China Around the World

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A grab bag of readings around the web that we wanted to share — loosely connected by a “China in the world” theme that the site editors have been thinking about a lot lately, as we’ve begun discussing the possibility of a second China Beat book to follow up China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance. Though it’s presently more an idea than a plan, now it seems that everywhere we look, we see China Beatniks being talked about in different parts of the world, connecting China with different parts of the world, and simply moving from writing about China to writing about different parts of the world . . .

1. Two China Beat consulting editors have new translations of their work available: as we’ve previously mentioned, Ken Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy was recently released in a French edition, which received a lengthly review in Le Monde earlier this month. And last week, the Polish translation of Jeff Wasserstrom’s 2007 book China’s Brave New World—And Other Tales for Global Times was published, with an appropriately Huxleyan cover photo:

CBNW Polish cover

2. Some interesting readings from Australia: the latest issue of China Heritage Quarterly focuses on “The Architectural Heritage of Tianjin,” and features articles by Maurizio Marinelli, Michael Szonyi, and Elizabeth LaCouture. In the Sydney Morning Herald, John Garnaut tells the saga of “Mao’s Last Farmer,” Yu Changwu, who is fighting for the return of land taken from him by the municipal government in 1994.

3. Howard French has a piece in The Atlantic’s May issue discussing China in Africa — “The Next Empire.” French’s article follows him from Dar es Salaam to central Zambia, as he rides a railway built with Chinese funds in the 1970s. Today, as French notes, the Sino-African relationship is once again marked by a surge of Chinese investment in African countries, though not without controversy (see Angilee Shah’s review of Deborah Brautigam’s book, The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa, for more on the topic):

“The idea that big influxes of wealth will help Africa has never really panned out,” Patrick Keenan, an Africa specialist at the University of Illinois, told me. “When the path to wealth goes through the presidential palace, there are enormous incentives to obtaining power and to holding on to it. This kind of wealth incites politicians to create economically wasteful projects, and it relieves them of the need to make politically difficult choices, like broadening the tax base.”

Indeed, the same objections raised by the Zambian aid critic Dambisa Moyo—that foreign aid breeds corrupt, lazy, and ineffective government—can be applied toward any foreign investments that focus on mineral extraction, especially ones that deliver cash and services directly to governments with no conditions attached. All things considered, resource-based or infrastructure-driven development—even development as massive as the ongoing Chinese wave—appear unlikely to lead to a meaningful African renaissance. . . .

And ironically, while Beijing is extremely well-positioned to help Africa improve its governance—a second area of great need throughout much of the continent—it seems deeply reluctant to do so. No developing country has understood the importance of a strong, results-oriented public administration better than China. But so far, in part because of China’s history of subjugation by Westerners, as well as its defensive stance over its human-rights record, Beijing has remained attached to its rhetoric about noninterference.

Readers in the Connecticut area can hear more about Asian-African relations this weekend at Yale University, where the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies is hosting a two-day symposium on the topic.

4. Friend of the blog Pankaj Mishra also discusses China’s stance toward Africa, placing it in a broader context of declining Anglo-American hegemony and legitimacy throughout much of the world, in this essay at The Guardian.

5. China Beat is co-sponsoring a dialogue between Angilee Shah and Ian Johnson, to be held at UC Irvine on June 7 (more details to come as the date draws closer). Shah has previously written for us about China-India matters, among other topics, and is currently posting (at her website) about her recent monthlong stay in Indonesia. Johnson, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and author of Wild Grass: Three Portraits of Change in Modern China, will publish A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA, and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West in early May. A schedule of his other tour dates and locations can be found here; you can also read an interview with him from the early days of China Beat.

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By Pierre Fuller

A few weeks ago my mother learned at her Greenwich, Conn., church that, beyond church grounds, Bibles cannot be purchased in the People’s Republic. Her informant was a man from the Bible Society of Singapore who gave an evening talk on the state of Christianity in China at my parents’ mainstream Protestant parish. My mother soon asked her son in Beijing, me, about this fact over the phone and I couldn’t say either way: a Chinese-language Bible was not something I’d been actively looking for yet I could have sworn I’d spotted one in a shop a while back when living in China’s Northwest. Then again, that was a long decade ago. I am clearly no expert on the subject.

Then on a recent morning in a basement bookstore in the National Library in Beijing a volume with a black binding and gold lettering caught my eye. I pulled it off the shelf. In no shape to identify the Chinese word for “Genesis” or for “Psalms”, I checked the volume’s opening passage: “Shen shuo: ‘Yao you guang’, jiu you le guang,” it read. God said: “Let there be light,” and there was light.

I was holding a Bible.

I took the book to the counter – its look was so plainly familiar it could have had the stamp of the Gideons on its cover– and without so much as a glance at my selection the cashier, while barking into a phone, rang it up. At fifty percent off, I thought, they’re practically giving these away – and in the very belly of the National Library of the People’s Republic of China, no less (a bookshop, it must be said, that was hardly as glamorous as its location might suggest, a labyrinthine afterthought with an uninspired selection). So much for my mother’s stateside informant.

Returning to my research chores at the microfilm room upstairs I was reminded of a feature story I did for a Japanese daily a while back on the growing popularity of Christmas in China, specifically a very commercial version of it that I observed sprouting in 1990s Xi’an, the ancient capital. (One thing I was told by a church official then is that proselytizing in the PRC is legally limited to church grounds, but that hadn’t stopped the draw of crowds at one downtown Xi’an church on Christmas Eve 1999 from requiring crowd control as bodies spilled out of the doors during the service. Mostly curious students, I was told.)

Walking the city for material back then I came across a dramatic scene at a small church on the avenue running north from the city Bell Tower. A gaggle of old women were wailing at the steps of their church. At first I thought it might be a funeral; I quickly learned it was the funeral of the church building itself, a plastered structure suggesting 1980s construction. The building was condemned, the grounds beneath claimed for development, while the authorities promised to rebuild one for the parish in the outskirts of town. This meant a long commute to Sunday services and the women were adamantly opposed it. As for me, the foreigner with the notepad, I’d been sent by God himself, a teary-eyed woman announced, to let this be known to the world. The crowd around agreed. Overwhelmed, I escaped before any miracles could be expected of me.

A year later an underground film project brought me to rural Liaoning Province in the Northeast where we were invited to informally film an animated Christian service at a towering village church, its choir decked in white and red vestments as they sang before a congregation of several hundred. I recall our hosts sporting T-shirts emblazoned with “Jesus Saves” in red characters all that afternoon as they cooked us produce pulled, no doubt, from the neighboring fields.

I couldn’t have imagined a more idyllic atmosphere. But more significant was what occurred several days later in downtown Shenyang when the temptation to interview a 90-year-old man occupying his daily sidewalk perch at our apartment building’s side gate was too hard to resist. Naturally, our crew of three, Sony VX-1000 and boom mic in hand, attracted a crowd – and, soon enough, police, who escorted us back to our apartment to figure out what these foreigners (and one Chinese) were up to.

We’d just been in the surrounding countryside filming quaint rural scenes but also the homes of residents, some very poor. That meant there were videotapes all over the house. But the authorities didn’t even ask about that possibility. Some six hours at the precinct followed, many cigarettes passed around. The end decision was that we were to return with the offending tape (yes, we were allowed to take it home with us) the following business day. We did so, and sitting in a room with a plainclothes officer we ran through the content on a TV: the church service wasn’t deemed objectionable; the humble interior of a “peasant” abode? That had to go.

I could understand the logic. Why not broadcast a thriving congregation? But a reminder of the rural majority languishing in poverty? That’s no good. So we erased it right then and there and returned to our stockpile of other footage, our equipment intact, our visas unchanged. I would’ve thought the fist would’ve come down harder on us. Had we received special treatment because we were foreigners? Doubtless. But then we’d also been picked up precisely because we were white guys attracting a crowd to the otherwise innocuous interview of an old pensioner. And confiscating the equipment of these touring amateurs would hardly have warranted a call to Human Rights Watch. Someone could’ve made a few thousand bucks off our camera, easy. (A good thing no one thought of it, it was borrowed equipment.)

Looking back, the plight of that Xi’an parish deserved to be told, but I didn’t have it in me to write it then. Today, it strikes me as a scene straight out of Michael Meyer’s newly-published Last Days of Old Beijing, a moving account of the tragic face-lift and social dislocation of China’s capital. As in much of Meyer’s Beijing, the destructive forces on that ill-fated Xi’an church were a combination of cancerous developers given carte blanche to ruin and raise along with a cruel system of little warning to those affected, and no appeals. That plaster house of God could have been a much-needed clinic or neighborhood senior social parlor before the profits, “prestige” and conveniences of “development” tore it down. But I was hard-pressed to see Christianity in the equation.

As for my new Chinese Bible, it’d be a challenge for me to get through it, so maybe I’ll pass it on to a curious friend. Which brings me back to the Bible Society and its talk-China tour: It’s easy to get sloppy when you’re preaching to the choir. But if tracking Bibles is your business, at least get the facts straight.

We’ve been hearing a lot lately about China’s growing economic activities in Africa and its “charm offensive” in various parts of the world, linked to things such as the establishment of Confucius Institutes everywhere from the U.S. and the U.K. to South Africa, South America, and Serbia. But many of the most complicated international ties involving China are still, as in the past, ones that connect it to neighboring countries, such as those of Southeast Asia. Caroline Finlay, who has written pieces for China Beat before on issues such as Vietnam and the torch route, sheds light on different sorts of China-Southeast Asia ties here…

By Caroline Finlay

Chimes jingle on gold-painted stupas and teenagers strum guitars to the beat of passing tuk-tuks in Luang Prabang, Laos’ UNESCO World Heritage sight nestled on the Mekong. Sadly, a more obtrusive rhythm has hit the scene: the squawk of walkie-talkie phones. Like a large percentage of Lao’s motorbikes, clothes and electronics, the walkie-talkie phones are a Chinese import, strapped to the belts of the increasingly numerous Chinese tourists visiting Luang Prabang, famous for its now fragile serenity.

The marshland that will soon become Vientiene’s second Chinatown

China has begun to re-establish ties with sparsely populated Laos, which has historically aligned with Indochina War ally Vietnam. The Chinese have made a number of gestures to the Lao people – they have built a highway linking Yunnan to Thailand, are working on a sports complex for the 2009 SEA Games, and are involved in a hydroelectric project in Vientiane province. But it’s not without a measure of self-interest. The new highway links China with the Thai market, eliminating the need to ship down the twisting and increasingly shallow Mekong, while the Chinese have been awarded a large and controversial land concession in Lao’s capital Vientiane in return for enabling Laos to host Southeast Asia’s largest sporting event.

In Luang Prabang, a Chinese-funded airport upgrade is planned to begin in early 2009, and NGOs and tourists alike are concerned that the roar of jet engines will be the new background to their riverside sunsets. According to an Asian Development Bank (ADB) report [1], Luang Prabang’s airport “is not compliant with ICAO [International Civil Aviation Organization] safety and security standards for current operations,” and the Laotian government is “interested in upgrading the runway… to support the operation of B737 and A320 aircraft.” The project is expected to boost tourism by 125 percent in the first three years, provide Lao laborers with income, compensate and resettle those on land required by the project, and include a gender and HIV/AIDS awareness program. Construction will be funded by China EXIM Bank at $63.2m, while the Laotian government has pledged $20.4m for the other programs, including resettlement.

Concerns have arisen over the project, especially over the lack of international oversight in a country that has been sliding down Transparency International’s corruption perception scale. The ADB report states that “ADB’s Anticorruption Policy and Policy relating to the Combating of Money Laundering…is not applicable to the project since the ADB is not participating in financing the project investment.” In UNESCO’s 32nd session in Quebec this summer, it was reported [2] that “several new development projects, including a new airport and a new town on the right bank of the Mekong, would have an adverse impact on the World Heritage property, both in terms of visual integrity and noise pollution,” and that development in Luang Prabang has led to a decline in Lao traditional heritage that could “justify ‘World Heritage in Danger’ listing.” Rumors abound in Luang Prabang that the labor for the airport construction will be shipped in from China, reducing the benefit to locals, and that the Chinese were awarded another land concession on the right bank of the Mekong in return for their soft loan and construction expertise. The land in question has actually been set aside for a South Korean development with a five-star resort and golf course.

Chinese foreman Ac Ho, from Yunnan, who has lived in Laos for seven years and is currently working on the Sanjiang shopping center complex

Foreign NGOs have yet to publicly denounce the project, but a Voice of America report [3] states that “concerns have been raised that while this new town will bring modernity to the people in the area, it may adversely affect the city of Luang Prabang itself.” The report also gives Laotian Deputy Prime-Minister Somsavad Lengsavath an opportunity to respond to these claims. “Lengsavath points out that, for the past twelve years, Laos has followed the international criteria for maintaining the city’s World Heritage status,” but that, “there are some aspects, such as the construction of new buildings, that Lao officials still need to further address.”

Issues like World Heritage status and even resettlement concern a small percentage of Laotians; what is more obvious is the rocketing number of Chinese economic migrants moving into their backyards. Nearly every large town has a “Dalat Chine” or Chinese market, where locals can buy cheaply made clothing, motorbikes and impressive rip-offs of Nokia and Apple mobile phones. The vendors usually live in an accompanying housing complex, speak very poor Laotian, and rarely interact with locals. In a report by Thomas Fuller for the New York Times [4], Luang Prabang resident Khamphao says that “life is better because prices are cheaper.”

While that may be true, the Chinese presence may be hurting local businesses, “There are some good properties for sale in Phonesavanh [the capital of Xieng Khouang province],” says Ditthavong, a Xieng Khouang native, “because the Chinese have put the Laotian shop owners out of business. The Chinese have access to such cheap goods. The Lao can make more money by renting them storefronts than they ever could running their own shops”

Work on the Chinese-built statium just outside of Vientiane

Thousands of Chinese workers have been brought in to construct Vientiane’s stadium and a new Chinese-owned shopping complex, and more are expected to move in to develop the new Chinatown, Vientiane’s second, on the capital’s outskirts as well as the airport in Luang Prabang. Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Thongloun Sisouluth said in a 2008 BBC report [5] that, “economic migration is unavoidable in this modern time,” while Vientiane resident Xaisomboun Soukhummalay has the same worries as Luang Prabang’s World Heritage committee – cultural dilution. “Our population is six-and-a-half million,” he says, “their one Yunnan province is seven times that!”

1. Asian Development Bank. Technical Assistance Consultant’s Report. Lao People’s Democratic Republic: Greater Mekong Subregion Luangphrabang Airport Improvement Project. Project Number 39564. August, 2008.
Available at
2. Boccardi, Giovanni and Logan, William. 2007 Mission Report. Reactive Monitoring. Mission to the Town of Luang Prabang World Heritage Property. 22-27 November, 2007.
Available at
3. Pongern, Songrit. “Korean, Lao Companies to Develop a New City in Luang Prabang”. Voice of America. 30 October, 2008.
Available at
4. Fuller, Thomas. “In Laos, Chinese motorbikes change lives”. The New York Times. 27 December, 2007.
Available at
5. Pham, Nga, “China moves into laid-back Laos”. BBC News, Vientiane. 8 April, 2008. Available at

(Interview with Ditthavong from Xieng Khouang by Caroline Finlay.)

For further information, see the following links:
China – Thailand highway, International Herald Tribune
SEA Games stadium / land concession / new Chinatown in Vientiane, VOA report
Transparency International / Corruption perception index
China EXIM Bank
Chinese hydroelectric project in Vientiane province
Chinese shopping mall in Vientiane

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Chinese reactions to Obama’s election range broadly, as exemplified in this morning’s news coverage. Dominant themes include racial equality, financial security, a changing international profile for the U.S., and trade implications. [Please let us know if you find outstanding coverage elsewhere that you feel should be flagged–either by submitting a comment or by sending an email to]

From Jim Yardley’s piece (it is the last piece before the comments section begins) on Chinese reaction to Obama’s election, at The New York Times:

…Mr. Tang, 23, admitted that the American election had been a serious distraction during his Wednesday morning classes. Given the different time zones, the outcome was still uncertain. Yet now that he could assess the historic Obama victory, Mr. Tang’s reaction seemed akin to a sports fan dissecting a box score and betrayed none of the hopeful idealism once conferred on Western-styled democracy by young Chinese intellectuals.

“We are different from the younger generation 20 years ago,” Mr. Tang said, alluding to the generation defined, and scarred, by the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations at Tiananmen Square. “Now we can take a more rational, sober approach when we observe the election. The generation 20 years ago grew up in a different environment. America was like a completely different world. It would be shocking to watch this.”

Mr. Tang’s cool detachment is just a small reminder that if the idealism of young voters in the United States was considered critical to Mr. Obama’s victory, their peers in authoritarian China are often less convinced of the transformative potential of democracy. The bookcases outside Mr. Tang’s classrooms are filled with journals assessing the Sino-American relationship and several students said Mr. Obama’s candidacy had become a subject of much interest and discussion…

And from Evan Osnos at The New Yorker, “Breakfast in Beijing“:

…“Obama gives greater confidence to people of the Third World,” Yang said after the photo. “We, the black, yellow and other races, can be the same as the whites! We struggled for independence and, finally, won that. Now we have won in another field—political affairs—and in a superpower no less.”

In China, Obama’s success has attracted particular curiosity because his emergence is such a thoroughly un-Chinese phenomenon. Political prodigies are rare in a nation that grooms top leaders through decades of CommunistParty road-testing and pageantry. And because Chairman Mao’s cult of personality led the country into extremism, the Party spent the next three decades engineering its politicians to be as indistinguishable as possible…

From the BBC’s interviews with Chinese people:

“American elections have shaken me to the core. I have always thought the Chinese political system is the best in the world, but it is not so. We are deprived of our sacred rights, rule of law and human rights are trampled upon. To have a democratic system like the one in the USA is more difficult than touching the sky… But we long to achieve freedom and democracy, which is a difficult task for us young people in China.” (Anonymous)

From Nathan Gardels at Huffington Post, a collection of international views on Obama, including a piece on “If America Accepts Obama, Then It Can Accept the Rise of China” by Wang Jisi (dean of Beida’s School of International Studies):

…Among Chinese intellectuals and elites ,who are supposedly more knowledgeable about international affairs, including some senior specialists on America, stereotypes persisted.

Some of them have believed that “America could not accept a black president.” Many in Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong have predicted that something dramatic, similar to John F. Kennedy’s assassination or Chen Shui-bian’s mysterious “bullet event,” would happen to disrupt the process. To them, America, after all, is a nation full of conspiracies, from the alleged “discovery” of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear devices to the machinations that precipitated the current financial storm.

These suspicions reflect a common image of the United States in China: a white-dominated, highly competitive society that believes only in power politics and the “rule of the jungle.” Just as America would not elect a candidate from an ethnic minority, this thinking goes, neither would it ever accept the rise of a non-Western nation — China. Instead, America would do its utmost to contain and weaken China unless it changes into a country like Japan.

Now that the election campaign is behind us, it’s time for both Chinese and Americans to view each other anew. Chinese should see the United States as a nation not necessarily discriminating against people or nations that are racially, culturally or politically different…

And for those of you interested in China-related election minutiae, Don King issued his endorsement of Obama yesterday from Chengdu.

For other coverage:
Obama’s Race, Youth Welcomed in Worried China” (Reuters)

We Wish US-President Elect Obama Well” (China Daily)

How Will Obama Prove for China?” (Times of India)

China Reacts Cautiously to Barack Obama’s Win” (Telegraph, with audio from Richard Spencer)

Barack Obama: The View from China” (Guardian)

China, Emerging Asia to Fight ‘Protectionist’ Obama” (Bloomberg)

American Election and Chinese Rice Bowl” (Inside-Out China)

Obama Victory Provokes Trade Worries in Asia” (Forbes)

Obama to Retain Taiwan Policy” (Taipei Times)

Obama’s Election Will Change Taiwan-U.S. Relations: DPP Lawmakers” (Taiwan News)

Now it’s ‘Cool America‘” (Asia Times)

No Strong Reaction from China’s Leaders” (Washington Wire, Wall Street Journal) (See also: “The Election in the Chinese Media” by Sky Canaves)


“One World, One Dream” or “One Game, Different Dreams”?

This piece was originally posted at Policy Innovations and has been reprinted here with permission of the author.

By James Farrer

A “silver medal” for the Beijing Olympics from the Japanese media

Mo Bangfu, a Chinese columnist writing for the liberal Asahi Shimbun, used his weekly column the day before the closing ceremonies to award the Beijing Olympics a symbolic “silver medal” for its overall organization (Aug. 23, 2008, p. B3). Despite accusations of fakery, the opening ceremonies and the Olympic volunteers both deserve “gold medals,” as do the ordinary Beijing residents and migrant workers who had to put up with massive everyday inconveniences.

The government, however, deserves a “disqualification” for not allowing any demonstrations in the designated demonstration areas, for restricting the access of normal citizens to the Olympic venues, and also “poor marks” for the large numbers of empty seats at events. As a whole, Mo suggests, the Beijing Olympics deserve a “silver medal,” perhaps summing up the generally positive appraisal of some of the more liberal media voices in Japan. Conservative papers, however, gave the Beijing Olympics much lower marks.

Seeing the Olympics as a watershed event, Japanese commentators have speculated about a “post-Olympic” China, and their prognoses are generally darker than the more optimistic views in the U.S. media. Influenced by Japan’s own postwar experience, columnists ask whether the Beijing Olympics will serve the purpose of integrating China into global society, in the same way achieved by the former Axis powers in the postwar Rome, Tokyo, and Munich Olympics, and later by Seoul in 1988. Most answer negatively. Despite a consensus “silver medal” for a brilliant (if somewhat flawed) show, the Olympics were regarded as a political failure by most Japanese commentators, at least when judged by democratic norms. More darkly, some conservative papers suggest, the Olympics should be seen as a great “success” for the legitimacy of authoritarian rule in China.

In a front-page summary of the impact of the Olympics on China, the conservative Sankei Shimbun suggested that the Olympics were a celebration of dictatorship and the effectiveness of totalitarian government, “a celebration turning its back on democratization” (Aug. 25, 2008, p. 1). The article suggests that the Beijing Olympics should be compared to neither the 1964 Tokyo Olympics nor the 1988 Seoul Olympics, both of which led to greater democratization and the integration of Japan and Korea into the club of democratic states. Rather, the editors conclude, China’s Olympics may in retrospect look more like the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which signaled political isolation and the internal disintegration of the Soviet Union. Like many conservative voices in Japan, the Sankei emphasizes the fragile state of the Chinese economy, predicting much bigger troubles, even a “hard landing” for China’s “bubble economy” (Aug. 25, 2008, p. 1, “After the Olympics: a mountain of problems for China’s economy”).

Even the more liberal Asahi Shimbun described the opening ceremony as a “political show for the party leadership,” (Aug. 9, 2008, p. 2) pointing to the important role played by Communist Party leaders in every public event leading up to the Olympics. The article claims that in every city passed through on the torch relay, the first torch bearer was always the local Party secretary. As the Games opened, Asahi guest columnist and liberal academic Fujiwara Koichi judged Zhang Yimou’s elaborate opening ceremony as a “vacuous” political exercise. He writes, “It’s a sad sight to see this brilliant director expending his talents on this exaggerated display of tradition and political propaganda.”

Despite the emptiness of its political slogans, Fujiwara continues, it was important that the world participated in the Games in order to build bridges with the Chinese people, who can bring about real change in their government (Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 24, 2008, p. 27, “Vacuous, but engagement is important”). The closing Olympic editorial in the Asahi Shimbun, although more moderate in tone, also called for political reform in China and asked the Chinese state to give some substance to the “One World, One Dream” motto by joining the global society in the fight against global warming (Aug. 25, 2008, p. 3 “Make steps toward political reform”).

Much of this criticism mirrors the English-language media, but there are some differences. Japanese media reports seem at the same time more critical and less condescending than their U.S. counterparts. Japanese seem to expect more of their giant neighbor but are also far more fearful and skeptical of it. This dynamic is especially evident in the profound mistrust in Japan’s mainstream media toward Chinese political leadership and the insistence by some conservative Japanese commentators that China is headed for a severe economic downturn. These pessimistic economic predictions are significant if only because Japan is the largest foreign investor in China, which is now Japan’s largest export market. Of course, Japan’s reports also say a great deal about Japan’s own obsessions, including concerns about Japan’s declining vitality and status in comparison with its increasingly powerful and affluent “neighboring country” (a term frequently used in Japanese media).

“One World, One Dream” or “One Games, Different Dreams”?

The motto of the Chinese Olympics was “One World, One Dream” (tongyige shijie, tongyige mengxiang). But it might be more appropriate to have named the Olympics after another expression, “one bed, different dreams” (tongchuang yimeng), a Chinese idiom used to refer to two people sharing a bed but dreaming different dreams. Looking at the hypernationalist coverage of the Olympics in the United States and China, Olympic historian David Wallechinsky describes “parallel games,” in which Americans and Chinese were essentially watching their own teams perform in highly selective national media coverage. But this “one games, different dreams” phenomenon is not limited to the hypernationalistic U.S. and Chinese media. Japan’s media also focused almost exclusively on the events that featured participation by Japanese athletes.

The Olympics seen on Japanese television were fundamentally Japan’s Olympics. Just as the Olympics seen by Americans and Chinese were fundamentally nationalist versions of the same global event. It seems that even small countries are not immune to Olympic nationalism. A report in the New York Times documents the “gold medal fever” in several countries around the world, including Mongolia, India, Indonesia, and Jamaica. Of course, some of the superstar accomplishments—such as Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt breaking records—were truly global media events, but for most viewers in the world, including those in Japan, this Olympics was a case of “same games, different dreams,” in a televised experience characterized by highly selective media nationalism.

Can fulfilling the “100 year dream” mean an end to “100 years of national humiliation”?

It’s clear from the nationalist narratives and folkloric themes of the opening and closing ceremonies that the “dream” that concerned the Beijing Olympic organizers was not a generic dream of “one world” but rather the much more specific dream of China’s place in that world. This “one hundred year dream” of a Chinese Olympics is tied to another story of a “hundred years of national humiliation,” a story in which China interprets its modern history as an underdog struggle against foreign aggression, beginning with the Opium Wars and punctuated by a series of invasions.

In what might signal an important revision of this story of national revival, state media giant Xinhua’s reporting narrates the Olympics as the culmination of 30 years of “reform and opening,” suggesting that 1978 be recognized as the new key turning point in Chinese history, in a new narrative of Chinese history based not on the mythology of national humiliation and resistance but on a myth of national self-renewal and openness to the world. If this story sticks, it signals a constructive revision of Chinese national identity.

Mirroring this official story, the New York Times suggests that China’s newly won confidence might represent the beginning of the end of a pattern of “aggrieved nationalism” based on the story of national humiliation. The Times article cites the positive and welcoming attitude of Beijingers toward foreign visitors as evidence that the Olympics bestowed a new confidence on China that can lead to the diminishment of China’s aggrieved nationalism. The article quotes Fudan University Professor Shen Dingli, who suggests that the success of the Olympics will allow China to become a “normal country” that can more objectively view its strengths and its weaknesses.

The sense of grievance at the base of Chinese nationalism may be hard to overcome. Media in Japan, which is undoubtedly the country most closely associated with China’s “century of humiliation” and also the most common target of China’s nationalist grievances, seemed to show a much greater skepticism about the potential for Chinese people to use the Olympics to overcome the politics of national humiliation.

Despite the positive spin surrounding the Games, Japanese media tended to interpret the nationalist imagery of the opening ceremonies and China’s single-minded pursuit of Olympic gold as yet more signs of China’s potent mix of populist nationalism and authoritarianism. Japan’s conservative newspapers interpreted China’s Olympic-fueled nationalism as a useful strategy for solidifying political control and legitimating political dictatorship by the Chinese Communist Party.

The conservative Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s most widely circulated daily, suggested that problems such as a slowing economy, declining real estate prices, and greater income inequality will necessitate a resort to hard-line political tactics (Aug. 25, 2008, p. 2 “A return to the hard line”). Not all Japanese commentators were so pessimistic. One Asahi commentary suggested that the relatively neutral and normal diplomatic exchanges between China and Japan could be the sign of a new “adult relationship” (Aug. 24, 2008, p. 4, “The sprouting of an ‘adult relationship’ between China and Japan”).

It is troubling that mainstream media in the one nation that could do the most to help China overcome its “aggrieved nationalism” seem the least optimistic about this possibility. American media have been quicker to embrace 1978 as the new starting point for contemporary Chinese history, with the Olympics as a 30th anniversary celebration of the opening and reform that began that year.

Faking the Olympics

“Fakery” was perhaps the most unfortunate theme of the Beijing Olympics. An editorial in the Yomiuri Shimbun reflected on Chinese Olympic “fakes,” such as the use of computer-generated imagery and voice-overs in the opening ceremony, suggesting that, like the obsession with winning gold medals, these practices also reflect the methods of a totalitarian government in which ends justify means (Aug. 25, 2008, p. 3, “As the festival ends, the real trials begin”). Even the more liberal media suggested that the Chinese were “trying too hard,” resulting in a less than authentic celebration of the Olympic spirit.

As in the West, Japanese media also reported on Chinese media censorship, but with some twists that were not common in U.S. reporting. The Asahi‘s coverage of media censorship focused not only on censorship but also on the concrete methods of Chinese authorities in constructing an approved Olympic message. Reporters from Xinhua and CCTV dominated the Chinese corps, with very few slots remaining for local and regional Chinese media. Some well-known investigative reporters were simply told not to work during the Olympics. The Chinese state wanted no independent media scoops in this Olympics. The worry expressed in these stories is that Chinese popular attitudes are easily manipulated by a still-powerful state which is able to micromanage media messages (“Chinese domestic media restrictions” Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 15, 2008, p. 2; “Chinese media” Aug. 25, 2008, evening, p. 1).

This emphasis on the state construction of media messages may sound exaggerated in China’s Internet age, but Hong Kong–based media expert Rebecca MacKinnon makes a related cautionary point in her discussion in the Wall Street Journal of Internet reporting during the Games. While Internet sources might be expected to provide different perspectives on the Olympics, unauthorized critical comments about sensitive Olympic topics were quickly removed from the Internet. At the same time, media reports from official agencies were released quickly. The point of Chinese censorship now is less to stop the flow of sensitive news than to shape a dominant message.

Japanese papers also contrasted the rhetoric of “harmony” in the Chinese media with the “reality” of ongoing troubles in the Western regions of China and problems faced by ordinary residents on the day after the closing ceremonies. An Asahi article entitled “‘Successful’ Olympics, a different reality” (Aug. 25, 2008, p. 2) described the continuing repression of the Tibetan and Uighur minorities, as well as restrictions on the movement of ordinary Beijing citizens. The Yomiuri also reported on the Beijingers’ ironic appropriation of the political slogan “harmonious society” through the creation of a new verb “to be harmonized” to describe situations in which people are forced to move their homes or otherwise sacrifice their self-interests for state-imposed goals such as the Olympics (“Increasing Patriotism” Aug. 25, 2008, p. 4).

Although not always negative, Japanese editorial voices in general seem unconvinced of Chinese sincerity and thus especially sensitive to stories of Chinese “fakes.” While the Western media frequently reported on the “friendliness” of the Beijing residents, Japanese media reported on better “manners” (such as waiting in line), implying that these improvements in public behavior, like improvements in air quality, might not last beyond the state-sponsored spectacle of the Olympics. Man-made good weather and manipulated positive media coverage are all represented as troubling signs of a neighbor that is “trying too hard” and is thus untrustworthy.

It might surprise Western critics to read Japanese commentators positioning themselves as champions of democracy and individualism in China, but this focus on Chinese “fakery” and “collectivism” can also be seen as part of Japan’s long history of positioning itself as a modern enlightened nation in a Western-dominated global society. Ironically, Japanese criticisms of Chinese fakery, authoritarianism, and collectivism closely resemble Western criticism of Japanese “copying” and a state-dominated “Japan Inc.” during its rapid growth period of the 1970s and ’80s. These obsessions tell us as much as about Japanese sensitivities as about the state of Chinese society. Indeed, one of the questions Japanese commentators ask is whether Tokyo really has an authentic vision for the 2016 Olympic bid, or more broadly, whether Japan has any viable vision for its future at all.

“One World” (revisited): Flexible Olympic citizenship

One story covered on the front page of all major Japanese dailies the day after the closing ceremonies was a tribute to the Japanese background of Kenya’s Samuel Wanjiru, who was awarded the gold medal for the marathon during the closing ceremonies. Wanjiru began his serious training as a high school student in Japan, and thus could be hailed by the Japanese media as a Japanese success story as well as a Kenyan success story. In a similar fashion, Japanese media also hailed the success of the Japanese coach Imura Masayo, who led China’s synchronized swimmers to a bronze medal—the team’s first.

Japanese and Western media have provided numerous stories of mobile athletes and coaches swapping national affiliations all over the world. America’s silver medal in volleyball was led by China’s former star player Lang Ping, who was wildly cheered by Chinese fans. Russia’s bronze medal–winning women’s basketball team was led by American, and naturalized Russian citizen, Becky Hammon. Georgia’s beach volleyball team hailed from Brazil. America’s women’s gymnastic coach Liang Chow hailed from the host city of Beijing. Fans are getting used to the mobility of athletic careers.

Extensive media coverage of these mobile sports figures belies the nationalist mythology that most media reporting exalts (including Japanese media). The cross-border movements of Olympic athletes and coaches are a better expression of the fluid conditions of modern transnational citizenship than the hard nationalism of mainstream media coverage. And despite the simple-minded nationalism of sports coverage, audiences throughout the world have also became willing to embrace the forms of “flexible citizenship”—as anthropologist Aihwa Ong calls them—exhibited by mobile athletic stars. As more athletes and coaches cross borders, perhaps the hypernationalism of sports will be undermined by the multinational self-representations of the athletes themselves, offering a much more progressive vision of a true “one world” that allows individuals to pursue their cross-border dreams regardless of their place of birth.

“One Dream” (revisited): Olympic Eros

When asked about the Beijing opening ceremony, Tokyo’s conservative governor Ishihara Shintaro, who is not known for circumspection, said: “I suppose it’s a happy occasion, something you can be proud of. But it was also like passing around the same Chinese dish for three people. It was a bit boring and too long” (Asahi Shimbun, August 19, 2008, p. 32, “The words of the mayor”).

Ishihara may have been one of the few in Japan who were underwhelmed by the beauty of the opening ceremonies, which he labeled “mass games.” Such inopportune comments can be taken as further evidence of his disregard for global public opinion, including a statement on the same day that visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine by the Tokyo governor also would have no effect on the Olympic bid. His well-known nationalist rhetoric aside, when describing his response to the sporting events Ishihara also revealed his more literary side: “Actually, [sports] are not about Logos, or language, but the world of Eros. They are about physical beauty.”

Although Ishihara’s comments about “Logos” seemed directed at Zhang Yimou’s highly textual imagery in the opening ceremonies (based on the metaphor of a scroll and the advent of printing), Ishihara’s larger point seems to refute his casual dismissal of the opening ceremony as “boring.” After all, it was the extraordinary visceral beauty of the opening and closing ceremonies, rather than their simplistic narratives, that made the Games such a huge success in the eyes of the global audience, including the thrilled NHK announcers. And it was the vicarious ecstasy of the athletic performances experienced on high definition television that inspired such large global audiences. Discussions of the physical beauty of the athletes themselves were also one of the most non-nationalistic global discourses on the Internet. Eroticism, in its more direct sense, was also part of the experience of the Games for many athletes, who apparently engaged in a great deal of cross-national bed hopping. For some, at least, the private experience of the Olympics was not at all a case of “one bed, different dreams,” but rather of the victory of Eros over Logos.

To return then to idea of “one dream,” when Ishihara suggests that the Olympics involve a fundamentally aesthetic vision, perhaps he should also remind himself that the fact that the Chinese state was willing to spend seven years and $40 billion on an essentially aesthetic experience is itself a reassuringly peaceful expression of a shared human dream. Perhaps the legacy of the Beijing Olympics will be primarily aesthetic, not political, and that’s not a bad legacy (especially, as Thomas Friedman points out, when compared to the legacy of America’s past seven years).

Whether Beijing’s expensive spectacle of Olympian Eros was purchased at the cost of other more fundamental human needs is obviously debatable within China. But whether Tokyo can offer an equally compelling alternative vision for 2016 remains doubtful for most Japanese. When asked whether the ceremonies in Beijing gave him any ideas for Tokyo’s bid, the mayor said, “Not really, we want to do something totally different, if given the chance.” What that difference will be is still unclear to most Japanese.

Tokyo is obviously a great global city, with the best urban infrastructure, public safety, and global cuisine in the world. It is deserving of a second Olympics, but it is also deserving of more progressive global representations from its media and politicians. Ishihara is clever, charismatic, and quotable, and clearly a relief from the leaden boredom of most Japanese political voices, but with such a figure at the helm, Tokyo’s Olympic bid faces an uphill battle for global recognition.

James Farrer is associate professor of sociology at Sophia University in Tokyo. He is the author of Opening Up: Youth Sex Culture and Market Reform in Shanghai (University of Chicago Press).


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