SCMP Tuesday, July 10, 2001

Change, not sport will win respect


In nearly every nation, winning in an international competition stirs nationalist feelings of pride among people. However, in China, which is haunted by a strong sense of insecurity from its humiliating colonial past, the leadership, well aware of this truism, manipulates and exploits to the extreme the public's nationalistic sentiments through sports.
As a child growing up on the mainland, I was told repeatedly in my Chinese history class about how the nation had gone through nearly a century of brutal oppression. China, said my teacher, was perceived by the West as "the sick man of Asia", and extremely inept at sports. At an early age, I always dreamed that I could possess some magic power and excel in some type of sport. In this way, I could gain credit and face for my great motherland, and thus avenge the injustices of the past.
When the first Chinese athlete won the World Table Tennis Championship in the 1950s, he was treated the same way as Americans treated Neil Armstrong after he stepped onto the moon. The footage of the table-tennis player returning to China with the gold medals was played so often on national TV that it has become etched on the national psyche. The Chinese Government saw the gold medal as the first step for China to challenge the Western economic and political blockade and gain international acceptance.
Since then, the Government has invested heavily in training the best athletes to win atinternational sports. Even while the Cultural Revolution was bringing China to the verge of economic bankruptcy in the 1960s, training athletes at a very early age for international competition never ceased.
Domestically, the Government takes advantage of the public's passion for sports to rally support for the Chinese leadership. In 1981, the whole country went wild as the Chinese women's volleyball team snatched the gold medal during the World Championship. The event came at a time when China had just awakened from the nightmares of Mao's era. Ordinary people were angry to find out that their socialist country lagged far behind the West in economic development, and they started to lose their faith in the Communist Party. The Government immediately launched a campaign to urge the whole country to learn from the women's volleyball team, and "turn their patriotism to the support of the Communist Party's reform policy". I remember during the national college entrance exam that year, volleyball and being patriotic was the compulsory topic for my Chinese writing test.
In recent years, as China has emerged as an important player in the international political and economic arena, the Chinese Government, still suffering fromsevere insecurity, sees winning the Olympic bid as a confidence booster. To the leadership, gaining the largest number of gold medals or being able to host the Olympic Games has become a status symbol, raising China to the same level as the United States and European countries. More importantly, it shows that China has officially ended the international isolation that followed the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. That explains why Beijing is so overzealous and aggressive in its Olympic pitch.
However, as much as I hope China's wish can be granted, I believe that overloading the bid with a heavy dose of nationalism and political symbolism can be dangerous. By stirring up the public's patriotic feelings to a frenzy over the Olympic bid, the Government plans to distract people's attention from the problems of rampant corruption, a rising unemployment rate and a lack of confidence in the Communist Party. In the scenario that China loses the bid, the government-controlled media will direct the blame onto the United States and Western countries and once again incite anti-Western sentiments. With an almost paranoid mentality that the whole world is against them over their Olympic bid, the Chinese Government will be more militarily aggressive and refuse to co-operate with the West on such important issues as nuclear non-proliferation and regional peace.
A sporting event cannot gain China the recognition and respect it so desperately craves. If the Government stops its repression of political dissent, starts to respect the rights of its citizens and works to improve social and economic conditions, the international community will welcome China with open arms, even if the Olympics Games is held somewhere else.
China will also be under closer scrutiny if it wins the bid. No matter how beautiful the city looks and how advanced the stadiums are, athletes and reporters from the free world will not ignore how the Government treats its own people. In that case, hosting the Olympic Games could further tarnish its image, rather than saving its face.
Wen Huang is a Chicago-based writer and former staff member of 'The New York Times' Beijing bureau.