China’s Reputation and the Olympics

In case you haven’t noticed, there has been a firestorm over the 2008 Olympics in relation to China’s reputation. Tempers have flared. People are holding boycotts. My Facebook profile picture has been up long before the Olympics made the front page:

Freedom first, Olympics second!

I must say, I don’t really understand the furor in mainland China behind the Tibet controversy in the past weeks. What I don’t get is why we Chinese let the party dictate the terms. It’s not that I’m the less Chinese for it, but because I see the tragedy of China underlying the Beijing Olympics, I don’t see the Olympics as something that will ultimately be meaningful for China as anything but a one-time status symbol: ultimately it is of no lasting value for China’s reputation, and pursuit of a false reputation is fruitless. If the Chinese people want face, if we want recognition, if we want legitimacy, we need to earn it, and I don’t think we have. That’s it, plain and simple.

Let me be clear: I believe Tibet is part of China. I really hope for the multi-ethnic Chinese nation-state identity that Sun Yat-sen propounded a hundred years ago. I don’t think we need Facebook groups to assert our belief in that, and indeed I think the Facebook groups I have seen about Tibet having been and always being part of China have often sounded more like expressions of Chinese supremacy than welcoming invitations for Tibetans to be partners with Han Chinese in forging a China we can be proud of. This is to our loss. The classically bad thing to do is to toss out the baby with the bathwater; what we have now is Chinese people keeping the hazardous bathwater with the baby. This will not do. It’s clannish, it’s blindly protective, it’s everything we don’t want to be. In short, this whole “Chinese” response to the controversy, which the media happen to portray as a monolithic knee-jerk response, strikes me as very short-sighted.

At the same time, I am highly suspicious of the Beijing regime’s motives, though not ordinary people’s, for opposing Tibet independence. I think it’s a power trip. Not content to tread on the Chinese people, and insecure of its footing, thus needing to put down anything that would challenge it, the regime chooses to rule with an iron fist where doing otherwise would break its domination. If Tibet wrests itself away from the rest of China, nothing will stand between China and liberalization of its institutions. To make matters worse, the Chinese economy increasingly depends on oil and gas from Xinjiang, another province with separatist groups. To the regime, this is a huge problem, because frankly, to lead China into true liberal democracy would be against its own interests unless it’s willing to undergo a paradigm shift. For all its problems, the communist party is in too comfortable a position to change the status quo.

The communist party’s interests notwithstanding, for the sake of the people something’s got to give. Keeping up the mass displays of hostile nationalism will get nothing done for us. Let’s question the majority position and not just demonize whoever doesn’t believe what the Beijing regime wants us to.

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