2008 Beijing Olympic Games

Politics, Beijing and the Olympic Games

Athlete and anthropologist

Dr Susan Brownell is an American anthropologist who first came to China in 1985 to study at Bei Da or Peking University. In 1986, she competed in China's second national college games, setting a national record for the heptathlon and winning medals for Peking University. Since then, Dr Brownell has devoted much of her research to sports in China and their connection with politics, culture and society.

Daniel Beekman of The Seattle Times has posted an interview with Dr Brownell on his blog. It is an interesting look at the effects of the Olympics on Beijing from someone who has been studying sports in China for decades.

It's worth reading the whole thing, but here are two excerpts that should be required preparation in the editorial offices and news rooms of Western news organizations before they haul out the clichés about repressive regimes for their Olympic stories:

What is the relationship between the 2008 Olympics and Chinese politics?

In general, I think the outside world doesn't realize that the 2008 Olympics are being used to press China's government to do things for the Chinese people. Change usually occurs slowly here, but the Games have sped Beijing's political process up. There has been a huge push to clean up the city, for example.

There is a lot of inertia in Chinese government. A big reason for that is China's enormous population. The country is so big - it takes a lot of effort to accomplish anything. And the nature of Chinese politics contributes to that inertia as well. In Beijing, government consists entirely of guanxi wang ('webs of personal relations'). When you do something, as an official, you must consider how that something will affect everyone connected to you and everyone connected to them - ad infinitum. So political actions are like stones dropped into ponds. They send ripples moving outwards. No one particularly wants to make waves, and so only very slowly do things normally get done.

Consequently, Chinese leaders have, for decades now, used big events to accelerate change and get things accomplished. This is not just true for the 2008 Olympics - it's been done for years and years. Foreign reporters keep making a big deal of Beijing's Olympics-related politeness and anti-spitting campaigns. But those campaigns are decades old. They were certainly around in the 1980s. I was here right before the United Nations' Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 and at that time Beijing was doing similar things - there were campaigns to improve the politeness of taxi drivers, to curb spitting and to improve public health and hygiene. Just before the 1990 Asian Games, disposable chopsticks were finally adopted citywide in Beijing restaurants. In China, events are often agents for change. It's just that the Olympics are bigger...

Chinese anti-spitting campaign from the 1950s

What is one crucial misconception held by most Americans when it comes to the 2008 Olympics, Beijing and China?

The stereotype Americans have is that China is a dictatorship - that Chinese leaders don't have a lot of popular support and are therefore using the Olympic Games to legitimize themselves. None of that is true. It's not a dictatorship - it's a pretty well-run, open society. In some ways, the Chinese are more open than we are in the West. China's government has a lot of popular support. I think that Chinese people believe in government more than we do in the U.S. The government's primary goal here is not to legitimize itself. I think it is trying to shape the next generation of Chinese people to be international - which will benefit China economically and politically.

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There are currently 28 Comments for Politics, Beijing and the Olympic Games.

Comments on Politics, Beijing and the Olympic Games

"It's not a dictatorship - it's a pretty well-run, open society. In some ways, the Chinese are more open than we are in the West. China's government has a lot of popular support. I think that Chinese people believe in government more than we do in the U.S."

This comment alone makes me seriously wonder about her being able to actually see reality. I have no doubt this person is a genius in sports and anthropolgy but I really, really wonder if she's become an actual part of the "guanxi wang", building up her credentials as a sycophantic Fulbright "researcher" and making comments like the above one to further ingratiate herself with the powers that be.

I'm sure she gets the super VIP treatment in China whenever she visits. Not to mention she herself is a "princeling" of sorts, and that alone makes the Chinese respect you more than others.

Ask every Chinese person that has tried the petition system and dodging local authorities to even try to get to the train station in Beijing what they think of popular government support.

I agree with Hunxuer in part but I don't want to criticize Dr. Brownell's motives. I think if she had taken a detour starting at "The stereotype Americans have is that China is a dictatorship" and then adding that China is not a 1984-style (or even Stalinist ala North Korea) dictatorship, her comments would be closer to reality.

As for China being "more open" than Western countries, erm, did the Danwei interviewer press her to explain that one? Did she mean political openness, social openness? I really have no idea from the interview posted.

Hunxuer: Please note that I excerpted two comments that were part of a larger interview. Please do not judge Dr Brownell without reading the rest of the interview for context.

Ah, I skimmed through the front material too quickly, Danwei didn't interview her, my bad.

Are you kidding me? Dr. Susan Brownell mentions in her interview: "When the western press comes and criticizes China on human rights or Tibet, the Chinese become angry. From their perspective, a big party is not the occasion to express those kinds of feelings."

Has she seen that it is the Tibetans who criticize China? That the CCP clamps down on Tibetan Buddhism as we speak? That Hu Jia, Zeng Jinyan, and other Chinese human rights activists are being incarcerated or held under house arrest, in order to guarantee "harmonious" games -- while she gives her policitally correct interviews.

She's right, "guests are also supposed to express respect to their host." But respect needs to be earned.

The Olympic Games as a "big party"? For her, maybe. But regurgitating the party view won't convince me. Or free my friends.

I was told by a university lecturer that the reason Chinese ppl spit so much is because the early Christian Missionaries told those ppl to spit in order to get rid of germs!and it's like a tradiontion passing on from one genaration to generation.

Of course, we now realise that is just spreading germs - but the habit persists.personally,i dont know spit at all,since i cant do that action and i believe is very rude and disgusting.

Chinese Government is spending alot of money on education campaigns in China ahead of the Olympics.i believe that when u walk on the road,u may once notice loads of posters on the streets to educate that spitting is considered rude and impolite to others,but it just seemed useless.ppl sometimes tend to be ignorant toward those signs or logans.

some of my fris once joked on this,this action is just like making territories for themselves,u know,like the dog pissing near one pole to mark its own...just joking

anyway,we can still hope for a slightly change on this,be4 the olympic games.one can bring a tissue in the pocket,or just bring a bag of handkerchief,see,it's easy.

ps,i dont no whether it's common,some of my foreign fris like burping in the public without saying excuse or sth.is it the same case as most chinese ppl like spitting,just curious.

Jeremy, I did go out of my way to read the interview before commenting (resisting urges to go off on her) but didn't feel "out of place" saying what I did, in the end.


Dr. Brownell has internalized a lot of the Party's cleverest propaganda. Her interpretation of the poor Communists suffering at the hands of the corrupt KMT is laughable. There were no good guys in that war. Any foreigner who earnestly mentions "Liberation" has clearly drunk the Kool-Aid.

My other favorite bit is about how the Beijing people don't feel much personal involvement with the Games. She must not have gotten a chance to speak with anyone whose house was bulldozed to make way.

Hers is a classic example of an academic cozying up to The Powers That Be. Doesn't matter if it's China, the U.S. or anywhere else. When you do that, you are trading objectivity for access. Whether the sacrifice is worth it is for you (and your readers) to decide.

Hunxuer & Pete Braden: I couldn't agree more. Seems like Dr. Brownell is too "embedded" to see what's happening on the ground.

In addition to what I said above, I would also contest her assertion that "events are often agents for change." *People*, not events, are agents for change.

Dr. Brownell wears structural blinders, and it's almost funny to see how she fell for the most obvious propaganda. Given her example (and she's not alone), I'm not very optimistic about the Olympics being an agent for change. Most of the "parachute experts" and journalists descending for a short stint in China just for the Olympics will step in her footsteps.

It is probably nothing Dr. Brownell is doing deliberately, but as an anthropologist I would expect her to realize that VIP access (to the games and game organizers) usually comes at a price. A price that is too high!

what kneejerk reactions! you people are just proving her point: that foreign media (and some foreigners like you) oversimplify the political situation in china.

@Big Silly Cat
Thanks for the vote of confidence.


What are you talking about? It's not OK for someone like me who has lived here for years, speaks the language and has many Chinese friends (none of them high in the Party) to speak openly and sometimes critically about China?

Unlike Dr. Brownell, I have no vested interest in flattering the Party. I appreciate the warmth of my friends and the depth of Chinese culture. But I draw a bright shining line between the China I love and the policies and conditions that need improvement.

With her simpering banalities, Dr. Brownell is actively working against reform and positive change. She makes it easy for the international community to assure itself that "Well, things in China seem to be on the right track. Let's get back to business. There's a boatload of plastic toys in Ningbo I can sell back home for big bucks."

Exactly, anybody who does not share the anti-CCP, anti-Chinese government sentiment vehemently emrbaced by people in the west (including many western "expats" in China) must be working with the evil Chinese government to spread its propaganda.

Of course no Chinese would think highly of the Chinese government. Every Chinese says "Down with China! Long live the west!!!!!!!!!!!!111"

yeah right!


Who is oversimplifying here? Has anyone here said anything about "Down with China?" You are fighting a straw man.

Thinking critically is fun. Try it sometime.

are full of passionate intensity, the best lack all conviction

Brownwell writes: "There has been a huge push to clean up the city, for example."

"Clean up the City' - What a fine euphemism for, well, pretty much anything and everything.

and helen accuses anti-chinese rhetoric of simplification?

Good to see that an emotive topic is generating the usual civilized debate. Two points:

First, I think Dr. Brownell sounds like a China apologist. This is not because she won't concede that the Chinese government is a dictatorship. The Chinese government is not a dictatorship by most reasonable definitions (although it was one quite recently). It is, however, extremely authoritarian. This is an important distinction that has a great deal to do with why modern China works the way it works.

The reason why I think she sounds like an apologist is that she doesn't seem interested in making those distinctions herself, or in questioning the way China works. To reject the idea of China as dictatorship need not be the same as endorsing its system of government. It would be interesting to hear her acknowledge the reasons why foreigners' perceptions of the Chinese government are what they are.

Second, sounding like an apologist doesn't make her wrong (or even actually an apologist -- one interview is a pretty thin basis for a character judgment). I think her analysis of how the Olympics is perceived in China and it's relevance to and impact on the country is correct and insightful regardless of her political inclinations.

Anyone dealing with Olympic related communications or issues in China would do well to read the interview. Dismissing her ideas because she's insufficiently critical of the Chinese government is silly.

@ Will: I don't think most people in this thread actually would dismiss all of Dr. Brownell's ideas just because she's insufficiently critical of the Chinese government (which I think, she is).

To speak for myself, I'm commenting in order to point out my view about which parts of her statements deserve critical re-evaluation.

Bringing these specifics up for discussion has nothing to do with her sounding like a China apologist (I agree with you, she does). It has to do with the existence of alternative ways of seeing these specific issues.

Dr. Brownell may be more careful in her academic work than she's been in that interview, but then, an interview that portrays her as a "China expert" may be read by many people, and should thus, for balance, be supplemented by critical comments.

In this rare case we have the chance to do so, but most print media don't provide the possibility to leave behind comments -- and innocent readers who have no experience living in China have no chance to see the existence of alternative views. Those readers may think that everything is fine with China, there are no human rights issues, no problems with Tibetans, Xinjiangese, and other minorities, the environmental problems are getting better all the time (instead of worse), you name it.

I for one don't see her analysis of how the Olympics are perceived in China as correct. My own experiences and things I read (in Chinese), online and offline, do not corroborate her statements. Maybe we just have completely different access to Chinese society, but from my point of view she couldn't be more wrong. Ask any taxi driver in Beijing and he tells you what he thinks of the Olympics.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to simplify anything. Simplifications are just short cuts of thinking. And thus, never a good idea.

Shanghai Roller,

Huh? Since everyone seems to be so critical of the Chinese government, I'd like to challenge you or anybody else to the task of running China. It is not that easy.

Sure there are a lot of areas where the Chinese government can improve on. But the overall negative anti-Chinese government, anti-CCP sentiment fails to appreciate what helluva job it has done. Joe McCarthy would have been very happy to see what you are doing.

I've asked a few taxi drivers, they seemed to be pretty indifferent about it. Whatever happens, life will go on, for better or worse.

It's frustrating to hear from an observer supposedly familiar with this society the same two basic premises of most arguments thrown up by the Chinese, 1) foreigners just don't undertand China and 2) there's just too many Chinese.

Yeah, right, foreigners just don't "get it" and so everything is excusable or there's so many Chinese it's just otherwise impossible.

Also, Chinese did not learn spitting from Christian missionaries; spittoons have been used in China at least since the Western Han, that is spittoons 唾壺 or 唾器 and not wide-mouthed residue jars 渣斗 used for holding bones at the dinner table.


More to the point, Chinese in the 19th and early 20th century internalized missionary criticism of acts such as spitting as part of their definition of modernity, part of a larger discourse among Chinese intellectuals and reformers that equated regulation of bodily functions with higher levels of civilization.

Particularly humorous is Sun Yat-sen's obsession with flatulence.


More to the point, Western missionaries were not responsible for the custom of spitting amongst the Chinese and the legions of mainland Chinese cadres and city officials now coursing through Singapore every three months are told that such acts as indiscriminate spitting in public are third-world practices that must be eradicated, which remains part of Singapore's definition of modernity which the mainland Chinese are learning, along with loo-flushing and prohibitions against gum-chewing.

I also can't resist countering your preaching by noting you probably didn't know the difference in Chinese between a spittoon (cuspidor if you will) and a residue jar.

I take full responsibility for the post above, not intending to comment as Anonymous.


Scott, smart as you are, Singapore does not prohibit gum chewing. why you can even buy gum in Singapore. And people do spit in the (mer)lion state; admittedly much rarer than in china but it still happens, modernity or not.

Just like my supposed smartness, did at one time but no longer.

Why the original prohibition? Because someone's spit gum literally gummed up the subwaystop door and so the system jammed up. After some long while's evidence of the paternal and authoritarian nature of the Singapore state gum-chewing was again allowed.

Spitting? Not that I've seen (hey? you go there a lot?), not even among the mainland Chinese riding bicycles but those in JB swear they can immediately spot chain-smoking, gum-chewing, hawking Singaporeans just come over the causeway for a bit of relief. But perhaps we can both agree loo patrol is still in full force.


I thought "My country, love it or leave it" went out with the Cold War. But I see that some foreigners have adopted this feeling toward China.

And I really don't see why you've chosen me as the target of your ignorant fury, when I'm hardly the most pointed critic here.

Why is it wrong or McCarthyist to point out flaws in something you love? If you feel great concern for something, you hope that by bringing problems to light, you can improve them.

Things I have loved and criticized fiercely include humanity, the USA, China, and the Star Wars trilogy.

Would it have been better for Martin Luther King to bite his tongue and accept the huge flaws in his America out of some misguided sense of patriotism? Better not air any dirty linen in public! Gotta put on a smiley face at all times!

Who are you to censor or bully other observers of this complex country?

Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last?


Not sure why the vitriol. I wasn't countering your argument, rather I was providing context for this issue. I don't like spitting any more than the next guy, and Sun Yat-sen liked it even less, but my larger point is that this issue involves more than just hygiene and manners, but also factors into Chinese ideas of modernity and progress.

Of course the missionaries didn't bring spitting to China, but they did bring with them enlightenment ideas of hygiene and public behavior, among which was the linkage between civilization and the regulation of the body and bodily functions.

Now, I think, in the case of spitting, the missionaries happened to be on to something. Certainly anyone who was here during SARS, as I was, couldn't help but wonder at the custom of public spitting and the spread of a contagious respiratory infection.

That said, noting the provenance of an idea or discourse is not the same as dismissing it out of hand, nor was I in anyway defending the habits you listed, so take it down a notch.

Ps. Thanks for the vocab lesson. I confess those are two phrases I don't commonly come across in the archives, but next time I do encounter the word 唾壺, I shall be sure to think of you.

please do not so arrogant and ignorance. you are not perfect either. There are different cultures, ideologies and customs around the world. Communiation and understanding are very important. Now, every country is open-hearted to others, Why are you so arrogant? What you have learnt about China and Chinese is not comprehensive. Open your eyes and please do not propaganda your racism--your race is better than Chinese.It is realy funny.

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