China on display


Historians have been very interested in World’s Fairs, international exhibitions and such for a while now. This is in part because of Gellner and Anderson’s ideas about nationalism, and above all the idea of a nation as an imagined community. Looking at a country’s exhibit at some sort of international do is a quick and easy way to figure out what their imagined community is, or at least what the people responsible would like to claim that it is to an audience of foreigners.
We are in the run-up to one of these events now, the Beijing Olympics. Lots of people (including lots of people in the Chinese government) are aware that this will be China’s big moment of exposure, and they are trying to spin how China will be seen long before the first shot is put. China Rights Forum has a whole issue out on it on this which can be found on-line here I liked Chen Kuide’s essay where he hopes that the Beijing Olympics will end up like the Seoul Olympics, where international attention may have helped the democracy movement, rather than like the Hitler Olympics where the Olympic movement served to validate the power of one of history’s greatest monsters. Even more interesting was Xu Jilin’s essay The Making of a True Athletic Superpower Xu contrasts the current Olympics with what he saw in Vancouver in 2004.

Immediately upon my arrival in Vancouver, I was struck by the vast expanses of lush greenery throughout the city, all of which, I soon learned, are completely open to the public at no charge. From my Vancouver apartment, a 10-minute walk in any direction brings you to acres of verdant parkland. While the city’s parks are generally as quiet and still as the water of a secluded lake, they buzz with excitement on evenings and weekends. You can watch, or even join in, a game of soccer, football, Frisbee or baseball, as young boys and girls, dressed in vibrantly colored sporting outfits, hold their own “Olympics.” Just as at any other sporting event, the blast of the referee’s whistle rings sharply in your ears. Yet, unlike the situations to which we are accustomed in China, you can be sure that every call is the result of impartial judgment, rather than of bribes or pressure. The difference is that here competition is not the primary motivation; everyone just wants to relax and to take a break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
Apart from a few residential green areas designated for private use, most of these well-maintained parks are completely open to the general public. Anyone, whether rich or poor, can enjoy these spaces at no cost. Some of my fellow citizens may be surprised to learn that many of the same people who appear indifferent to the Olympics come out here every day to exercise and stay in shape: rowing boats, skiing, playing ball, swimming and jogging. While their country may be a minor player in the race for gold medals, Canadians’ incorporation of physical activity into their daily lives qualifies Canada as a true superpower in the field of athletics.
The situation in China is exactly the opposite. While we put on great airs of self-congratulation at the Olympic Games, athletics has come to play an increasingly minor role in the average citizen’s daily life. Let’s not even delve into the problems in the countryside. Suffice it to say that one is unlikely to find so much as a Ping-Pong table or a basketball hoop in the impoverished mountain villages stretching across our rural hinterland. Yet, even in wealthier urban regions such as Shanghai, Beijing or Guangzhou, where can the average citizen go to play a game of ball or to run a few laps? Virtually none of China’s so-called public athletic facilities are open free-of-charge to the taxpayers who fund them. Once schools go on break, their gates are locked tight. There is little hope that nearby residents will be able to use the facilities, since even students need to navigate a bureaucratic minefield to use the facility during summer vacation. Within residential areas, community centers and clubs offer comprehensive athletic facilities, but all are purely profit-driven, requiring residents to pay for memberships in addition to a monthly facility maintenance fee.
As China’s cities grow increasingly congested, parks continue to be eaten up by developers, and the air grows thick with toxic car exhaust. These trends create an environment that is far from amenable to the individual pursuit of athletics. It is one of the great ironies of our era that in expansive metropolitan areas, stretching as far as the eye can see, it is nearly impossible to find a place to jog.

First, this sounds very much like Liang Qichao’s writings on American parks in the early 20th century. Liang was also taken by parks as place of refuge from the bustle of everyday life. Liang described New York’s Central Park like this.

New York’s Central Park extends from 71st Street to 123 Street, with an area about equal to the International Settlement and French Concession in Shanghai. Especially on days of rest it is crowded with carriages and people jostling together. The park is in the middle of the city. If it were changed into a commercial area, the land would sell for three or four times the revenue of the Chinese government. From the Chinese point of view this may be called throwing away money on useless land and regrettable. ….Writers on city administration all agree that for a busy metropolis not to have appropriate parks is harmful to public health and morals. Now that I have come to New York, I am convinced. One day without going to the park leaves me muddled in mind and spirit.1

Liang, like his mentor Kang Youwei, was very interesting in finding and importing to China the universal principles of Western Civilization, beyond just ships and guns. In Kang’s case this led to a really weird sort of Buddhist/Neo-Confucian vision of world harmony. For Liang it tended to focus on “renovating the people” and parks and appropriate recreation were part of this. Xu Jilin places more emphasis on athletics than Liang Qichao did,2 but many of the other authors in the issue emphasize the divide between the Olympics as symbol of a physically healthy China and world and the reality that bigtime sports at best does nothing for the health of the people and at worst degrade it. (anyone familiar with the role of athletics in American universities will find this familiar.)

The official slogan of this Olympics is “One World One Dream” which a lot of the China Rights Forum writers take pretty seriously. As a post-everything American it is easy for me to look at this slogan cynically and assume that it is equal parts an attempt to come up with a bit of meaningless fluff (think university mission statements) or a marketing slogan that will not contrast too much with “Just Do It.” Some Chinese really do seem to think that are being left out of the new globalism,  however, and that the Olympics are a symbol of this. I am reluctant to take blog posts or comments as an indication of anything, but China Rights Forum lifts some comments from here

I live like a beast of burden (我象牲口一样的活者). The gold medal has nothing to do with me…… Our athletes struggle for gold medals; the athletes of foreign countries participate for the Olympic Spirit.

We will no doubt hear a lot about the wonders of China that are being presented to the world thanks to the Olympics, but my guess is that what foreigners will see will be be equal parts Potemkin village and really embarrassing to “China.” There is talk of postponing some events (those that require athletes to breath?) until air quality in Beijing improves. I can just imagine the Olympic torchbearer, symbol of international harmony3 collapsing on the podium due to the shitty Chinese air. What will be really interesting is to see if writers like Xu can convince people in China that the Olympics symbolize the disconnect between China’s improvement and their improvement, and that they ought to do something about it.

  1. translation from Ebrey Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook 

  2. given the limited role of physical culture in Confucian elite culture and the importance of fitness in modern concepts of health this is not surprising 

  3. and sneaker contracts 

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