the chance to express my opinion after years of biting my tongue in China. When/if I go back to China I will no doubt have to go back to keeping it zipped, but I am not in China now.

  10. It should also be noted that there were many ways in which, despite being warned by IOC members, BOCOG desperately mismanaged the torch relay and added insult to injury:
    1) In the past the torches were lit on Olympus and relayed to a cauldron in the host city, this time BOCOG opted to light the cauldron on Olympus, transport the cauldron to Beijing, light the torch in Tiananmen square and carry it around the world. Sure, it was all symbolism, but they went from having something that was symbolic of the Olympic ideal to something that represented Beijing and only Beijing.
    2) The Chinese bodyguards, who are of unknown provenance but have been alleged by more than one source to have been selected from the ranks of the People’s Armed Police. Surely a red rag to a bull for the inhabitants of any city to see what they have been told are the recruits of a foreign army marching in formation up their streets.
    3) The student groups organised by the Chinese embassy – mainly rather callow youths wearing armbands and carrying Chinese flags. Few people in any country are happy to see evidence of the citizens of a foreign country organising themselves along lines redolent of militarism in their midst.
    All of these factors turned what they might have been able to represent as a celebration of world unity disturbed only by malcontents into a mobile riot where the people of the city were given what amounted into a collective smack in the face by BOCOG. The French liberation said as much on today’s front cover.

  11. I think Pomfret (and almost the entire western media) still skirts the issue of why the Chinese people and the greater Chinese diaspora do not support T1b*t/Darfur Olympic protestors.
    Chinese people in China are indoctrinated. However the ones who have voiced their opinions probably have access to western media through the internet and other sources.
    It seems the West is at a loss to explain the reaction of the Chinese diaspora. The standard explanation that the Chinese are brainwashed do not work. Sadly, some have resorted to racism to attack overseas Chinese rather than keep an open mind and listen to their reasonings.
    At this point, it doesn’t seem it’s the West/T1bet*ns/Mia Farrow v. the CCP anymore, it’s becoming more of a clash of civilizations, i.e. West/T1bet*ns/Mia Farrow v. the Chinese people. On one hand, we have western idealists who know little about China and who cannot distinguish the interests of the Chinese people and the Chinese government, on the other hand, we have over 1 billion people who suffered enormously in the 20th century and who have only recently been exposed to the world outside of China. Interesting times.

  12. Weakening or strengthening the Chinese regime is besides the point: the objective is a Chinese government that can process domestic unrest in a more sophisticated manner.
    Certainly if one’s objective is to free this-or-that dissident, back channel diplomacy is the way to go.
    The bigger question is how China’s system can be improved to handle this sort of thing in a more sophisticated manner in the future. The first step for doing that is for the Chinese regime to realize that their strategies have failed. Failure is the best teacher in the world.

  13. Well, it seems that the ‘attendants’ were indeed recruited from the People’s Armed Police, the insensitivity of BOCOG seemingly knows no bounds – and one might ask whether they may be charged with assault or at least a breach of the peace in connection with their grappling with peaceful protesters. Here in the UK the test for self-defence is the use of reasonable force – what is the reasonable level of force to be used against a protester who is seeking to extinguish a flame?

  14. For all the people who seem to care about China so much, have you ever checked your “Westerner” ego? Why do you fail to see for every “protester” – who by the way most likely is not Chinese and don’t know where China is on the map – there are 100 Chinese people cheering for their country? Please stop feeling superior to Chinese. They know what kind of government they have, but do you really know what kind of a government you have? What about impartialness and fairness of the media? Using the word “protesters” in stead of “mobs” makes a world’s difference, doesn’t it?

  15. I’m sorry, but I’m sick and tired of any criticism of China being written off as evidence of some sort of superiority complex or racism. I have yet to see one Chinese poster that actually addresses the issue at hand rather than assuming other posters at best have some inexplicable deep-seated prejudice against China, and at worst are rednecks who don’t know the first thing about China. I’m sorry for the outburst, but I think it needs to be said that some people posting here probably know a good deal more about China than many Chinese people.
    I also want to add that since moving to Taipei, I’ve come to realize exactly how much influence government propaganda has on mainland Chinese. Even people with no love for the West don’t assume Westerners are kneejerk anti-Chinese, and don’t feel the need to bring up the Opium Wars every time someone criticizes the mainlanders’ beloved CCP. Ma Y1ngjiu’s threat to boycott the Olympics over T1b*t shows exactly how empty these arguments are. I just hope mainlanders can take a hint from Taiwan.

  16. J B:
    You brought up Ma Yingjiu’s threat to boycott the Olympics over T1b*t. It just show how ignorant you’re even though you claim you live in Taipei and might have been to China. Do you read in Chinese? Do you know when MYJ made that threat? Yes, right before Taiwan’s election when KMT was so nervous about the result. Read Taiwan’s newspapers if you can. Please, just because you’ve been to a piece of Chinese territory doesn’t mean you understand China or Chinese. I don’t blame you if you don’t know what you’re talking about, but just don’t pretend you do.
    Clash of civilizations.
    These are the words I’m thinking when I read all the western media re Tibet. These are also the words that I think when I read your posts above. I can feel and even understand your strong distaste to Chinese government or Chinese – whatever. From your posts, I just felt that the gap between what you think and what ordinary Chinese think (please no charges of brain-washing and government propaganda) are so broad there is no chance to bridge it.
    It’s pretty sad to watch the clash between the West and Muslim world; it would be worse if the mutual distaste and antagonism evolve into another clash between the West and Chinese world.
    People who know both worlds should help promote mutual understanding.

  17. Nobody is ever going to respect the Chinese opinion as long as there is no freedom of the press. Even the overseas Chinese press is greatly influenced by the Communist party for direct and indirect methods like revoking advertisements or access to Chinese government officials. Only when ideas are allowed to compete on a fair playing field will any real debate begin. The Chinese government always calls for dialogue to resolve problems, well let a Hundred Flowers Bloom.

  18. J.B.,
    I am sorry if you don’t like hearing about the superiority complex. But let’s look at your comment, “some people posting here probably know a good deal more about China than many Chinese people”. That statement examplifies superiority complex. I am a Chinese who’s educated and have lived in the US for 13 years. If I say I know more about US than manay Americans, you would laugh and think I am a nut.
    Assuming that Chinese people are all brain-washed is plain ignorance. Governments are governments, they will do whatever to achieve their goal. The fact is that most Chinese people know that they don’t have a free media, that the government is not going to tell them everything, that one needs to pause at what the government is saying and think. On the other hand, what happened when the US government told its people that Iraq had WMD and was resposible for 911? — The entire nation was led to a war !!! Speaking of brain wash.
    The notion of a “free” media is the most effective tool of brain-washing, because it let your guards down. Last week I was watching CNN’s report about the riot in T*bet. On the screen they were showing a mob burning cars and robbing stores, but the voice-over says Chinese is cracking-down. Have we become that stupid that the media could just bullsh*t in our face?
    The T*bet issue is as complex as the native American issue. At least I acknowledge that I don’t know everything and am not well qualified to make an intelligent comment about it. A glass can be argued as half-full or half-empty. Thinking that you have the superior view is as good as thinking that you stand upwards and people on the other side of the earth are heads-down.
    Next time before you bring up Twainess view as a viewpoint of some Chinese, please first check with them if they admit that they are Chinese. If they do, then we can take that arguement seriously. In a democracy, minorities views deserve respect, we understand that, too.

  19. @Greg – I wholly understand your feelings on this matter, that is why these differences were perhaps best not brought out into the open by the totally insensitive way in which the torch relay has been organised.
    Put it this way – if the torch had been lit on Olympus, if the local police had been the sole means of protection, if the Chinese flags had been replaced with olympic ones – in short, if a stronger effort had been made to de-politicise the relay perhaps feelings wouldn’t be running so high right now.
    Demonstrations were inevitable, but creating the situation where so many people sympathised with the demonstrators was the work of the relay organisers. I myself only decided to join the demonstrators the evening before the torch relay in London when I saw the degree to which Chinese government was involved in it.
    Today I met a friend of mine on the undergound (that’s the London subway) who is from Shanghai and who had been at the pro-China demonstration. She told me that she and her friends had felt that they had to attend the pro-China rally to show their opposition to the pro-T’bet rally and that she felt that protests against the torch were an attack on China. Now, I can understand this, but the fact is that the torch has become so clearly linked with China in the minds of both pro-China and the pro-t’bet/human rights/democracy camp that it no longer represents anything to do with the olympic ideal.
    The solution to this situation is simple – the relay is now a total wash-out, it must be cancelled before it does any more harm. Then let the olympic association make a clear distinction between support for the olympics and support for the Chinese government – let them make it clear that one is not the other.
    You are quite right to say there is might be a gap which is perhaps unbridgeable between the position that many in the west hold on this and what many Chinese believe – let us then set it aside for another day.

  20. To Anonymous,
    Please get the facts straight. I don’t know which “overseas” Chinese media are you reading. The ones I read DAILY were banned (yes, there is no free media in China when it comes to political matters) inside China and the advertisers are mostly the Western companies trying to tap into the overseas Chinese market.
    No doubt the West has a free media, but free from what? Free from government crack-down, I think yes. But free from their own agenda, the influence of their boss and their sponsors, as well as the market force (ratings, anyone?)? I really have a lot of doubts. Did Bill Mahr get kicked out of NBC by saying something GE didn’t like? Did the US media collective helped the government selling a war to its people? Up to yesterday every time when Lou Dobbs mention China he would say “commun*st China”, ask any business person who have traveled to and done business in China if that notion is misleading – misleading the ordinary American people, and propaganda for the sake of ratings.
    I am not arguing that China doesn’t have a long way to go in terms of human rights. But to think that the Chinese people don’t know better just shows your own blind sense of superiority and ignorance.
    I am sure four years ago you were among the people who believed (in government and media) that when the troops march into Bagadad, the Iraqies would open their arms welcoming the liberators. I thought one should have learned something in four years.

  21. When did I say I know more about China than some Chinese? I said some people, not myself.
    I can assure you that many Taiwanese who feel they are Chinese agree with Ma Y*ngjiu- he may have said it to counter Xie Ch*ngting’s “Taiwan may be the next T1b*t” claims, but he certainly wasn’t hurting his support amongst pro-reunification people either, and that’s not only because he doesn’t have a deep-blue opponent. Regardless, Ma Y*ngjiu is beside the point- the point is that many people who have done absolutely nothing to deserve being called prejudiced about China, and who in fact know a great deal about China, are being accused of being stupid and anti-Chinese only because they disagree with the CCP’s policies. The fact that many Chinese people from Taiwan agree with many Westerners supports this point- it’s not likely that a Chinese person would be anti-Chinese. You don’t need to be an expert on China to figure this out. Ma Y*ngjiu is merely an example, and even if he is a bad example my argument still stands.
    Anyway, by calling me ignorant, and assuming that I am unfamiliar with Chinese culture and history and haven’t spent much time in China, you only provide an example what I was commenting on. Rather than addressing my main point you nitpick, and then declare that I’m stupid because of a detail than has little bearing on my main argument.
    As for Tian, no where did I say that all Chinese people were brainwashed. I know plenty of Chinese who are smart enough to know that much of what the CCP does is wrong- but judging by the the comments I’ve read online, they are a very small minority. Frankly, I don’t think it’s occurred to you (or most people, outside or inside China) exactly how complicated brainwashing is. It does not mean you believe everything you’re told or are some sort of robot, and so far as governments are concerned all that matters is the result. The CCP isn’t dumb, and it knows it can’t trick people about domestic issues that directly effect them, so to shore up support it plays up threats- from the West, from Taiwanese or T1b*tan separatists, from Fal*n G*ng. Bush uses a similar tactic, playing up the threat of terrorism, except he doesn’t have the tools and benefits the CCP has to work with (eg, control over all media, ability to block/ filter foreign media, control over the education system, complete control over all mechanisms of government, no rival political party, no check and balances, etc.). Also, rather than creating new attitudes, the CCP uses attitudes that already existed (eg, anger over Western imperialism) and keep them alive by emphasizing them in history education and media- they don’t challenge anyone’s preconceived notions, they say things that are appealing to believe (eg, “the West victimized us and are trying to victimize us again”) and most importantly they say things that are not obviously incorrect to anyone reading them. People everywhere are more willing to believe what they want to hear and disregard what they don’t like (and I’m sure I do the same sometimes- though that does not make me wrong on in and of itself). People may see that Western new sources provide different information, but preexisting attitudes about the West discourage people from believing them, and instances like CNN cropping a photo only to confirm these attitudes. In addition, by telling the truth much of the time, especially about things that Chinese people won’t know from personal experience are wrong, CCP-controlled media can gain a certain amount of trust. This is even more so if Western media agrees on many of the facts.
    In the US, maybe for a short time, after some truly traumatic and terrifying event, a president and his party can convince people to trust it more than they usually would, but his/ her grip on society is far weaker than the CCP’s, and as you might have noticed recently in the US, as lies accumulate and fear fades, opposition grows. There can even be active, public opposition from the president’s own party, which disagrees with a central tenet of the president’s policy.
    Your bringing up brainwashing is an example of another fallacy I often see- because China isn’t black and the West isn’t white, they’re actually both the same. It’s true that this isn’t black vs. white, but there is a significant difference between China and the West- it’s more like dark gray vs. light gray.

  22. FOARP,
    How is the torch relay organized in a totally insensitive way? Isn’t it the Olympic torch, not the Chinese torch? Is this torch relay a Chinese invention or Olympics one? Is the Beijing Olympics’ theme (“One World, One Dream”) unacceptable to British? Did the organizer distribute any offensive material or carrying any inappropriate material along the way?
    I just don’t get it, please tell me anything that I don’t know about.
    Or, is it because group of people have grievances against Chinese government or even China, in which case PEACEFUL demonstration is totally acceptable (but not the thuggish behaviors by the protesters in London and Paris). Or, is it because some people (I suppose you’re one of them from what I read from you posts) simply don’t like China or Chinese to hold the Olympics for whatever reasons, many of which should not be brought out to the open?
    Sure, Chinese in general is very happy to have the honor to host Olympics on her soil for the first time; Olympics is a Western ideal, not a Chinese one, where people of very different backgrounds share and enjoy some common goals and activities. I heard in ancient times, people stopped the war to have Olympic games – not sure if it’s true or not, but what a glorious ideal!
    You talked about your distaste for the Chinese carrying red flags in London streets, but I’m sure you know why: if it weren’t for those biased, one-sided western media (which by the way instigate the thuggish protesters) and the pro-Tibet Independent people who determined to spoil the relay, I don’t think there would be so many Chinese showing up in red. Instead of blaming these thuggish protesters’ disgusting behavior, you chose to blame the people who support Olympics in China. And, those people were not there to protest UK government or people, but you disliked them, not the people who carried T1bet independence flags because, well, because you picked your position.
    Which is perfectly ok for an individual. So you want to have the torch relay to be canceled in London, which is fine. Does the entire UK agree with you (surely you would agree people who made the loudest noise do not necessarily represent the majority, right?). I’m pretty sure Chinese government did not impose the torch relay on London, do they?
    If London does not want to host the torch relay, fine; if UK wants to boycott the Beijing Olympics, fine – then who cares about if Gordon Brown attends the opening ceremony or not if the two countries were on such hostile terms.
    In the end, the whole thing boils down to my point: the reasons some western people are against China hosting Olympics are, well, because they just don’t like China, especially a fast-rising China. If it were not T1bet, there would be other excuses.
    Here is an article from Asia Times” “Asia must rally behind China.” ( I don’t support all the radical ideas there, but at least it seems to me people start to realize there is a racial and clash of civilizations subtext beneath the whole thing, not just standard Western narrative such as “human rights, democracy or press freedom.”

  23. @JB – Too right, for myself the biggest problem that CCP control of the media causes is not the fact everyone believes everything they say – they don’t – but the fact that it is the only readily accessible source of information. It means that, other than simply assuming that what the government says is the opposite of what the truth is, most Chinese citizens living in China have no way of getting at what the truth might be. This means that even if they do not trust or agree with the government their picture of what is going on in the world relies on what the government tells them. Tian also seems to assume that we automatically believe what we read in the papers – I for one don’t, I try to construct a picture of things through comparing and contrasting sources. The true benefit of a free media is that it allows us to do this. I will admit that I have been guilty of dismissing things that have latter been generally agreed to be true (such as torture being used against terrorist subjects, for example) because the source to me seemed untrustworthy – but this is no the same as being shielded from ever hearing that these events happened.

  24. FOARP wrote:
    “Well, it seems that the ‘attendants’ were indeed recruited from the People’s Armed Police, the insensitivity of BOCOG seemingly knows no bounds – and one might ask whether they may be charged with assault or at least a breach of the peace in connection with their grappling with peaceful protesters. Here in the UK the test for self-defence is the use of reasonable force – what is the reasonable level of force to be used against a protester who is seeking to extinguish a flame?”
    One issue that I haven’t seen anyone address is the fact that these Chinese national security agents were in the U.K., France, and the U.S. exercising police powers within those countries. Grappling protestors, subduing protestors, detaining protestors, and otherwise acting in the same capacity and with the same authority that only those countries’ respective police forces have been constitutionally empowered to act.
    Does no one have a problem with that? Would China allow U.S. Marines into China and permit them to seize and detain Chinese citizens protesting against the U.S.?

  25. Quite a shame really. We’ve now lost the apolitical games to special interests and micro-inspection of country politics. I can honestly understand the rude behavior that insults the Chinese people. We are to be their guests and there are maniacal protests of everything from the air quality to the political interests with third host nations.
    If an olympic athelete, you feel so pasionately – do stay at home. If you want to show what you have to the world, then go. Period.
    As a spectator, the very same applies.
    Otherwise shut up and accept it will be.
    There is a time and place for politics and the Olympics is not that time.
    My humble opinion.
    Tampa Jim

  26. T1bet should be Free !
    The Culture of T1bet people is different with Chinese..
    The Language and Written Script is different.
    It will be better if T1bet is FREE from China.

  27. Australia paid attention at least. From Associated Press:
    “Police in Canberra sought to end lingering confusion about the role of Chinese security agents in the relay. Police chief Mike Phelan said three blue-clad Chinese “flame attendants” will always be near the torch but will have no official security role.”
    Easier said than done, Mr. Phelan. Hopefully these “flame attendants” will remember that they have no police powers in Australia and that they are guests in Australia.

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