January 2008

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(Posted by The China Beat on behalf of Susan Brownell)

Last year the International Olympic Committee (IOC) invited me to write an essay on the Beijing Olympics, and “The Beijing Effect” was published in the July-September 2006 issue of The Olympic Review. At the end of that essay I wrote, “China hopes that it will change the Olympic Games, but is the West really open to that possibility? Are we truly ready for ‘One World, One Dream’?” Since that article appeared in the official magazine of the IOC, it is not implausible that Beijing decided to answer my question. On August 8, 2007, Beijing marked the one-year countdown to the Games with the premier of what became a hit song and a slogan that one can see everywhere on TV advertisements and billboards: “We Are Ready,” 我们准备好了. Indeed, Beijing’s preparations exceed all previous Olympic Games in their scale and financial investment. Beijing is ready for us. But are we ready for Beijing?

I don’t think the outside world is ready to understand what it will see in August 2008. So I am doing my small part to get it there. My participation on The China Beat is one part of my effort. If you want to know more about me and my experience of China, take a look at the interview with me that was just posted by my fellow Fulbrighter in Beijing, Dan Beekman, who is “Blogging Beijing” on the homepage of the Seattle Times.

As one of the world’s few academic experts on Chinese sports, I am getting a lot of requests from journalists these days. And then there are my opinionated and sometimes politically-misguided family members in the U.S. (you know who you are), and my academic colleagues (thanks, Allen Guttmann
). Since there are a few basic questions that get repeated over and over, I have started compiling my e-mail responses into Beijing Olympic FAQs. Below I give my answers to FAQ#1: Is it possible to keep politics out of the Beijing 2008 Olympics?

FAQ#1: Is it possible to keep politics out of the Beijing 2008 Olympics?

I get a little impatient with this naive question, “is it possible to keep politics out of the Olympics?” The Olympics have been intimately tied to national politics at least since the 1906 Intermediate Olympic Games in Athens. These were the first Olympic Games at which athletes marched into the stadium behind national flags and the three flags of the medalists were raised in the awards ceremony. To protest that Irish athletes had not been allowed to compete as a separate nation, the silver medalist in the triple jump, Peter O’Connor, climbed up the flagpole to wave the Irish flag in place of the British Union Jack that had been raised. [The first Olympics in Athens in 1896 were so well-supported by the Greeks that the IOC approved a Greek request to hold intermediate Olympic Games in the middle of the Olympiad. The 1906 Intermediate Games were the first and last because of political and economic instability in Greece.]

The reviver of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, was a rather sophisticated thinker about the relationship between sports and politics, and always understood that politics were an integral part of the Olympic Movement. IOC presidents during the Cold War (Sigfrid Edstrøm, Avery Brundage, and Lord David Killanin) often tried to forbid people from “mixing sport and politics,” but that was largely part of their effort to keep the political conflicts over which they had no control from disrupting the Olympic Games. It was never official IOC policy. And it is not today. The IOC’s only official stance on politics is contained in Fundamental Principle #5 of the Olympic Charter, which states, “Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.”

The Olympic Games have often functioned as an alternative to mainstream diplomatic channels. The IOC is a non-governmental organization, which therefore is able to function in the cracks between governments. And it is important for it to maintain that independent intermediate position, so its presidents and other leading thinkers have correctly understood that they must maintain political independence from national governments to the degree possible. This complex political reality was captured in sayings like “keep the politics out of sport,” but in order to understand what this really means, you have to delve a little bit deeper and understand the global structure that underlies Olympic sport. I will get into that in my answer to FAQ#2.

So the answer is, no, it is not possible to keep politics out of the Olympics, and in fact their political role is what makes them important in today’s world and in the quest for world peace. This is as true in 2008 as it was over 100 years ago.

Stay tuned for FAQ#2: Will calls for a boycott of the 2008 Olympic Games be successful?


Last year saw some curious news stories appear that linked China with Hollywood, from ones involving Mia Farrow’s critical views of the Beijing regime, to ones reporting Paris Hilton’s trip to Shanghai to attend an MTV awards show, to ones detailing sex scenes being cut from the version of Ang Lee’s film so that it could be showed in the PRC. With these still fresh in China Beat’s mind, this week’s “Frivolous Friday” offering takes the form of quiz, which tests the pop culture acumen and in some cases also the Sinological savvy of our readers. (Answers as well as bonus “You Might Be a Sinologist If…you know this factoid” queries come after all the questions.)

1. Which of the following actresses studied Mandarin at Harvard and wrote a senior thesis on anti-African sentiment in the PRC?
a) Jodie Foster
b) Mira Sorvino
c) Nicole Kidman
d) Uma Thurman

2. Which of the following actors took a Chinese history class with Jonathan Spence at Yale, cites this as having inspired him to make a film set in China, and says he read one of his former prof’s books to prepare for his role in that movie?
a) Tim Robbins
b) Ralph Fiennes
c) Kevin Bacon
d) Ed Norton

3. Which of the following actresses can be seen speaking Chinese and quoting Confucius in a film called “Stowaway”?
a) Judy Garland
b) Mae West
c) Shirley Temple
d) Lana Turner

4. Which of the following celebrities performed in a film whose name flagged a Chinese location—but did not include a single scene set in that location?
a) Jack Lemmon
b) Rita Hayworth
c) Owen Wilson
d) Jane Fonda
e) All of the above

5. Long before Steven Spielberg agreed to serve as a consultant to Zhang Yimou for the extravaganza that will open the 2008 Olympics, he made a film that opened with a song and dance number (“Anything Goes” by Cole Porter, fittingly enough) being performed in a nightclub in Old Shanghai. Was that film:
a) The Empire of the Sun
b) Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark
c) 1941
d) Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

1. b—and we’ve been told by a Harvard prof who read it that Sorvino’s thesis, with a little work, would have been publishable, meaning that Hollywood’s gain, in this case, was Sinology’s loss.
Bonus question…You might be a Sinologist if…you can tell us what Uma Thurman’s tie to China studies is…Answer: Her father is a noted specialist on Tibet.

2. d—though the other actors all have ties to China, since Robbins recently starred in “Code 46” (a film set in a Shanghai of the future), Fiennes starred in “The White Countess” (a film set in a Shanghai of the past), and Bacon’s architect father (who later played a key role in the redevelopment of Philadelphia) spent some time as a youth working in Shanghai.
You might be a Sinologist if you can guess which of Spence’s books Norton says he turned to in order to understand the character of the British doctor he played in “The Painted Veil”…Answer: To Change China.

3. c.

4. e—the films in question are “The China Syndrome” (a and d), “The Lady from Shanghahi,” and “Shanghai Noon” (that’s the only one with scenes set in any part of China, but only Beijing is portrayed).

5. d—though the action quickly moves from Shanghai to India.
Bonus question…You might be a Sinologist if…you know why it is somewhat anachronistic in the film when the Chinese gangsters who appear are dead set on getting hold of the ashes of Nurhaci, whom they seem to treat as a sacred figure…Answer: members of the kinds of secret societies to which these gangsters belonged tended to look at the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) as foreigner usurpers from Manchuria who had unjustly wrested control of China from the Ming (1368-1644). Since Nurhaci was a Manchu leader, they wouldn’t have worried about his ashes being scattered or destroyed in their fight with Indiana Jones.

By Kate Merkel-Hess

On January 25, 1938, The New York Times ran a single piece about the on-going occupation of the Guomindang capital, Nanjing, by Japanese troops. Hallett Abend wrote for the Times:

“Stripping away all the Japanese excuses about military necessity…the stark fact remains that the conditions in Nanking one month and ten days after the victorious Japanese Army crashed the gates of China’s former capital are so lawless and so scandalous that Japanese authorities continue to refuse permission to any foreigners except diplomatic officials to visit the city…Again on Jan. 7 Japanese authorities apologetically admitted to the writer that conditions in Nanking were still deplorable but gave assurances that the division of troops then out of hand and daily criminally assaulting hundreds of women and very young girls would be removed from Nanking within two or three days.”

More than a month into the “Nanjing Massacre,” in which Japanese troops entered the city and, in search of fleeing Chinese troops, killed tens of thousands of Chinese civilians, the Times piece was part of a steady stream of reports to the U.S. via AP, Reuters, and various other news bureaus. Topics ranged from what might be considered, in the context of broader events, rather innocuous—like the Times report on January 23 that the American ambassador to Japan had lodged a formal complaint about looting of American property by Japanese troops—to first-hand accounts of violence that are heart-wrenching even seventy years later. Even so, the coverage of the Nanjing events in the American media was remarkably stark and prescient in its read of what the massacre augured for Sino-Japanese relations in the coming years.

Commemorations of the massacre have taken place already in China this year, though they have been remarkably low-key given that this winter marks the 70th anniversary of the massacre. As in past years, Japanese officials have protested those commemorations—this year focusing on the renovated massacre museum in Nanjing—with particular objection (again, a redux of earlier years) to the Chinese victim count of 300,000, which Japan views as an overestimate. (For an investigation of how the massacre has been remembered in both countries, interested readers might look at The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography, edited by Josh Fogel.) But both the objections from Japan and the nationalist rhetoric from China have been at a lower level than in previous years; in China commemorations of the massacre were dampened by the government, preventing nationalistic fervor from reaching the peaks it did three years ago when there were widespread anti-Japan protests focused on Japan’s continuing struggles over accurately representing wartime atrocities in school textbooks.

The continued debates over how and when to commemorate the Nanjing Massacre point to its incredible power—right from the beginning—to focus larger political struggles, in great part because evidence of the massacre emerged from a new, evocative, popular media environment. As is frequently noted in American narratives of the massacre, from Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking a decade ago to the American-made documentary out last year (“Nanking”; rights in China have been sold to CCTV), it wasn’t just newspaper reporters who were recording the events. The most stunning accounts of the massacre are the photographs and film footage taken by regular people who were in Nanjing, from the 16mm footage shot by American missionary John Magee to the celebratory or mocking photos taken by invading Japanese soldiers themselves. It is in part this evidence of atrocity—caught on tape because the timing of the Nanjing events coincided with the popularization of cameras and the emergence of film technology—that has made this particular event a flashpoint for Japanese-Chinese relations.

Hallett Abend. “Reign of Disorder Goes On in Nanking; Suggests a Mutiny: Lawlessness at Nanking.” The New York Times (Jan. 25, 1938): 1. Those with Jstor access can read a review of Abend’s autobiographical My Time in China.

Last week, our blog-list focused on sites specifically devoted to the PRC or Taiwan, but astute commentaries on and information related to China Beat topics sometimes shows up other kinds of places on the web. With this in mind, we’ll be doing at least two sequels—this one on sites we value that have an Asian focus but are not China-specific, then another later on that deals with sites that have a global purview (but periodically have insightful things to say about Chinese themes).

1. Japan Focus
Since this site’s editor, Mark Selden, is the author or co-author of several important books on China, it is no surprise that, despite its title, it often carries pieces that move between Japan and its biggest neighbor. If you want to go directly to one of these, a good place to start is with Geremie Barmé’s smart take on anti-Japanese sentiment in the PRC.

2. Rconversation
This site has geographical breadth—again, no surprise, given who is behind it, as Rebecca McKinnon did stints as CNN’s Beijing and then Tokyo bureau chiefs, has been a close follower of North Korean affairs, and is now based in Hong Kong. China Beat has already linked to one of her PRC pieces, but for a sample of something else she’s done, check out
her take on Yahoo and the ethics and practicalities of policing internet use in China.

3. Far Eastern Economic Review Forum
This is the recently launched companion to the former-weekly magazine that was revamped several years ago as a monthly journal of opinion. Its goal is to generate debate via mini-essays, and the editor, Hugo Restall, is not above contributing his own provocative forays into this genre, such as
this look at colonialism and Hong Kong’s past.

4. AsiaMedia
Based at UCLA and largely run by students, this impressive site offers original content and links to news stories on various parts of the continent, including China. Tom Plate writes a lively regular column for it (here’s a
recent sample), and others who have written for it include China Beat’s own Tim Weston and Jeff Wasserstrom, as well as Chuck Hayford, who wrote this piece on the Bingdian (Freezing Point) controversy.

5. Asian Review of Books
Due to the enormous amount being published on Asia in English alone, having a website devoted to timely reviews of works on Asian themes in that language intended for general readers is of great value. The reviews tend to be positive (though this doesn’t mean they are devoid of criticisms or suggestions for improvement) and are written with readers based in Asia in mind. A good place to start checking out the site is with a review of Love and Revolution, a novel focusing on the lives of Sun Yat-sen and even more so the post-Sun years of his widow Soong Qingling.

This past Christmas, AIDS activist and new daddy Hu Jia was arrested by Chinese authorities. He is currently in detention and his lawyers have been denied access, while his wife and newborn son remain under house arrest with extremely tight security. This month a You Tube video appeared, filmed by Hu and his wife last year, that can only be described as “Reality TV for Those Under Government Surveillance.” Rebecca MacKinnon, one of the best bloggers on the media and China today, gives a searing analysis of the situation. For more on Hu Jia, the blog Black and White Cat posts a 2001 interview with Hu first published in the periodical Freezing Point.

What would you do if an ATM started unexpectedly giving you $100 bills while charging your account just $1? Such was the dilemma faced by Xu Ting, and who knew that the Guangzhou resident was a fan of the Steve Miller Band? The bank, obviously not devotees of 70s arena rock, took a different view and Xu, 100,000 RMB richer than before he went to the ATM, was arrested, tried, and sentenced to life in prison. Now a higher court is prepared to reopen the case. Joel Martinson of Danwei looks at how the trial is playing out in the media and in the court of Chinese public opinion.

Finally, on the Shanghaiist, JFK Miller argues that the recent Taiwanese election (or as it is referred to here in Beijing “the elections for Taiwan’s so-called ‘legislature’) was not a rejection of the pro-independence leanings of Chen Shui-bian, but instead hinged on domestic problems of corruption and a sluggish economy.

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