It’s time to wave the flag.
It’s time to return to the glory days of empire, elite global status and nationalism. Enough of this getting kicked around by other smaller countries with no understanding of what motivates this nation and its people. There’s a story to tell and a stage to expose it.
Stop everything and spontaneously chant — sports-like — in unison, the country’s name.
No, not, “U-S-A! U-S-A!” on this Fourth of July weekend.
But “Go, Chi-na, Go! Go, Chi-na, Go!”
This is what University of Minnesota professor Doug Hartmann saw and heard during his recent trip to China, the nation of 1.3 billion people that’s set to play host to the world and the Summer Olympics, beginning on Aug. 8.
“You have a right to be proud of your country,” Hartmann told me the other day over breakfast, a couple weeks removed from returning from his second trip to China in 14 months.
But, he said, in wide-ranging conversations with students, journalists and government officials, “they don’t want to hear any criticisms, and there is no sense at all of the reasons why there might be criticism . . . They are very nationalistic.”
His first visit to China with students in the spring of 2007 was dipped in the rhetoric and concepts of “humanism.” Hartmann and colleague Christopher Isett even wrote a draft academic article titled, “Humanism Instead of Human Rights? The Challenge of Beijing 2008 to Olympic Idealism.”
In it, they address some key values and stated goals of the Games within Chinese society that are “humanist”: the use of the Olympics for education and development in China; the hope for mutual understanding between peoples and nations, some domestic goals to stop spitting, learn English and reduce pollution.
“A year ago, I was far more sympathetic and forgiving,” said Hartmann, a professor of sociology and co-chair of the department.
He still believes various humanist planks — if not a human rights plank — reside at the foundation of these Games. The “harmonious” Games is a widely used term in China.
But in his most recent trip, he saw an uglier, discordant side. Underneath that veil of humanism, Hartmann said, he witnessed a rampant nationalism that, Hartmann said, seems blind to history, deaf to the concerns of the West and unwavering in its arrogance towards Tibet. It’s a nationalism that, he believes, if unchecked, could trigger demonstrations of xenophobia at Olympic venues that would run counter to any “humanist” notions.
This is, of course, just one man’s opinion, but Hartmann is no close-minded yahoo. He is a progressive scholar and author of “Race, Culture, and the Revolt of the Black Athlete: The 1968 Olympic Protests and Their Aftermath.” He’s as thoughtful an observer of the sports scene in the Twin Cities as we get. He’s also active in Gophers athletics as the chairman of the faculty oversight board.
Of course — and this is another man’s opinion — it is not unusual to see nationalism rise in the host nation as an Olympics nears. U.S. President Ronald Reagan himself is a perfect example. No one better fanned the flames of nationalism than he during the 1984 election campaign against Walter Mondale at his home state’s Los Angeles Olympics. Reagan rode those Games and their Opening Ceremonies for his political advantage.
I think, too, particularly, of the 1992 Barcelona Games, which were a three-week-long exercise in Catalan nationalism, a region of Spain long seeking recognition. That nationalism seemed harmless, even quaint.
And, of course, there’s the nationalist Games of all time, the Berlin 1936 Games, Hitler’s Olympics.
To be sure, the timing of Hartmann’s most recent trip to Beijing and Shanghai was ripe for frank conversations with Chinese folks. Hartmann, Isett and students arrived in mid-May during the national days of mourning after the horrendous earthquakes. They chatted, too, with university students, journalists and others about the aftermath of the Tibet riots and crackdown and about the international disruption of the Olympic Torch Relay.
Hartmann was stunned by the disregard for the plight of Tibet and surprised by a lack of intellectual exchange on the reasons that Westerners and others might be challenging the Chinese.
He said much of the Chinese nationalism he heard expressed came from the urban middle and upper class that he and his students would naturally come in contact with as they visited museums and Beijing city officials.
“These are the people who have really benefited from 10 to 15 years of unprecedented growth,” he said. “These are whose people, whose families, were on farms 15 years ago before the great reforms. They can live like we live in Chicago, New York or L.A. … They’re running companies. They’re not distinguishable from young urban professionals here.”
He spoke of the exchange he and Isett had with a University of Minnesota grad student, who is Chinese, and who they met as he conducted research in Beijing.
“A defining exchange,” Hartmann said.
The man grew up poor in a rural village, but had become an urban dweller.
“So what do you think about Tibet?” Hartmann asked the man.
“Well I’m Han,” the man said of the majority group in China, which controls Tibet.
“That’s all you think?” Hartmann asked him.
“Well, maybe if I was Tibetan, I would think differently,” the man said.
Hartmann told me: “That is as progressive an answer as you can get … Silence.”
Hartmann went on: “History in China is non-existent. It’s 5,000 years of a mystical past of greatness; 200 years of terrible humiliation that was undeserved, and now we’re great again. There’s no talk of socialism. Mao is completely a kitsch item. Mao, it’s like Andy Warhol stuff. It’s a pop culture fetish.”
The education system
How can that be, I asked?
“Two things,” Hartmann replied. “One is the success — or failure — of the Chinese education system with respect to history and social studies. They have created ideology around the greatness of China and haven’t taught basic history in any way that’s meaningful. Another part of it goes back to the people who want China to be great again … What I’m saying is it’s not just the government. It’s the people. This is deep in Chinese culture, this nationalism.”
So, as I head off to my seventh Summer Olympics, I asked him about the implications of this noticeable, grass-roots nationalism. Are the Olympics exactly what critics have long stated — merely a propaganda tool for China’s leaders to soften their image in the world, despite China’s policies in Tibet or its oil purchases in Sudan amid the Darfur crisis or violations of “human rights”?
Well, Hartmann said, it’s not that simple.
But, of course.
First of all, Hartmann believes that the “human rights” debate is a bit off course. By Western standards, China isn’t living up to human rights standards relative to, say, free speech, as was promised when the Games were awarded. But other rights are being tackled that seem more concrete, he said.
“The real activism that’s happening in China that has possibilities is rights-based, but it’s not human rights,” he said. “Property rights” for rural land owners or urban condo dwellers and workers’ rights seem to be more important to the people he met with.
Human rights activism is more abstract, he said. It focuses on the individual.
“I’m quite interested in how China thinks about that,” he said. “Their point is that the focus on the individual misplaces the larger collective goods that we all need and share. That when you put the individual first, a lot of other things are going to get lost. And I think the more important critique on that is that the West talks about that all the time, but it’s mainly in service of the rich elite …
“Where I think the Chinese represent a real alternative on the world stage is economic development,” he said. “Human rights might be important, but they don’t necessarily mean a lot in Africa or Latin America where you have starving people. So, let’s talk about economic development from the grass roots up for a large group of people. That’s what I think the Chinese represent. And that’s why I think China and their Olympic project is so popular outside the West. Human rights aside, China is talking about an alternative ideology for social improvement.”
That ideology isn’t necessarily democratic. It’s highly centralized. And, as in the Darfur controversy, it protects the notion of “national autonomy.” That is, if China needs oil, it must be able to get it where it needs it, with no apologies.
He recalled his first visit in 2007 and a meeting with representatives of the Beijing Olympics Organizing Committee. Someone asked about China’s support for the repressive Sudanese regime and its attacks on citizens in Darfur.
“They went ballistic,” Hartmann said of the Beijing leaders. “How can this be coming out of the United States when the United States has created a war in Iraq to save their oil prices? That’s what they asked us … It’s not so much they think they’re in the right, they think they’re doing what the West has been doing for the past 100 years.”
A chant out of mourning
For Hartmann, the most poignant and troublesome example of the nationalism he felt came during one of the national days of mourning. Hartmann and his students were walking in central Beijing.
Near one of the city’s few and most noted churches, an impromptu memorial broke out, with candles and songs and dancing.
“They were college-age people, maybe high school. It was very appropriate and you got a sense of the drama and tragedy of it all.”
But amid this sadness, a chant began among the mourners and others watching them.
“Go, China, Go! Go, China, Go!”
Hartmann couldn’t fathom it.
“It was so incongruous and inappropriate to my experiences and expectations,” he said. “It was, with all the mourning, still important for them to say, ‘We’re great and we’re going to beat everyone else.’ The chant was the equivalent of us going down to New Orleans after Katrina and chanting, ‘U-S-A! U-S-A! It’s kind of scary. It’s not just pride. It’s a strong desire to be a leader, to be dominant.”
He fears the possibilities come August as the world watches and visits.
“The xenophobia and nationalism of the Chinese crowds is going to come out,” he said. “I’m sure the Chinese authorities are worried. Like when France marches in to Opening Ceremonies. I can see anti-France stuff.”
Hartmann went on to describe a certain contradiction: “The government and the Olympics are actually a hedge against that nationalism. I don’t have great Olympic ideals, but in this case it’s not a bad thing. The Olympics has brought them into a world community where they can’t just do anything that they want. If the Chinese people had their way, they might go in and wipe out Tibet . . . I think it’s a hedge against more extreme kinds of suppression.”
On this Fourth of July weekend, we tend to hide our own nationalism under our own veil of democracy and beneath the pop of fireworks The Chinese brand of nationalism lives a less secure existence. The Olympic flame will bolster it. The swimming races and the basketball games, the pole vault and the rowing are but toys on a larger landscape. Professor Hartmann will watch it all very closely.
Jay Weiner, who has covered every Winter and Summer Olympics since 1984, will report for MinnPost from the 2008 Beijing Games.