China Waves the Flag

To the surprise and irritation of the Beijing government, China is finding that the Olympic torch relay has been a propaganda failure not just in the west but in much of Asia as well.

The large and unruly demonstrations with which pro-Tibet and assorted other demonstrators greeted the torch in London, Paris and elsewhere have not happened here. But many in Asia have been dismayed at what is regarded more as a manifestation of Chinese triumphalism than a symbol of the international brotherhood of sport. Sympathy that China might have gained in Asia from the overtly anti-China sentiments and hypocritical moralizing in the West were more than nullified by what happened on the ground.

The relay has not only been given far more publicity than prior to any previous Olympics but China has made the attendance of certain foreign political leaders a litmus test of “friendship.” The opening ceremonies of the two previous Olympics, in Athens and Sydney, were showy but lacked any overt political content and were certainly not “must attend” occasions for presidents and prime ministers.

In India, one the largest-ever security operations was needed to protect the torch, and even then the route had to be shortened. India never wins many medals at the Olympics and so is expected to be further irritated with China’s crowing about its success when the games finally begin in August. Meanwhile India is being further infuriated by Beijing’s decision to take the torch to the top of Mount Everest, which Delhi regards as a symbol of its control of Tibet.

The distinguished foreign affairs columnist Brahma Chellaney wrote in the The Times of India that this was a publicity stunt which “will only infuse more politics into the games already tainted by the manner China’s pressure helped turn the just-concluded international torch relay into a stage-managed security exercise everywhere to pander to its self-esteem at the cost of the Olympic spirit of openness.”

In South Korea, where there is normally scant innate hostility to China, the thuggish behavior of thousands of Chinese students appalled a population for whom the right to dissent and protest are now deeply ingrained. Television footage showed the Chinese “patriotic” students attacking Koreans demonstrating against the oppression in Tibet and China’s forced repatriation of North Korean refugees. This comes at a time when, despite close economic ties, Koreans are smarting at Beijing’s efforts to incorporate Korean history into their own. There were also clashes in Japan between Chinese students and local protesters and elsewhere in Asia there was little celebration. Thailand delivered massive police protection and threats of deportation should Tibetan exiles cause trouble. Indonesia kept the whole torch ceremony private.

In fitting contrast to events in Seoul and elsewhere in Asia, the torch had a trouble-free passage in North Korea, almost the only place where it did. Vietnam rounded up known anti-China voices before the torch’s arrival and the government’s tight political grip ensured that there was no trouble. However, China’s games aggrandizement did remind many Vietnamese not only of historical enmity but of China’s current claims to the Spratly islands and to seabed resources off the coast of Vietnam. Some saw the local torch-bearers as unpatriotic by furthering Chinese interests.

China’s banging of the nationalist drum was also conspicuous in Hong Kong, providing a contrast between the territory’s autonomous identity with Beijing’s use of the games to stimulate patriotic One-Country fervor at the expense of the Two-Systems status which has enabled the territory to enjoy separate representation at the Olympics.

Not content with welcoming the torch as a symbol of international sport, the government and a clutch of “patriotic” organizations insisted on identifying the torch relay with red, the color of the national flag created by the Communist party when it came to power. Citizens were urged to wear red on the day of the relay and millions of red patriotic stickers were distributed. Government workers were “encouraged” to wear red and to attend.

In the event, the majority of Hong Kong people seemed to be cool to the whole affair. While wishing the Olympics well, few seemed inclined to join the celebrations. Random samples of people in the streets suggested that fewer than than 10 percent followed the “wear red” advice and many of those had been given T-shirts or stickers by employers seeking to be seen to be “patriotic”.

The cheering crowds which greeted the torch at various locations were composed largely of children let out of school for the occasion and provided with flags to wave. In addition there was an influx of putonghua-speaking mainlanders who waved huge patriotic banners along the torch route. Pro-Beijing political figures and members of the business elite were heavily represented among the torch bearers, with sportsmen taking a minority role and opposition politicians being excluded altogether.

The future of Hong Kong’s representation at the games may also have been brought into question by the criteria for membership of the Hong Kong team. Only Chinese nationals are eligible, rather than by birth or residence, the criteria for representation at many other sports and used by other dependent-territory Olympic teams. If Hong Kong’s tens of thousands of locally-born Indians, Filipinos and others are to be excluded while Chinese nationals who have lived there only a short time are chosen, it may be well to ask why Hong Kong is given separate status from China. Some see the current criteria as overt racism disguised as legitimate nationalism.

Overall, the torch relay seems to have awakened Asian sensibilities to China’s rise in a way that no statistics or speeches could have done. Pride at Asian success and the opportunities for trade an investment that China offers may have peaked, and the Olympic torch appears to have become more a symbol of China’s power than of international brotherhood.