History Hangs Over the Olympic Games

The long love-hate relationship between China and the West adds to the Olympics drama
Tomasz Walenta

For many weeks this spring it looked as though the Beijing Olympics—set to open Aug. 8 under the ubiquitous banner "One World, One Dream"—would come off as something closer to a fractious nightmare. Western support for the demonstrators in Tibet and China's inevitable backlash set the stage for a confrontation that would ruin the Games.

For now, at least, disaster seems to have been averted. There is still patriotic huffing and puffing on China's Internet; there are still calls to boycott companies ranging from Nokia (NOK) to KFC (YUM)—allegedly for being too slow and too cheap in donating to earthquake relief in Sichuan. But the nationalistic shouting is less shrill, in part because Beijing has started to dampen it in the pages of People's Daily. Twenty million Chinese vowed to boycott French retailers like Carrefour in retaliation for pro-Tibet protests during the torch relay in France. Two months later the French are still operating in China. Perhaps most important, among Westerners, the earthquake has altered the narrative: China the insensitive human rights offender is now China the compassionate caregiver to millions.

But even if the Games unfold without a major hitch, both China and the West still have to deal with their mutual blind spots. The recent flip-flop in Western attitudes toward China is only the latest in a long love-hate syndrome. Yet more dramatic, not to say irrational, was the swoon of sinophilia that Americans fell into after the Nixon-Kissinger opening—this, mind you, when the wounds of the Cultural Revolution were still raw. Equally, China can pretend all it wants that it has outgrown its past, but the injuries of history will be a prominent subtext in Beijing this summer. "Americans, in particular, tend to forget history," says Lee Ou-Fan, a humanities professor and acute observer of the mainland at Chinese University of Hong Kong. "But the Chinese have a latent rage and resentment that derives from history, though most cannot articulate it rationally."

Beyond the echo chamber of a complex past, Western attitudes this spring have left the Chinese genuinely baffled. Many Chinese were flummoxed when Hollywood director Steven Spielberg cited China's ties with Sudan as he withdrew as adviser to the Games. How did those Westerners manage to connect our Olympics with Darfur? wondered mainlanders. As to Tibet, most Chinese consider the sovereignty question far less important than the roads, hospitals, and miles of train track Beijing has given Tibetans. Again, the commonly posed question in China was what protests in the Himalayas had to do with the Games going well.

Soon enough, though, Chinese perplexity turned to anger, and unfortunate habits reemerged. You have to go back to the Opium Wars to understand how readily the Chinese assume they are the victims of foreign machinations. When a disabled Chinese runner was roughed up during the Olympic torch relay in Paris, many mainlanders were convinced the West was intent on spoiling their moment of glory. The subsequent boycott of Carrefour has to go into the file with the Boxer Rebellion. In both we find the desire to avenge the hurts inflicted by predatory Westerners.

Once China's Internet cranked up and the blogs were clogged with patriotic posturing, the line of logic was again straight out of the 19th century. China's correctness and the wrongs of foreigners became the only grounds for discussion, and the threat of a truly ugly Olympics became real enough to rattle even the leadership in Beijing. "This sort of irrationality in the name of patriotism is the way Chinese are taught to think," says Yuan Weishi, a prominent historian at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou. "This is our inheritance, and it is still very much with us."

What we will see on our televisions as we watch the high jumps and distance runners this summer is a China supremely confident in some respects and in others lacking all certainty. The Sichuan quake relief effort demonstrated Beijing's ability to manage the mechanics of a huge event: Administratively the Games are likely to go well enough. But just under the surface will lie a fragile nation that is profoundly defensive about its standing in the world and—may it not come to pass—prepared to erupt again at the merest hint of a foreigner's slight.

In the end, you have to ask whether the Olympics were ever meant to carry the load Beijing has piled upon them. Some Chinese intellectuals even compare these Olympics with the 1936 Berlin Games. No one suggests China is pushing a fascist agenda. But the fervent nationalism of 2008 distinctly echoes the spirit of 1936. The Games tell us a lot about China, but China, in turn, seems to be telling us something about the Games.

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