2008 Beijing Olympic Games
Posted by Jeremy Goldkorn on Sunday, January 27, 2008 at 12:28 PM
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:
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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