China and the West revisited

Calls for boycotts only deepen the Chinese public's traditional suspicion of foreigners.

olympics chinese flag (photo credit: )
olympics chinese flag
(photo credit: )
The politics surrounding Beijing's hosting the Olympic Games have exposed two interrelated phenomena: the wounds and self-consciousness of the Chinese, and the extent to which the West misunderstands them. But they also represent a significant opportunity to better understand a country that will play a more influential role this century than previously. For several thousand years, China existed as a regional hegemony. Its soft power extended to the far reaches of East Asia, and its riches drew bold explorers from the West. China's very name - the "Middle Kingdom" - indicates it has long viewed itself as a leader, and was indeed long regarded as such. Yet by the middle of the 19th century, China had become a vastly different place. Foreign invasions and occupations devastated China's national pride. The most traumatic of these were the British Opium Wars of the 1860s and Japan's brutal occupation prior and during World War II. For a nation that had traditionally dominated its region, the slicing and dicing of the homeland by foreigners constituted a profound humiliation from which the Chinese are still recovering. The years following the war saw a beleaguered China emerge unified, thanks to Mao Zedong. While his rise to power and solidification of communist rule featured extraordinary brutality - including the political persecution of hundreds of thousands - Mao ushered in a period of massive transformation and an invigoration of Chinese national pride. His exclamation on independence in 1949 that "the Chinese people are back on their feet" still reverberates in China. Like Russia's current image of Stalin, the Chinese (many of whom did not live under Mao) see his legacy as the man who unified China against all odds and reclaimed its dignity. Such is the power of a national symbol in China. For the Chinese, Beijing's hosting of the Olympics is yet another national symbol, a step in reclaiming the national pride stripped away 150 years ago. In this regard, the discourse headed by prominent Western leaders such as Angela Merkel of Germany and Gordon Brown of the UK prior to the Games on targeting the opening ceremony for boycott is indicative of how misunderstood China is, and the extent to which such threats could backfire. CRITICS RIGHTFULLY point out China's myriad political shortcomings and problems. China's violence toward the Tibetan minority and its own citizens, its support of Sudan's genocidal regime, and its harmful environmental policies are surely unacceptable. We must demand of China that it assume the role of global leadership more responsibly. Nevertheless, the attempt to bully it into changing its policies through a symbolic Olympic boycott only exacerbated these problems. The core of the problem is a failure to adequately distinguish between the policies and shortcomings of the Chinese government and the views and aspirations of the Chinese people. The threat of an Olympic boycott embarrassed the latter, while doing little to sway the behavior of the former. Despite China's rapid ascendancy, we must remember that the Chinese people are deeply suspicious of the intentions of foreigners; at the same time, they desperately wish to be included in the global community. Calls for boycotts and other forms of delegitimization, rather than encouraging China to change, have deepened these public feelings of suspicion. Overall, they have made it less likely China will respond positively to the goading of Western democratic powers. Even those Chinese who oppose the policies of the Communist Party of China have rallied around it when they felt their national identity under attack. Continued threats to delegitimize China will push the Chinese people further into this defensive posture. If we truly want to positively impact China, our engagement has to be constructive and carefully weighed. Gradual engagement, rather than rhetoric of shaming China, should be our modus operandi, if we wish to avoid alienating the Chinese people. After all, it is the will of the Chinese people, rather than any one particular policy of the communist party, that represents the best long-term hope of greater democratization and political freedom taking hold. PAYING HOMAGE to China's rich history and culture at the Olympics is a good starting point. This should be concomitant, though, with calls on China to improve itself on various issues. Criticism must be aimed squarely at the CCP while keeping China's national pride intact, as US President George W. Bush wisely chose to administer in Bangkok on his way to the opening ceremony. Western governments should enrich relations between the Chinese community and their own by means of cultural exchange and cooperative projects. The message needs to be unequivocal: We respect China and celebrate its culture, but demand responsibility on China's part. Mismanagement of foreign policy, including decisions by Western leaders to pursue delegitimizing actions such as cultural boycotts, will create greater distrust bereft of constructive policy impact. The writer is a graduate of the departments of international relations and East Asian studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, specializing in Chinese studies.