Saturday, December 01, 2007


By Uncle Cheng

Next year’s Olympics in Beijing is being heralded as an unprecedented national event of international importance. This, after all, will be the first time the Olympics will have been hosted on Chinese soil.

Apart from Toyko (in 1964) and Seoul (1988), and provided you do not consider Australia (Melbourne 1956, Sydney 2000) a part of Asia, no other Asian country has ever been given an opportunity to stage the games since they were first held over two thousand years ago.

While China’s economic resurgence marches onwards and upwards, it is perhaps understandable that Chinese nationalism treats the Olympics as especially significant. The government in Beijing has been progressively asserting China’s interests internationally.

It has actively cultivated strong economic and political ties in all corners of the world but especially in Africa and Australia, places where China’s understandable self-interest lies in their wealth of natural resources. Raising its international profile can only benefit China’s economic strength.

Against this background there are two aspects to the recent controversy concerning Martin Lee’s recent remarks about the Olympics games. To my mind it is not necessary to come to a definitive view whether Mr Lee was urging foreign countries to boycott the Olympics. As any lawyer might say, he is entitled to the benefit of the doubt.

However, one aspect that worries me is an obvious one. China considers the Olympics to be a matter of “face” and particularly the nation’s international “face”. Directly or indirectly linking the games to China’s record on human rights is fundamentally wrong, and indeed against the spirit of the Olympic ideal that demands the games remain apolitical.

But it is the second aspect that I find more important and crucial if the world is to appreciate the Chinese psyche. Initial strong memories of the 2008 games will necessarily fade in subsequent years but the suggestion that foreign forces and countries can somehow meddle in China’s national affairs is a justifiably sore point for the Chinese.

As any admirer of Chinese history must know, the present government’s approach to foreign influences is no different from that of its predecessors. Since the time of the first emperor 2,300 years ago until today China has always labelled those who seek foreign assistance as traitors. This intolerance of foreign influence is a hallmark of Chinese civilization that has enabled China to remain a unified state with an unbroken civilization for thousands of years.

I do not deny that China has been ruled by foreigners. The Yuan Dynasty of the thirteenth century may have been short-lived but it was essentially foreign. The more recent Ching Dynasty was also foreign but quickly lost its “foreignness” and became utterly sinonised.

To my mind, this is the key to understanding the attitude of the present Chinese government. It really does not matter whether the system in Beijing is feudal, national, communist or democratic. That is not the point. What matters is a full appreciation of China’s ancient and often uneasy relationship with anybody whose interests and loyalties lie outside China.

The classic example of this Chinese political psychology is
Beijing’s strained relationship with the Vatican and its Erastian religion which would require China’s Catholics to maintain loyalty to a foreign government.