By Cheng Jinfu (程金福) — I don’t know when it was that sporting events, so simple perhaps at their origin, became inextricably linked with politics. As we are often reminded lately, many countries boycotted the Olympic Games when they were hosted by Hitler’s Germany back in 1936. And of course, it was table tennis that brokered improving relations between China and the United States in 1971 after years of stand off. [Homepage: Image of Qing general and reformer Zeng Guofan, see below.]
Just last month, when Spain became the European Cup champions, the whole nation was jubilant, the king and the president both came out to celebrate, and we all got a glimpse of sports and politics working hand-in-hand.
Now, as the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games approach, the Olympic emblem of five interlocking rings, representing unity among nations, has morphed into a horrifying image of interlocking handcuffs on the Reporters Without Borders Web site.
Nowadays, it is pointless even to think that we can separate sports from politics.
[ABOVE: Image from the RSF website of 2008 Olympics handcuffs.]
Ever since 1949, China’s relations with the West have been marked by frequent tension and less frequent ease. From the earliest days of PRC rule ideological hostilities drove a wedge between China and the West, between China’s socialism and the West’s capitalism. Tensions deepened in the years following June 4, 1989, as the West imposed sanctions against China, employing economic means to urge China to part ways with its politics of brutality.
Today, ideology seldom takes center stage in international relations. China and the U.S. have established a number of strategic partnerships on issues like anti-terrorism and trade. As China’s economic power grows, China and the global economy are increasingly interdependent, and economic sanctions long ago ceased to be an effective means of dealing with China.
This is perhaps one important reason why a major international sports event like the Olympics is now seen by many in the West as an opportunity to pressure China to improve its human rights situation on a range of issues, including freedom of speech.
China no longer stubbornly asserts the superiority of its socialism over the capitalist countries of the West, and it can be said that international dialogue has successfully broken through this myth of China’s isolationist period. Faced with the fact of Western civilization and its advancement, China also hopes to project a favorable image of its own civilization. This is why it made the Olympic pledges it did, in areas ranging from environmental protection to air quality to the relaxation of restrictions on foreign journalists.
We cannot expect that all of these pledges will be carried out to the fullest extent possible, but at the very least they tell us that China today is no longer as obstinate as it once was, that it is beginning to learn the art of compromise.
The Olympics are an opportunity and a turning point. For China, these international pledges are an opportunity to push for improvements that have been waiting in the wings for years. China is not stubbornly unaware of its own problems. At the same time, another powerful impetus is China’s earnest wish to present a favorable image internationally, and not only as an economic superpower.
For many in the West, this is an opportunity to apply pressure on China and bring it in line with Western, or global, values. On the issue of Tibet, for example, many in the West hope that China can engage in dialogue with the Dalai Lama and relax its tight grip on Tibet. On the issue of human rights, in cases like that of activist Hu Jia, many in the West hope China will improve its human rights situation. On the issue of speech freedoms, many in the West hope that China can put an end to its manipulation of the media.
But while both sides could be said to share common goals and interests, lack of trust has always been a problem in mutual relations between China and the West. And distrust is particularly strong on the Chinese side.
Having faced decades of shame at the hands of foreign powers, before and since the so-called “Eight-Power Allied Forces” (八国联军) attacked China in 1901, and having lived through decades of ideological opposition, Chinese can often interpret Western hopes and ideals as “anti-China” attacks.
Some academics in China accept the idea of “universal values” and hope that China will adopt them. Meanwhile, many Chinese oppose these values out of “nationalist” resistance. This opposition is grounded in deep layers of historical experience with outsiders, which gives the resistance camp the upper hand and defines the social mainstream. This makes it difficult for China and the West converse on a basis of mutual trust and rational understanding.
Many Chinese believe that banners hung in various locations in Paris during the international torch relay and bearing “Free Tibet” slogans must have had the behind-the-scenes support of the French government, and this perception clearly arises from a lack of understanding about how democratic governments work.
[NOTE: Many Chinese were reading online in April 2008 that a banner on the city hall building in Paris had a “Free Tibet” slogan. In fact, my own searches suggest that “Free Tibet” banners were placed in other locations by RSF and the City Council building in fact had a banner bearing the slogan, “Paris supports human rights around the world”].
Many people in China believe that when non-governmental organizations (NGOs) accept contributions they must necessarily take marching orders from donors and become mouthpieces of anti-China forces, and this perception arises from a lack of understanding about the character of NGOs.
Many Chinese also believe that pressure on China from Western countries must stem from an “anti-China” ideology or a sense of “fear” or “jealousy” about China’s rise. They do not think it is possible that these criticisms are made with sincerity or out of good-natured hopes. This arises from an underestimation of Western societies and their degree of goodwill.
We should not be under any illusions. People in the West are not perfect, Western countries certainly consider their own national interests, and they are not entirely free of the influence of ideology. There are still many people in the West who are fearful of the historical lessons of communism and who feel hostility toward China. But does this mean China should throw the baby out with the bathwater and cut itself off from the West and everything it stands for?
In China’s current social climate, it is a dangerous business to speak in defense of the West. There is now soaring demand for language expressing opposition to the West, however intolerant it may be.
But this attitude of blind resistance does more harm than good for China’s continued progress and development. China has a popular saying about the advantage of using the strengths of others to remedy one’s own weaknesses (取他人之长补我之短). If we are to put this idea to practice, we must apply wisdom and reason as we look at ourselves and the West.
The late-Qing Dynasty military general and reformer Zeng Guofan (曾国藩) presumably felt and understood the hatred Chinese had harbored against outsiders since the Southern Song Dynasty.
This hatred had, by Zeng’s time, already congealed into a historical tradition that favored violent resistance over peace and negotiation. Each time conflict arose between China and outsiders, the emphasis was on resisting and fighting back. Yue Fei (岳飞), a general of the Southern Song who supported war against the Liao invaders, became a popular patriotic hero. By contrast Qin Hui (秦桧), who brokered peace with the Jin empire, was vilified as a traitor. For a long time after, Chinese visiting the city of Hangzhou would spit on the statues of Qin Hui and his wife on display there to express their patriotism.
[ABOVE: Image of statues of Qin Hui and Lady Wang kneeling in Hangzhou, via Wikipedia.]
Toward the end of the Qing Dynasty, as China endured the gunboat diplomacy of Western powers, many insisted that China fight back even in the face of continuous defeats. Negotiation of any kind amounted to treachery, and fighting to the death was the ultimate expression of patriotism.
Only Zeng Guofan and his successor, Li Hongzhang (李鸿章), dared faced accusations of treason to embark on a self-strengthening movement that meant learning from and facing up to the technological strength of the West.
Modern Chinese history has branded these men as traitors. But looking back today, while it can be said that negotiations for peace meant relinquishing territory, and that self-strengthening ultimately failed, we should admire the extraordinary sober-mindedness of these men, who struggled against the grain and took practical actions in view of China’s social and historical circumstances. Most importantly, they opened up a new path by which China could learn from the West. They showed wisdom and reason in their actions.
In its Olympic year, China has been plagued with natural and human disasters. China has experienced a great deal – from the storm over the international torch relay, to unrest in Tibet, to the Sichuan earthquake.
What lessons will China take away from these experiences? That, of course, will depend on the attitude each of us takes in approaching and understanding these experiences. Can we welcome the West (and even their criticisms) with wisdom and reason?
Where are you hiding, all of you Zeng Guofans?
[Posted by Cheng Jinfu, July 15, 2008, 3:35pm HK]
Below is a Chinese version of my editorial. Readers will note that there are some differences in the language of the two versions.