Let the patriot games begin

My following article appears in today’s ABC Unleashed:

Before the Beijing Games launched spectacularly last weekend, the vast bulk of Australian media expressed general disdain for China, finding little positive to report. It was just the kind of coverage that played directly into the Communist regime’s hands; such is the widespread belief there that the Western media is unashamedly biased against the rising super-power.

Canadian writer Naomi Klein was thoughtful in explaining the Olympics should be seen for what they are; the celebration of a dictatorship:

“It is a potent hybrid of the most powerful political tools of authoritarianism communism – central planning, merciless repression, constant surveillance – harnessed to advance the goals of global capitalism.”

While many Western human rights activists are shouting about China’s atrocious abuses the voice of the Chinese themselves is virtually hidden.

After the opening ceremony, some Chinese bloggers questioned whether Mao should have been more central to the event while a Canadian/Chinese fencer was praised in the local media after she displayed a ‘patriotic’ banner. It was also announced this week that every Chinese gold winner would be awarded with a new stamp.

Conveniently forgotten in the rush to celebrate Australian medal-winners are the other voices in the global media mix (such as this fascinating article by the Chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party of Taiwan, worried that Beijing may be mimicking the 1936 Nazi Games.) We ignore non-Caucasian perspectives at our peril.

It should never be forgotten that many studies find Chinese people overwhelmingly satisfied with their lives, though the rise of the internet and satellite television has certainly increased the knowledge of social rights. McCommunism, as Noami Klein calls it, appears to be a popular ideology.

As I discuss in my forthcoming book, The Blogging Revolution, one of the key complaints of Chinese citizens, especially after this year’s torch relay debacle and pro-Tibetan protests, is the Western media’s insistence on trivialising Chinese nationalism. This recent essay, about China’s ‘neo-con nationalists’ in the New Yorker, was a notable exception. It is surely not too much to ask Western journalists, living and working in China, to try and understand the local people, rather than lecturing them on how their society should be ordered.

During my visit to China in 2007 there was an unmistakable pride in the upcoming Olympics. Writing in The Guardian this week, Muhammad Cohen explained why the Chinese overwhelming love the Games in their country:

“’I (heart) China’ serves as the Beijing regime’s succinct public response to foreign criticism of China’s human rights record: If our people love our country, then you meddlers from outside ought to just shut up.

“In China’s Olympic moment, foreign critics are focusing on all the country has failed to achieve, from its abundant air pollution to scant human rights. China’s citizens, on the other hand, see all that the country has accomplished after emerging from foreign domination and internal turmoil. They are proud of those achievements and resentful of foreigners pointing out China’s shortcomings, especially when those failings don’t bother the alleged victims.”

Like past Olympics, the Chinese media is projecting an image of uncritical adulation of its achievements, but this is little different to Sydney in 2000. Propaganda isn’t only created in authoritarian states.

Long after the Olympic spirit has left Beijing, the internet will be a central factor in continuing to shape China. Western engagement with these voices is essential if we want to avoid another Cold War. Leading blogger Isaac Mao recently revealed why the art of blogging is gradually prying open the dragon’s tight grip:

“China has a long tradition of people trying to fit into the group, moderating their behaviour to avoid standing out conspicuously – a culture reinforced by the man-made collectivism of the past half-century.

“Blogs have leapfrogged this tradition, acting as a catalyst to encourage young people to become more individual. So this and other grassroots media are now emerging strongly to challenge China’s social legacy.”

Endless foreign criticism of China will achieve little. Some Western humility during the Games would be advisable, along with legitimate calls for the state to respect human rights.

Bloggers I met in China last year almost universally told me that internet censorship didn’t bother them (a fact borne out by a recent study). They were far too busy thinking about downloading pirated movies, buying properties and meeting boys and girls.

Perhaps an appreciation of authoritarianism is an acquired taste.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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