Taipei Times: Monday, May 12, 2008, Page 8
Is there a method to Beijing’s madness regarding the Olympics? Obviously there is. But if the objective is to make China look good, its ruling oligarchy is going the wrong way.They found themselves wrong-footed when the Olympic torch relay became entangled with the Tibetan human-rights issue. All their heaving and weaving about the unrest in Tibet failed to convince audiences abroad that it was the work of the Dalai Lama clique involving some wayward monks.
All this talk of cultural genocide in Tibet, Beijing believes, is a canard fostered by the Dalai clique to defame China and split it from the “motherland,” a heinous crime by enemies of the country. It was an overkill, figuratively and literally speaking, by a regime used to this sort of talk.
Having been caught on the defensive, Beijing decided to go on the offensive.
It is sheer madness to elevate the Olympic torch relay into an issue of monumental importance to China as if the country’s future depended on it.
China had hoped to formally inaugurate its new status as a superpower through the Olympic extravaganza, choreographed in Beijing with other countries cast in a supporting role. It would be the international acknowledgement of China’s new power, with heads of states making a beeline to pay homage to the star of the 21st century.
But the pesky Tibetans have upset China’s carefully choreographed Olympic drama.
And any talks with the Dalai Lama’s representatives will be a diversionary tactic to drag on until the Olympics are over.
What is the method in this madness? First, it is enabling the regime to mobilize Chinese people behind the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on a highly-charged issue of national honor of hosting the Olympics — a sort of coming of age party for China as a great and respected power.
By promoting, projecting and upholding the national honor against hostile international elements (particularly in the West), the CCP and the nation become indistinguishable. In other words, the party is the nation and vice versa.
Any voice of dissent and moderation in China is thus silenced. And the regime finds itself suddenly enjoying a level of legitimacy. And, temporarily, people forget all its sins of omission and commission.
Such madness of rallying people against a highly charged symbol of national honor is dangerous. Adolf Hitler did it in 1936, enveloping Germany in an orgy of self-congratulation. And we know what eventually happened there when nationalism developed into chauvinism leading to World War II.
It is not suggested that China is necessarily going that way, but to stress the extreme danger of stoking nationalism that might easily get out of hand.
The danger is not from the Olympics, but from its misuse as the symbol of national honor and glory.
One sincerely hopes that China’s leaders are aware of the dangerous game they are playing with nationalism. For instance, such overtly visible use of its paramilitary blue tracksuits-wearing contingent to provide security for the Olympics flame simply aggravated the situation in London and Paris, leading to the charge that they were acting like “thugs.”
And in Australia, during the Olympic torch relay in Canberra, the Chinese embassy reportedly was involved in putting together a show of support by about 10,000 Chinese in Australia who descended on Canberra in buses from Sydney and Melbourne.
They went about intimidating, screaming and jostling anyone seen as a Tibetan supporter. A headline in the Australian newspaper described it as: “Chinese students bully torch crowds.”
A Sydney Morning Herald reporter said: “It was intimidating to look into the screaming faces of Chinese supporters who held flags out of passing car windows and screamed ‘One China’ to Tibetans.”
One Australian woman was quoted as saying that, “It’s pretty insulting that Australians in their own country need riot police to protect them from foreign nationals.”
And the irony of China supporters exercising their right of free speech and peaceful protest (even when it was not so peaceful) in Australia was not lost on observers and commentators, aware of the fate of the protesters in Tibet or, for that matter, the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre.
A cartoon in the Australian was biting in its double-edged irony. It shows a Free Tibet supporter forcefully telling a China supporter: “You’d be shot in China for demonstrating there.” The China supporter equally forcefully responds: “I’d be shot in China for not demonstrating here.”
Even more objectionable was the cavalier way in which the Chinese authorities sought to override Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s public declaration that China’s track-suited paramilitaries would not have any security role during the Canberra torch relay.
Rudd’s pledge to uphold Australian law in providing security for the torch was contested by China till the end.
The point of recapitulating the Olympic torch relay through Canberra is to highlight Beijing’s highhandedness and arrogance even when the international event involved, the Olympics, is simply a celebration of international sport.
Imagine China’s volatile reaction if it were an event involving some territorial issue, with Beijing regarding it as an infringement or violation of its sovereignty. And imagine further the sort of national mobilization Beijing might bring about with unpredictable consequences.
Sure, there is a method to China’s madness regarding the national hysteria over the torch, with the Western world seen as indulging the Dalai Lama’s “nefarious” activities. It has given the regime a certain level of legitimacy as the upholder of China’s national interests.But it is a dangerous game the CCP is playing. To maintain and sustain such legitimacy, it will be required to produce concrete results to satisfy enhanced national expectations all around.
And that is a Herculean job which even the CCP might not be able to deliver. In the meantime, the world waits with baited breath to see where China’s ultra nationalism will take it.
Sushil Seth is a writer based in Australia.