TCS Daily

China's Olympian Nationalist Vision

By Rowan Callick - September 16, 2004 12:00 AM

If Sydney was the best games ever, and Athens provided "unforgettable, dream games", what can the world expect of Beijing in 2008? Is there a risk that, in celebrating through the Olympics China's rapid emergence as the world's second great power, its increasingly zealous fans could go over the top?

There is no doubt, given the country's mighty, proven track record in building satellite cities like Shanghai's thrusting Pudong in just a few years, that Beijing's infrastructure will be ready on time.

Indeed, International Olympics Committee president Jacques Rogge has urged the city to slow down: "We don't want the stadiums sitting idle for two years." A new terminal is being added to the airport and 149 kilometres of new subways and other railways, vast highways and 18 sports centres are being built, with the focus on a 405-hectare Olympic city in the north of Beijing.

But, ironically, to make way for this emerging cosmopolitan Beijing, much of the rest of the historic city that had survived Mao Zedong's vandalism, is being demolished and cemented over diminishing its longer term tourist appeal.

And what of the human infrastructure?

Thousands of Chinese fans flew, for the first time in such numbers, to watch the Games in Athens, many wearing bright red T-shirts with the characters "China will win, China will win, China will win".

TV viewers of the Games heard frequently, from these galvanised fans, a chant that was new to the Olympics which will soon become even more familiar: "Zhongguo, Zhongguo" "China, China".

The Chinese team responded brilliantly to the country's constantly rising aspirations for success in every field, bringing home a record haul of 64 medals, half of them gold.

It will take an epic effort on the part of the United States to deny a great wave of Chinese success thrusting China to the top of the Beijing medals table.

The Japanese performance at the Olympics, say HSBC analysts, has tracked that country's economic performance extraordinarily closely over the past 80 years, the revival in Athens with 16 golds against five in Sydney parallelling the past year's growth surge.

A similar pattern is pushing China on to greater heights.

Many around the world, who are hitching their economic futures to China will be willing the Chinese on in Beijing, except of course in contests with their own athletes.

But just as Rogge has suggested a cooling off of the building program, so a cooling off of the fans might also come under consideration.

For the ruling Chinese Communist Party has effectively replaced communism as its driving ideology with nationalism. It has deployed pride in big projects and national achievements, and determination to incorporate Taiwan, to counter growing concerns about unemployment, about the lack of a welfare safety net, about the increasing gap between rich and poor (with urban wages three times those in rural China where 60 per cent of the population live).

"I felt the support of 1.3 billion people at the games," Hu Jia, gold medal diver, told China Central TV on his arrival home.

China is sending 400,000 young people, spotted by ubiquitous talent scouts, to attend 3000 specialist sports schools in its determination to dominate the world in 2008.

The dark flipside to this patriotic fervour was seen on August 7 at the final of the Asian Cup for soccer, the leading sport in China as in the rest of Asia. Japan, the old enemy in many senses, beat China 3-1.

Although thousands of police and soldiers patrolled the venue, Beijing's Workers' Stadium, Japanese flags were burned, the rear window of the car of a senior Japanese diplomat was smashed, and Japanese players and supporters had to be taken to the airport by police escort as fans went on a rampage.

\Naturally, the "usual suspects" in the region, in China's eyes, including Tokyo's ultra nationalist Governor Ishihara Shintaro, and Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian went on to raise doubts about whether Beijing was up to hosting a Games free of such fevered behaviour.

And Peter Velappan, the Malaysian general secretary of the Asian Football Confederation, said after the game: "You have great culture, tradition and education in China, but this was not evident today. The behaviour today has made me think I'm not so sure Beijing can host a good Olympics" though he later retracted this.

Even the China Post newspaper in Taiwan conceded, however, that "Beijing said, quite convincingly, that the troublemakers were only a handful of rabid fans who did not represent the majority of the Chinese people".

It may prove difficult to switch off the chauvinism that has been encouraged so assiduously and so officially.

But China's determination to use the Games to showcase its arrival as a great modern, cosmopolitan, humane power cannot be underestimated.

Not many people have succeeded in recent years in betting against Beijing hitting its targets.

The icing on the cake, that would most effectively counter its potential critics, would be for its athletes to march in to the stadium side by side with those of Taiwan, just as those of North and South Korea did in Sydney and again in Athens.

Rowan Callick is Asia Pacific Editor of the Australian Financial Review.


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