Note: This was written by Michael at World-China Bridges, cross-posted here.
I thought there is a new democracy fatigue, but Gordon Chang, author of “The Coming Collapse of China,” quoting what he called “a well-known fund manager in Beijing,” thought “there is now an Olympics fatigue.”He wrote at the Far Eastern Economic Review:
What we see today is nothing like the spontaneous jubilation that swept the entire country the night the award was announced in July 2001. Then, millions of people in Beijing surged through streets, yelling, crying, and high-fiving, blaring car horns and waving Chinese flags….Today, no permitted gathering in public is unrehearsed, and joy is expressed on cue. The Olympics are definitely not the galvanizing force they once appeared to be.
What happened to China in the interim? The Communist Party has employed mass-mobilization techniques and reimposed strict social controls, the hallmarks of totalitarian governance, in order to stage the Olympic extravaganza. Along the way the cadres have worn out the people they are leading. As a well-known fund manger in Beijing told me in late June, “There is now an Olympics fatigue.” My wife and I traveled around China’s coastal cities in June and last month, and we were surprised by how little enthusiasm for the Games we saw, even in Beijing.
This is all good and fair statement of China from a western perspective as well as those of some Chinese. But here comes the nonsense:
We did not meet people who were genuinely jazzed about the Games—until we went to Hong Kong. China’s Special Administrative Region appears genuinely proud to host the Olympic equestrian events. Of course, the residents of the former British colony did not experience communist rule there and are, as a consequence, less cynical than their mainland compatriots.
If Chang, as he started out in the article, just wanted to convince his western audience that not all Chinese have overwhelmingly supported the Games, he can easily do so, and we can all readily agree with him. But to suggest that only those Chinese people in Hong Kong, as contrasted to their mainland compatriots, are genuinely jazzed about the Games because they did not experience communist rule is just totally unreasonable and dead wrong.
Though the Chinese government and state media have tried to lead the world to believe that the Chinese people have overwhelmingly supported this Olympics, it is a sure bet, without even traveling around China as Chang did, that some segments of the Chinese society have misgivings about one or another aspect of the way that this Olympics has been organized or just simply uninterested in the Games. I worked in Beijing for more than a year until recently, and in quite a number of times my taxi drivers complained to me about how too much money being spent on the Games while social programs for senior and ordinary citizens were neglected. Just few days before the games, a Beijing resident, as representative of many others, revealed in 奥运会前一个北京市民的感受how his normal life had been deeply affected by the hosting of the Games. In addition, “a trickle of Chinese,” as Nicholas Kristof recently observed, “have applied to hold protests, even though they know that they are more likely to end up in jail than in a ‘protest zone’.”
But judging from his article, it is obvious that Chang’s real purpose was not in educating his readers about existence of voices of dissent in Chinese population on the Beijing Olympics. As a matter of fact, it would be simply absurd to assume or believe that some 1.5 billion Chinese would share the same sentiment or enthusiasm for the Games. For in any country and any society, even in what we label totalitarian ones, there naturally exist voices of dissent; the difference is only that voices of dissent are more often and more loudly and publicly expressed in democratic countries than in non-democratic ones. China is non-democratic, but voices of dissent have nonetheless always existed.Deng Xiaoping’s twice-purge by Mao Zedong due to policy difference was an illustrative example of how voices of dissent can exist even at the highest level of the Chinese leadership. They may be suppressed or hidden from our view, but if we fail to take notice of them, it reflects more about our inability to grasp inner dynamics of Chinese society and politics than the true nature of the said topic.
What Chang, as someone who predicted the coming collapse of China, was really interested was once again to call into his western readers’ attention to the evilness of Chinese communism and the shaky foundation of this regime despite of the glory of its hosting Beijing Olympics. He dismissed opinion surveys by organizations done in China as “inherently unreliable on sensitive topics” as they are strictly controlled by the Chinese government. Yet, he quoted a middle-aged Beijing resident as saying: “The Olympics are for the government. We ordinary Chinese still have to earn a living.” One may have to wonder, if large-scale opinion surveys are unreliable to assess public sentiments in China, how much more reliable could Chang’s individual anecdotes be?
What disqualifies Chang as an objective analyst on China, at least I would so judge, is his claim that he and his wife did not meet people who were genuinely jazzed about the Games until they went to Hong Kong. For otherwise, how could it be possible that Chang traveled around China’s coastal cities in June and July and then could not even find a single Mainland Chinese who was genuinely jazzed about the Games? If this already sounds ridiculous, his justification was even more so. He said: “Of course, the residents of the former British colony did not experience communist rule there and are, as a consequence, less cynical than their mainland compatriots.” That is, Chang was saying that Hong Kong Chinese can be genuinely jazzed about the Games because of the absence of communist rule there, while mainland Chinese are cynical because they are the ones being ruled by communism. Just as it is unreasonable why Chang did not get to meet a single mainland Chinese who was genuinely jazzed about the Games, it is also unreasonable why Chang did not get to meet a Hong Kong resident who had no enthusiasm or even was cynical about the Games.
This is no denying that China’s excessive and aggressive redneck security measures drove a lot of people, both Chinese and foreign, nuts and have caused a dip in the public’s interest in the Games. In particular, the government’s sweep of migrant workers and other ‘undesirables’ from the host city, first back to home provinces and then later to the outskirts of Beijing, is inhuman and should be denounced. But if Chang had talked to more than a few Mainland Chinese and Hong Kong residents, he should have been able to uncover a variety of sentiments existing in both regions and not fall into the dichotomy of communist –ruled mainland China and non-communist-ruled Hong Kong. Or else, Chang was too obsessed with the evil Chinese communism and the coming collapse of China that he failed to be objective even before he visited China, and not surprisingly, he saw what he had wanted to find in China.
But even then, Olympics fatigue is not even a new concept, and that means it has little to do with communism itself. U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Jim Scehrr said he sensed it in Turin in 2006 following the 2004 Athens Games: “There was so much buildup to Athens and so many concerns about security and facilities (that) when we got to Torino we felt like we were playing catch-up and trying to get the public interested in the Games.” If there is indeed now an Olympics fatigue in China, it is a fatigue with Chinese characteristics but at the same time sharing commonalities with what has gone before and what is likely to come elsewhere. If Chang had read my new democracy fatigue article, I would gladly recommend him to write about new Olympics fatigue with Chinese characteristics, instead of Olympics fatigue.