The 2008 Beijing Olympics

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There have been many efforts during the last month, on this site and elsewhere, to bring history into discussions of the twentieth anniversary of June 4th (particularly via allusions the May 4th Movement of 1919), just as a year ago there were many efforts to bring history into discussions of the Beijing Games (especially via allusions to the Berlin Olympics of 1936 and Seoul Olympics of 1988). But there’s still room for this Top Five list of historically minded pieces on 1989 or 2008 that have just appeared and stand out as especially worth checking out, due to either how deeply they delve into parallels with earlier times or the novelty of their strategies for bringing together past and present.

1) On June 1, Alan Baumler of the estimable Frog-In-A-Well blog, which has separate sections devoted to the histories of different East Asian countries, offered up a very thoughtful look at a precedent for the 1989 student-led protests that pre-dated (by many centuries) the founding of the first modern Chinese university in 1898.

Here’s a snippet that we hope will encourage you to make the jump to read all of his “Student Protests in Han China”:

“Like most university students, [those of Later Han times, circa 160] were in an anomalous position in society. Imperial University students were members of the elite, but not elite enough to get government jobs just based on their family. Like later students they were also frustrated by their prospects. By the Later Han the curriculum at the University was considered hopelessly out of date and attending was no longer a reliable route to office. Students were deeply concerned with the problems of the state, which is not surprising, and they were particularly concerned with the problem of corruption and favoritism in official appointments, which is also not surprising, given that they were the ones most likely to be passed over if jobs were not given on merit. During this period the student’s enemies were not the Communist Party, but the eunuchs and their faction, who were rivals of the great aristocratic families.”

2) On June 2, Duncan Hewitt, the Shanghai-based author of China: Getting Rich First: A Modern Social History, weighed in on the meaning of the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen protests on a Newsweek blog. He has many things of interest to say in this piece, which is well worth reading in its entirety, but one notable point is that the it is not just the details about 1989 but also those about the Democracy Wall Movement that preceded it by roughly a decade that have been fading.

3) On June 5, Evan Osnos ran an insightful piece on his “Letter from China” blog called “The Other Tiananmen Moment,” which stressed the importance of thinking about the complex ties between the events of the mid-to-late 1960s and the late 1980s in the minds of some Chinese. (And for more about the Cultural Revolution-era photographs he discusses and shows, see this guest post by Jean Loh we ran in April.)

4) Regular readers of this site have seen many pieces by frequent contributor Susan Brownell exploring different aspects of the Beijing Games, including its parallels to and differences from past Olympics. (And material from those posts is also showcased in China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance.) But there’s still much new to be learned from her latest publication on the topic, which she has just done for the excellent and wide-ranging Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus. She offers her most detailed and sophisticated look to date at the connections between the Beijing Olympics and both of the previous Asian Summer Games, those that took place in Tokyo in 1964 and Seoul in 1988.

5) The same online journal has two other good pieces about Asia and the Olympics. The one with the most historical bent is a fascinating essay on the Tokyo Games by Christian Tagsold, which though focusing on Japan should be of interest to many people more concerned with China. Called “The 1964 Tokyo Olympics as Political Games,” it argues, as its title indicates, that the tendency to treat the Japanese Games as more “apolitical” than the Korean and Chinese ones that followed is misleading. (Those in a mood for looking forward rather than backward should be sure to check out as well William W. Kelly’s smart companion piece on the prospects for the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, another essay that concentrates on Japan but has relevance for other parts of East Asia as well.)

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(And What was the Strategy for Dealing with the International Criticism on Human Rights)?

(This is a shortened version of a paper presented at the conference on ““The 2008 Beijing Olympic Games: Public Diplomacy Triumph or Public Relations Spectacle?” organized by the Center on Public Diplomacy, US-China Institute, and Center for International Studies at the University of Southern California, January 29-30, 2009.)

There was a common perception outside China that the Beijing Olympic Games involved a master plan to promote a positive image of China to the outside world and that this was one of the major goals of hosting the Olympic Games, if not the major goal. I want to argue that while there was widespread agreement in China that the Olympics were an excellent opportunity to promote an image of China to the world, the vast majority of the attention and effort was focused on the domestic audience; that there was never a concrete communication strategy for dealing with the human rights issue; and that in both instances, China’s ability to communicate a positive international image was hindered by the domestic political structure.

The People’s Olympics

Many Western journalists and Amnesty International accused China of failing to keep its promises with respect to its human rights record. But China had not made any such promises, and if journalists had read chapter five of my recent book, Beijing’s Games, they would have known that there was a big internal debate about even the one sentence about human rights that was made in China’s bid presentation in 2001.

However, in its bid China did make one promise that it arguably kept, and that was its promise to host a “people’s Olympics.” There were three main themes for the Olympic Games: the High-tech Olympics, the Green Olympics, and the renwen ( ) Olympics. Renwen is difficult to translate. It was sometimes translated as the “humanistic Olympics,” but after some debate, the preferred official translation was the “People’s Olympics.” This theme was originally intended as a response to the West’s criticism of China’s human rights, but this was never made explicit to the West.

One of the central concepts of the People’s Olympics was 以人为本 , “take people as the root,” or “people-orientation.” This phrase had appeared in political rhetoric when Hu Jintao named it in his address to the Third Plenum of the 16th Party Congress in 2003. This preceded the inclusion of a passage on human rights in the revision to the Constitution in 2004. It is interesting that as early as 2001, 以人为本 had already been written into the guiding thought for the Beijing Olympic Games.

In 2000, Beijing Mayor Liu Qi began commissioning a number of groups with the task of developing the basic thought behind the because he felt that, unlike the other themes, it was unclear. The People’s University formed the Humanistic Olympic Studies Centre to study it. One of the non-Communist Parties, the Democratic League, was commissioned by Liu Qi and began developing working papers in 2001. Forums were held, dissertations and books were written on the topic, working papers were drafted, websites were created, and by the start of the Games it was estimated that at least ten thousand pages had been written on the topic of the “People’s Olympics.”

Faculty members of the Beijing Sport University and the Humanistic Olympic Studies Center of the People’s University were particularly involved with the relevant sport, educational, and cultural organs of the central and Beijing government. Although they had travelled abroad, these intellectuals were all largely focused on the domestic audience and not the international audience. They gave dozens if not hundreds of interviews to Chinese media, appeared frequently on CCTV, and were influential in shaping domestic media opinion. They seldom gave interviews to foreign media and on occasions when they did they were belittled as Party-liners (see these characterizations of Beijing Sport University’s Ren Hai and People’s University’s Jin Yuanpu).

As a result of the orientation of the intellectuals who designed it, the guiding thought of the People’s Olympics was largely diverted away from any focus on China’s international image and into a debate over culture and education. In my interactions with BOCOG and the intellectuals who were working with it, I felt that about 80-90% of the effort that went into this symbol-making was directed toward the domestic audience. The main focus was on the questions of how to manage the “combination of Eastern and Western cultures” (东西结合)that the Games were supposed to facilitate, how to promote Chinese culture within China and to the world, how to use the enthusiasm for the games to raise the general quality (素质) and civility (文明) of the Chinese people, how to prepare the next generation of young Chinese to take their place in the international community.

These discussions and debates formed the intellectual context for Zhang Yimou’s opening and closing ceremonies, the Olympic education programs in the schools that reached as many as 400 million Chinese schoolchildren, the training programs for the 70,000 Olympic volunteers, the cultural performances in the Cultural Olympiad, and the myriad of other cultural and educational activities that surrounded the Games.

Perhaps the major way in which the guiding thought about the promotion of China’s national image was generated was through three keypoint research projects commissioned by the National Planning Office of Philosophy and Social Science, which is administered by the Central Propaganda Department. These grants are the government’s way of channeling academic research in directions that serve its needs. The relative unimportance of the Beijing Olympic Games is indicated by the fact that from 2003 to 2008, only five related projects were funded, of which three were “keypoint” projects with a competitive application process. By way of comparison, in the same time period the number of funded projects that fell under the rubric of “Marxist-Leninist Services” was 190, and under “Party History and Construction” was 178. The first relevant Olympic project was the 2003 project entitled “Improving China’s International Position and Reputation through the 2008 Olympic Games.” The Beijing Sport University won the bid for this project and in April 2007 published the results in Research on Improving China’s International Position and Reputation through the 2008 Olympic Games (2008年奥运会提升中国国际地位和声望的研究). Its 65 chapters contain thorough summaries of the issues that provoked negative media reports in past Olympic Games, such as delays in venue completion, transportation problems, media information glitches, terrorist acts, and so on. The lesson that Beijing clearly learned was that these particular problems should be avoided at all costs, and ultimately they avoided all the problems that got negative media coverage in previous Olympics. The analyses of Western media coverage of the Beijing Games since 2001 indicated that “political” issues – as they are called in China – would dominate coverage. However, the resulting recommendations merely emphasize the importance of treating the media and other leading opinion-makers well.

The most daring chapter, “Beijing Olympics Speed Up the Transformation of the Functioning of the Government,” analyzes the promises made under the rubric of the “People’s Olympics” – and improving human rights is not listed as one of them.

A second keypoint project of the National Planning Office of Philosophy and Social Science was the 2006 project “Construction of the Humanistic Concept, Social Value and National Image of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games” (2008年北京奥运会的人文理念、社会价值与国家文化形象构建》), which was awarded to the People’s University. Through this project and elsewhere, the People’s University promoted its concept of the “Cultural Olympics.” The final report has not been completed, but in a summary of their conclusions on CCTV in February 2008, they argued that research shows that culture constitutes the core of national image, and “therefore in the construction of a national image, we should hold the line on ‘Cultural China’ (坚持走文化中国的路线)in order to make the idea of ‘Cultural China’ into the core theme for dialogue between China and the international community in Olympic discourse.”

So my first point is that if the “People’s Olympics” was the response to the West’s human rights accusations, then that response was delivered in the form of culture and symbols – the “look and image” of the Games, the “branding” of China, the display of “Chinese culture” – and not in the form of verbal debate or dialogue. They were very successful in the former, but the absence of the latter led critics to characterize the Games as one big show orchestrated by the Party-state. This simple-minded view does not do justice to the passion with which the producers of the People’s Olympics threw themselves into fulfilling their mission of promoting Chinese culture and achieving its integration with Western culture. I believe we should accord them more respect.

If the People’s Olympics was to be the response to Western criticism of China’s human rights record, then it probably needed to directly address the issue of human rights, but the topic was never directly taken on in the reports and research devoted to the topic. But now we run into the structure of domestic control over discussions of human rights. The sports scholars, philosophers, and members of non-communist parties who were developing these documents were not likely to address such a sensitive topic as human rights because it was not their job. The job of communicating China’s position on human rights to the outside world one is one of the official responsibilities of the State Council Information Office, which is simultaneously the Office of Foreign Propaganda of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. This organ’s function is to act as the media conduit between China and the outside world. The Information Office is under the Party Central Committee’s Propaganda Department, which is the nerve center of China’s thought control system. But the factionalism between the various “systems” (系统)of the Chinese government is well-known, and the propaganda system is a different system from the sport, cultural, and educational systems involved in creating and implementing the People’s Olympics; its power base is in media and communications circles. I did not see evidence that it had an active role in conceptualizing the People’s Olympics.

National Image

While the other systems were doing their work, the Information Office was involved in a separate effort, which involved a different group of intellectuals in the field of communications, whose core was located at the Communications University of China. The question of China’s national image had been the subject of a fair amount of intellectual work, though not nearly as much as the multidisciplinary effort behind the “People’s Olympics.” The third relevant keypoint project designated by the National Planning Office for Philosophy and Social Science was the 2005 project, “The Design of China’s National Image in Communications with the Outside World (对外传播中的国家形象设计),” which was awarded to the Foreign Communications Research Center (对外传播研究中心), a unit administered by the Foreign Languages Publishing Bureau, which is in turn under the Party Central Committee. The major results of this project, which involved scholars in communications at China’s top universities, were published in April of 2008 (Communication of a National Image, 国家形象传播). Among the 60 chapters, there is not one on the Beijing Olympics. The chapters that touch upon the Olympics agree that Olympic Games are an excellent opportunity to promote a national image; but they use the examples of the Tokyo 1964 and Seoul 1988 Olympic Games as models for a promoting a positive image, and they do not offer the possibility that the Games can promote a negative image. And so three years of work by China’s top communications intellectuals failed to produce a strategy for dealing with attacks and criticism.

Olympic China National Image Ad

If there had been a master plan for using the Olympics to promote China’s image, it would have been developed by the Central Propaganda Department. The single person most responsible for coordinating everything would have been Li Dongsheng, who was simultaneously a member of the Party Central Committee, Vice Minister of the State Administration for Industry and Commerce, and – more to the point here – Deputy Director of the Central Propaganda Department, chief of BOCOG’s Media and Communications Coordination Group, and president of the China Advertising Association. Western media tended to make a big deal out of the American (Hill and Knowlton) and British (Weber Shandwick) PR firms that had worked for BOCOG, but in fact the non-Chinese viewpoint that they provided to BOCOG was only one among many collected, and probably not the most influential – and in any case, BOCOG was not empowered to discuss “political” issues.

So the major reason that there was no master PR plan was due to the strict division of labor with regard to communications with the outside world, with only the organs under the Central Propaganda Department empowered to speak about “political” issues. While the sport, educational, and cultural systems were crafting their “cultural” messages, the Information Office was engaged in a completely independent effort to produce a television commercial for “China” at the end of 2007. The difficult eight-month birthing process of the “Olympic China National Image Ad” indicates that if Li Dongsheng were trying to develop more proactive communications with the outside world, he may have had his opponents. The ad had been approved at the start of 2007, but it was not finally pushed through until just before the end of the fiscal year. Pressure was exerted via a long article entitled “Raise China’s Face – Where is China’s National Image Ad?” (《扬起中国脸中国国家形象广告在哪里》)which appeared in November 2007 in Modern Advertising Magazine, a publication of the China Advertising Association of which Li was president. The article was written with the help of scholars at the Communication University of China and demonstrated the widespread support of the heads of China’s major advertising firms. One section, “Using the Opportunity of the Olympics to Build a National Image,” reviews the risk of negative media coverage but, like the other publications discussed, it does not develop a communication strategy for responding to it.

I was invited to be on the panel of academics that evaluated the bid presentations by eight of the top advertising agencies with offices in China. After leaving the hotel where we were sequestered, I never heard anything further about the project until the ad was shown on CNN and BBC on August 8, the day of the opening ceremony. I have still not seen it. Its release had been delayed from the original planned date of April because of the torch relay protests and the Sichuan earthquake disaster. Local reports on the internet make it seem that the project was not finally awarded to one of the advertising firms, but instead to a production team formed by the Information Office. It was also apparently cut to 30 seconds from the originally planned 90.

At the time, we were told that we were making history, because for the first time China was reaching out to the world to try to shape its image, rather than waiting for the world to come and understand it. Those involved in the process seemed to feel that it was an extremely important first step. In December 2007 the Information Office already expressed to me that it knew it was not effective in communicating a positive image of China to the world. It evidently felt it needed a new strategy for dealing with the human rights issue because in December 2008, it announced that together with the Foreign Ministry it was spearheading China’s first-ever “Action Plan on Human Rights,” which would be prepared for release in January by a panel including 50 institutions and NGOs. That this effort was spearheaded by the Information Office and Foreign Ministry, and not by the ministries and offices that actually control human rights, has led Western critics to describe it as a public relations ploy. However, another way of looking at it is that because they are the interface with the outside world, these organs are probably better versed on human rights debates than any others in China. Also, the Information Office’s close connection with the Central Propaganda Department is necessary in dealing with a very important ideological issue. The Chinese announcement states that it will not be just another white paper on human rights, but an actual action plan with benchmarks. A more optimistic interpretation of this measure might be that China’s international image is now being enlisted in a strategy to name and shame the other state organs into closer adherence to international human rights standards. I believe that the momentum for the action plan was strengthened by the difficult experiences surrounding the Beijing Olympics.


China Beat will be running a series of 2008 retrospectives over the coming weeks–pieces that both look back at events of the year (some well-trod ground, others largely unnoticed) as well as tying those earlier events into on-going trends and situations. In this piece, Jennifer Liu reflects on Taiwan’s 2008 Olympic experience, memories of which take on a different hue in light of Taiwan’s tumultuous autumn.

By Jennifer Liu

Olympic fever still hasn’t waned in China (especially in Beijing), but when I was living in Taiwan this summer, it seemed Olympic excitement had already run its course or maybe it never even took off. While China was gripped by Olympic fever, its “rogue province” took a much more detached attitude to the proceedings. According to Nielsen’s ratings, China, along with South Korea, had the highest rate of viewership for the Games – 94 percent of the total population watched some portion of the Olympics. Ratings in the U.S. were an impressive 69 percent. But in Taiwan, none of the cable channels even broadcast the Olympic Games – only the opening ceremony was shown. Furthermore, the single sport the Taiwanese seemed passionate about was their national one: baseball.

Baseball alone rallied Taiwanese crowds in similar ways to the Olympic excitement across the Straits. For Chinese Taipei’s first game against the Netherlands, the McDonald’s located on Xinsheng nanlu (across from National Taiwan University) provided patrons with a large screen showing the entire game. The fast food restaurant also gave each spectator (many of whom had eagerly lined up for hours outside before the game began) red thunder clappers and a free hamburger. At the Shinkong Mitsukoshi (新光三越) department store complex near Taipei 101, cheerleaders rallied the crowd. Some fans symbolically ate poached eggs (荷包蛋, hebaodan) – the Chinese word not only sounds like “Holland posting a zero,” but further implies it since an egg is shaped like a zero. The phrase was also a play on the notion that the Chinese Taipei team was going to “bomb” Holland, and indeed it did in a 5-0 victory.

Fans with blue thunder clappers watching the game between Taiwan and the Netherlands on a big screen in the Shinkong Mitsukoshi plaza

The next game was against Japan. I went to the same McDonald’s to watch (this time, no thunder clappers or free hamburgers), and unfortunately, the Chinese Taipei team suffered a crushing 1-6 defeat to the Japanese. Nonetheless, the Taiwanese were confident their team would win in the next day’s game against China. That wasn’t the case, and many were shocked and dejected when China, not known to excel in baseball, upstaged Chinese Taipei 8-7.

Fans watching the game between Taiwan and Japan at McDonald’s

Hidden beneath the baseball scores and unfortunate losses, however, was a strange turn of Olympic scheduling: Taiwan’s first three games were all against countries that have a share in the island’s complex history. The Dutch colonized Taiwan in the early seventeenth century until Zheng Chenggong (Koxinga) expelled them from the island in 1662. After a Chinese armada defeated Zheng’s grandson, the Qing dynasty annexed Taiwan and placed it under the jurisdiction of Fujian province. Following its defeat in the Sino-Japanese War, the Qing ceded Taiwan to Japan in 1895. After fifty years of Japanese colonization, Taiwan experienced a “glorious return” (光復) to China at the conclusion of World War II. However, some argue that when the Guomindang retreated to Taiwan and set up an authoritarian regime, its rule was also a form of colonization.

As Susan Brownell wrote about earlier this year at China Beat, sports have long been a form of communication between Taiwan and the mainland – the competition between the two entities has mainly been good-natured, yet sometimes fraught with tension. I wondered then what went through the minds of the Taiwanese, especially when their team was defeated by both Japan and China. On the one hand, although the Japanese colonized the Taiwanese and treated them as second-rate citizens, many of them still admire and imitate Japanese culture today (for instance, Taiwanese youth prefer to visit Japan over the U.S.). On the other hand, many Taiwanese resent China’s heavy hand, leading frequent mass protests on the streets against President Ma Yingjou for his “friendly” policies toward the mainland. When Ma allowed direct flights between China and Taiwan, the media reported negative stories of mainlander tourists who escaped from their tour group. One television report chastised seven mainlanders who went to Shilin Night Market, ordered one oyster pancake between them, then demanded seven chopsticks (providing a stereotypical example of how mainlanders are cheap).

This week Ma took another dramatic step in improving relations with China as a way of reviving Taiwan’s tepid economy, as well as building the island’s long-term security and fostering peace with the mainland. Starting on December 15, direct, regularly-scheduled passenger flights from Taiwan and China finally commenced (flights have been ongoing since July, but not daily – only tourist-group charters on weekends and holidays). Under the landmark agreements signed last month, the number of passenger flights was increased to a maximum of 108 per week, up from 36. Furthermore, the two sides launched the first direct postal and shipping links across the strait.

After the Guomindang retreated to the island, it gradually limited the flow of mail to the mainland before completely restricting communication in 1954. With the restoration of the “three links” – direct air, shipping, and postal – these connections end the tedious and costly practice of routing passengers, goods, and mail via a neutral port – usually Hong Kong or Macau. This breakthrough under Ma’s leadership occurs at the same time that Taiwanese prosecutors are indicting former President Chen Shui-bian and thirteen others, including his wife, son, and daughter-in-law, on graft charges and money laundering. Chen had been detained since November 12 on suspicion of corruption, but was released without bail on December 13 around 1:00am to prevent immediate commotion and protest. Taiwanese critics assert that the chief judge who released Chen is a closet DPP supporter because of his decision. Meanwhile, Chinese media are mum on the subject for fear of taking sides and facing accusations from the DPP that mainlanders favor the GMD. Nonetheless, Chinese are paying close attention to the trial, devoting large amounts of news coverage in hopes of using it as an example of how government corruption should be dealt with in their own country.

Thus, despite the “three links’” potentially increasing harmony between both sides, suspicions still remain. Likewise, even though observers deemed the Beijing Olympics a major success, no one has noticed that the Taiwanese consumed the Games with much less enthusiasm than mainlanders.

Jennifer Liu is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Irvine.


A Controversy over a Beijing Olympic Float for the 2008 Pasadena Rose Parade

By Hongmei Li

While the Tournament of Roses is busy preparing for the Pasadena Rose Parade on Jan. 1, 2009, it is interesting to revisit a controversy over a Beijing Olympic float for the 2008 parade for at least three reasons: (1) the controversy, largely provoked by FLG practitioners and other human rights groups, attracted huge media attention and the Pasadena city government and its human relations commission held several meetings to consider its position; (2) some analogies can be drawn between the controversy and the protests against the overseas leg of the Beijing Olympic torch relay; (3) the controversy also indicates the challenges that Beijing faces in general when it attempts to engage the American public in specific and the Western publics in general.

The Pasadena Sister Cities China Subcommittee initiated the idea of a Chinese Olympic float in 2004 as a form of cultural exchange. In 2004, Avery Dennison, a Pasadena-based company that has branches in China, expressed an interest in being a sponsor. There were sporadic meetings between Pasadena and Xicheng, which is a sister city of Pasadena, from 2004 to 2006. However, Xicheng was told by the Beijing City Municipality that it had “no right to enter an Olympic float.”

Sue Zhang, a prominent Chinese American community leader in Los Angeles became interested in the idea of a Chinese rose float and thus contacted officials in Beijing and talked with the mayor in Pasadena. She was connected with Avery Dennison through the Pasadena Sister Cities Committee and thus became an organizer of a Beijing Olympic-themed float. Ten Chinese Americans became sponsors, with each contributing 20,000 dollars and Avery Dennison contributed 200,000 dollars.

The ten Chinese Americans, most belonging to Beijing Association with Sue Zhang as the chair, then become a newly named organization called the Roundtable of Chinese American Associations in Southern California, On April 15, 2007, Sue Zhang announced at a press conference that a Beijing Olympic-themed Rose Float would appear in the 2008 Pasadena Rose Parade. The announcement was greatly applauded by the conference participants, most of whom were overseas Chinese community leaders and participants in Los Angeles. A Chinese cultural consul in Los Angeles stated that “having the float was a one-hundred year dream fulfilled” and it was “a proud achievement of all Chinese throughout the world.” Many participants at the conference claimed that the float symbolized how Chinese Americans had overcome ideological differences for the first time to accomplish a common goal.

At the beginning, the Olympic float was meant to be part of an overseas marketing plan for the Beijing Olympics. However, after the entry was announced officially, various human rights groups protested against it. Key protest groups include the Caltech FLG Club, Reporters Without Borders, the Visual Arts Guild, Amnesty International, the Conscience Foundation, the China Ministries international, the LA Friends of Tibet, Human Rights Watch, Justice for American Victims in China, New York Coalition for Darfur and the Burma human rights groups. FLG practitioners voiced their concerns first at a city council meeting on June 25, 2006 and were key players in the protest.

Human rights activists made a concerted effort in lobbying the city council members of Pasadena and voiced their concerns repeatedly at routine city council meetings. They spoke about their own suffering or suffering of their relatives or friends in China. Issues such as torturing, the imprisonment of FLG practitioners, journalists and Catholic ministers, police corruption and lack of media freedom were constantly voiced during the public comments sessions on the following days: June 25, July 16, July 23, July 30, Oct. 1, Oct. 8, Oct. 15, Oct. 22, Nov. 5, Nov. 19, Dec. 3, Dec. 10 and Dec. 17.

Mayor Bill Boggard was placed at the center of the controversy because of his active role in promoting the float. The Pasadena City government and city officials made various arrangements to have dialogues with human rights activists. The city council requested its human relations commission to draft a report regarding the float. Consequently, the commission held two special hearings: One meeting was devoted to receiving public comment, and one was devoted to formulating the final form of the report and recommendation. The city council had a special meeting on Oct. 29, which marked a shift in protesting strategies for activists. Prior to the meeting, human rights activists mainly pushed for the dropping of the float from the parade. The argued that the Chinese government was sponsoring the float; the float was about celebrating the Chinese government and thus validating its human rights abuses; the inclusion of the float would be embarrassing to Pasadena. Such rhetoric and request were similar to the reactions of human rights activists to the Beijing Olympic in general. Protesters used withered roses to symbolize shame that the Beijing Olympic float brought to the parade. (See image 1)

Human rights activists urging dropping the float, provided by Xiao Rong

Human rights activists also repeatedly linked the Beijing Olympics to the 1936 Games in Nazi Germany. They called the float “the float of shame,” “the propaganda float” and the “float of genocide.” They produced and circulated an image that transformed the float into a tank that featured a lonely person with a rose in hand trying to stop the tank, which resembled a well-known image about the Tiananmen Square Student Movement in 1989, where a lonely person was trying to stop a stream of tanks from advancing. This tank image was constantly circulated over the Internet as a symbol of brutality of the Chinese Communist regime and humanity of protesters. (See Image 2)

Float of Shame

At the same time, Reporters without borders, also set up a billboard at the intersection of Del Mar Avenue and Arroyo Parkway in early December featuring the Olympic five rings as handcuffs, suggesting that the Beijing Olympics represents tortures rather than human connections. Lau faxed this image to city council members and distributed this image. This powerful image was widely used in protests against the overseas leg of the Beijing Olympic torch relay. (See Image 3)

Five Rings as Handcuffs

On December 31, more than one hundred protesters gathered around the Orange Grove Boulevard close to the Tournament House. Some were local people and others came from Northern California and other places. They distributed flyers and set up banners exposing human rights abuses in China. Some drivers honked to show support. On January 1, 2008, when the Beijing Olympic float, featuring five mascots with the logo “one world one dream” rolled down through the Orange Grove, some protesters held the handcuff image aiming to shame Beijing in front of the world. Protesters also asked supporters to turn their backs to the Beijing Olympic float, but few spectators complied though. (See Image 4 and Image 5)

Beijing Olympic Float in Pasadena Rose Parade (AP/Reed Saxon)

(AP/Nick Ut)

The controversy was covered extensively by media such as Pasadena Star News, Pasadena Weekly, the LA Times, KPCC, the Associated Press, Voice of America, KTLA Channel 5, KABC Channel 7 and Chinese-language media. Pasadena Weekly also published letters from residents, most condemning China’s human rights records and viewing the US human rights policies toward China as too soft. Kenneth Todd Ruiz from Pasadena Star News and Joe Piasecki from Pasadena Weekly were staunch supporters for human rights activists.

For the float supporters, one of the most important strategy is to keep the float apolitical by delinking the Beijing Olympics in general and the float in specific from human rights issues in China. It must be pointed out that all city council members and officials, and officials from the Tournament of Roses, regardless of whether they supported the float, all expressed sympathy to human rights activists, condemnation of human rights abuses, and support for human rights improvement. The support can be seen in ongoing conversations between the city government of Pasadena and the human rights coalition about a possible pre-parade human rights torch relay and other arrangements. Even though the arrangement failed for various reasons, with each side telling a different story, sincere efforts to accommodate human rights activists indicate that human rights issues were of significant importance to officials in Pasadena.

There were several controversial points regarding the float. The first was whether the float was political, whether the inclusion of the float was a “validation of the government of China and all its activities such as human rights violations,” and whether such violations should be embarrassing to Pasadena. While protesters viewed the float as the right target, supporters argued that “the float is about celebrating the Olympics and it is consistent in the patter of the celebration tradition in the parade.”

The second point that led to disagreement was whether human rights should be a leading concern when the US deals with China. While some viewed as more desirable to have good relationship and share values, but for others, China is about human rights abuses and anything related to China is opportunity to reach out. It was really about engaging China or shaming China. For supporters of the float, the shame strategy was ineffective and they argued for a middle ground that let the float in and simultaneously showed concern to human rights issues. But for protesters, losing face for the Communist Government was an important strategy to get their message out. While supporters generally viewed that people should be patient with the government and that changes were not made overnight, protesters were extremely suspicious of the government and felt that some Chinese organizations were front organizations of the government.

The third point of disagreement was whether Pasadena had the jurisdiction and moral authority to address human rights issues in China. For many, it was the federal government that should address China’s human rights abuses and the role of local government is to take care of local issues, but for protesters and their supporters, Pasadena should express its stand in China’s human rights abuses. The Beijing Olympic float is complicated because it is a local float with international meanings. Pasadena was especially reluctant to address this issue for being afraid of opening up possibilities for other human rights groups to request Pasadena to deal with similar issues. Because many overseas Chinese were proud of the Beijing Olympics, Pasadena did not want to offend the large Chinese community in Los Angeles.

Understandably, float supporters expressed displeasure of the float being hijacked and they questioned why they did not pick up the Huntington Library where there is a Chinese Garden, or GE or even Wal-Mart that has large businesses in China. Protesters focused on the float because of the tremendous publicity the tournament of roses brings. The 119-year-old yearly parade is one of the most viewed events in the US. The 2008 parade was broadcast live by nine networks/stations and amounted to 14.7 U.S. national Nielsen rating points, or approximately 15.96 million households, with a total audience of approximately 40 million in the U.S. In addition, the Rose Parade was televised in 215 international territories.

The controversy also indicates that relatively small number of committed activists can be very powerful in setting the agenda and influencing international issues. While during the Olympic torch relay, Tibetans and their supporters were most active in posting Beijing, but FLG practitioners were active protesters against the Olympic float. Generally speaking, China’s dim international images, particularly the perception of China’s human rights records, can pose tremendous challenges for China when it engages with the international community. In my conversation with float supporters at the Pasadena city government and the China Sister Cities Committee about whether they would have done things differently if they had known the controversy, all of them expressed a hesitation and stated that they would think twice before any involvement.

One idea about human rights activists seeking overseas support. On the one hand, seeking overseas support can publicize their causes and give the Chinese regime more international pressure, but on the other hand, it gives the Chinese government more legitimacy to crack them down and it might further alienate many Chinese who do not necessarily support the Chinese government and nevertheless are concerned with China’s international images. Indeed, the overwhelming support for the overseas leg of the Beijing Olympic torch relay in April-May 2008 indicates that Chinese nationals or overseas Chinese can rally around the government when an idealized image of China is threatened. To a large extent, many Chinese nationals and overseas Chinese are still very sensitive to the issue of national dignity, largely because the national narrative of China’s one-hundred-year humiliation (bainian quru shi) is still resonant with many Chinese. Thus, the backing from any foreign government can backfire by provoking the image of foreign colonizers suppressing the Chinese people again.

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By Hongmei Li

In a piece I did for the Huffington Post on women and the Olympics, I provided a brief overview of the history of ideas about feminine beauty in China and their links to concepts of modernity. This post supplements it by looking at the shift in representations of women from celebrating iron girls to extolling Oriental beauties over the course of the still relatively short history of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

During the three decades that followed the 1949 founding of the PRC, one goal promoted in official discourse was that of erasing gender differences and promoting gender sameness.  This was linked to achieving a broader agenda: the elimination of class and socioeconomic differences.  The underlying assumption was that women and men had the same fundamental responsibility: serving collective units, above the nation.  The following are typical images of Chinese women during this period.

As you can see, women were dressed in the same androgynous way as men and they were portrayed as enthusiastically engaged in building a Socialist nation. Eroticism had no place in the official discourse. High-achieving “iron girls” (smiling soldiers, peasants and workers engaged in military, agricultural and production labor) were praised in the official discourse. These girls were said to be provided with a vast platform of sky and earth on which to achieve great things (guang kuo tiandi, da you suo wei).

Typical Images of Iron Girls during the Culture Revolution

In the last three decades, however, the image of Chinese women has dramatically shifted and women’s bodies have been closely associated with pleasure and the rise of consumer culture. In the 1980s, feminized women were said to represent progress and the iron girls were ridiculed. Numerous books and magazines have begun to stress “nu ren wei,” which can be literally translated as the taste of womanliness and that stresses gender differences and femininity. There has been an explosion of feminine and erotic images of women in Chinese TV programs, magazines, billboards and other media outlets. To be good looking is now often considered something that is important to becoming happy and achieving success in a career. Here are some images of two well-known Chinese actresses Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li, which clearly link women with consumer culture and fetishize particular parts of the female body.

Images of Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li as Symbols of Beautiful Consumer Culture

In Chinese gender discourse, one of the often heard issues is the production of the Oriental beauty in China, which can be clearly seen in the Beijing Olympic medal presenters. Approximately 380 Chinese women were selected to be Beijing Olympic medal ceremony presenters as medal tray carriers, flower presenters, and attendants for guests, officials and athletes: they must be aged between 18 and 25, with height between 5”6 and 5”10. And they must have a “regular appearance with standard proportion.” It was also reported that there were guiding criteria regarding applicants’ sizes of waists, breasts, and hips (sanwei). In their heavy training schedules, they were required to carry themselves and walk in a particular way so that they could represent the oriental beauty to the world. Chops were also used to produce the perfect smile, which was defined as the exposure of six to eight upper teeth.

An Image of Chinese Medal Presenters in a Training Session

The medal presenters for the Olympics aim to represent Chinese women as reserved, submissive and traditional in the finest sense. Ironically, these women are somehow similar to women waitresses and stewardesses. Often times, in job ads for waitresses and stewardesses, there are requirements about an applicant’s height and regular appearance (五官端正). Once selected, they are often trained for their smiles and postures.

While discriminatory hiring practices existed in the US, but they become subtler now. Employers often declare that no individuals will be discriminated against based on gender, race, nationality, or sexual orientations. In China, however, such discriminatory employing practices seem to be officially endorsed and become more explicit. Indeed, it was reported in 2004 female applicants for civil servants in Hunan Province were required to have balanced breasts, which caused a public outcry. While economic reforms give some women more opportunities in their career development, they also expand gender inequalities. Ironically, China could claim the most progressive gender policy in the past, its current gender discriminations in social, political, economic and cultural arenas mean that women are put in a worse situation than before. A common Chinese saying that summarizes an effort in vain states, “several decades’ hardship only leads to the pre-1949 China overnight” (辛辛苦苦几十年, 一夜回到解放前). Efforts need to be made in order to prevent such a retreat from happening.


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