Our national birthday offers a good time to reflect on another nation’s coming ‘glory days’

Enthusiastic volunteers for the Beijing Olympics cheer during a May rally as Chinese officials prepare to showcase their country next month. The Games will use 100,000 volunteers, with another 400,000 citizens providing services through the city.

REUTERS/Reinhard Krause
Enthusiastic volunteers for the Beijing Olympics cheer during a May rally as Chinese officials prepare to showcase their country. The Games will use 100,000 volunteers, with another 400,000 citizens providing services throughout the city.

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.

Doug Hartmann

Photo by Karl Krohn
University of Minnesota professor Doug Hartmann

“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.

Chi-Na! Chi-Na!
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.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Lian Ler on 07/03/2008 - 11:35 am.

    We view different culture through our own values and experiences. This article is exactly like that, viewing the Chinese through Western angle. Chinese society emphasizes more on the good of all than on individual; they see all Chinese people as one big family. When they chanted,”go China”, they’re actually giving encouragement to their family members, not to give up. There is nothing scary about it. Regarding Chinese’s wish to be dominant, leader, strong, proud of themselves, there’s nothing wrong with it; all nations want it, it is the desire to be better that drives human beings forward. However, unlike the West, for instance Nazi Germany, when they want to be dominant and proud of themselves, they went on to eliminate everyone else. The Chinese, history tells us, when they were dominant and proud of thmeselves, they built wall to separate themselves from the others. Extermination has never been the way Chinese deals with threats or differences. There are still hundreds of languages and dialects in China after 2000 years of being a unified nation, while in the States, our native cultures are all but eliminated. (Note that Tibetan language is still the language of instruction in schools in Tibet despite the claim from outsider of “cultural genocide”)

    We should be careful when we judge another society: they are different from us, but they’re not scary, and neither do they want to be like us.

  2. Submitted by Norman Norman on 07/03/2008 - 12:43 pm.

    I visited China four years ago where I made many startling observations. Where were the thousands of bikes? Why did my taxi practically run over an old man after he ran his bike into the van? Look at all the Buick’s and one person riding in thousands of cars. The list goes on. It has taken China about 15 years to arrive at a point that took America 60 or more years to reach. I believe individual Chinese are very open people when not watched by the State (something we have to remember about our own country in the future). Many still hold to the values of The Budda, especially in helping the traveler–which I needed a lot as a solo traveler. Mixed among the visible poverty is a growing amount of Western level wealth. Just go to Shanghai, or West Lake in Hangzhou or Beijing and you will see wealth. But, wealth has both visible and hidden costs.

    Water quality is appalling, water quantity is at dangerously low levels, electrical brown-outs are not uncommon, and the air quality will kill millions over the coming decades. Is this nationalism? Perhaps! But Dr. Hartman’s points are valid. The people are schooled by decades of ignoring some of their own self-limiting behaviors, formed during the Mao era. They are looking to the future and ignoring that which can destroy them from within. The environment, in this case the pollution cannot be ignored regardless of nationalist tendencies. The Gobi desert is a wild card for the Olympics. The dust storms can envelope Beijing and no Governmental policies nor a sudden respect by nature for the Olympics will change such a potential disaster.

    When a Chinese athlete wins a gold expect chanting like the world has never heard, with parades, etc. But, if they lose what will the athletes see, hear and perhaps experience. If or when Americans win I wouldn’t recommend that people go around chanting USA, USA, we are number one! Silence might be the basic response from the Chinese and silence is translated as silence in any language.
    I will go back to China and visit a couple who befriended me while I was trying to figure out part of their system. There is that group thing we will see at the Olympics and then there is that personal level, that person-to-person interaction where you really learn about a people. Finally, China is now about making money and that is the memory I have holding in my mind today. The re-evolution of China will occur with growing identify they have with money, what it can buy–including personal thru national power. We have a greed for power in America (when we want to be honest and admit it.) Bigotry in all its forms is representative of that greed and dishonesty. The Chinese could learn much about human rights from studying American history, which American students are not learning about in schools. The Chinese are a people with a long history of power and as they gain personal wealth, so will grow their desire for exploiting that wealth on the world scene. Is there not more than one hill to be on top of in the world or are we so impoverished in our imaginations to think we are alone in the world and the sun only shines upon America? When one country believes it owns the world it is destined to own more than nothing. I am a former college athlete. I know it is naive to think the Olympics are not about geo-politics; but I still hold to the idea that athletes sacrifice their lives for the glory of competing against the best in the world. Just being there takes more honest living and self-respect than any non-athlete will ever understand; something politicians and hyper-nationalists fear. Truth!

    Michael M. Norman, ED.D.
    Robbinsdale, MN

  3. Submitted by Adam Minter on 07/04/2008 - 11:52 am.

    I met and spoke with Doug on his first trip to China last year. He’s a thoughtful guy, and I respect his opinion. That noted – why not ask a Chinese person for their opinion on the Olympics. You know, somebody who grew up there, lives there, and might be able to offer a perspective that Minnesotans don’t ordinarily hear.

    What I find disappointing – and disturbing – about MinnPost’s ongoing coverage of the Olympics is that Weiner seems uninterested in getting the Chinese side of issues. From the tone of the Hartmann interview, it strikes me that he’s falling to the old journalistic trap of believing that Chinese people have all been brainwashed, and thus the only relevant viewpoint is one offered by an outsider.

    But this is silly. I’ve spent the last five years in Shanghai, and I can assure you that not only is there a broad range of opinion and outlook on the Olympics, but that it might surprise MinnPost readers with its subtlety. Why not allow a Chinese person to defend their patriotism and outlook on the games, instead of just letting Weiner and Hartmann take superior-sounding potshots at it? Has Weiner spoken to any Chinese people? There’s a large Chinese population at the U of M – why not run a lengthy interview with one of them?

    As for the chanting of “Go China.” The Chinese is “Zhong guo, jia you” – which literally means “Add fuel, China.” It’s a difficult translation, but – in the context of the earthquake – it’s a matter of encouragement. In other words, China is low on fuel, it’s down, so … China, add fuel! It is by no means equivalent to a blind chant of USA USA! It’s probably worth noting, too, that there are very significant cultural differences in the why and how of mass actions in China, and the US. In China, where the individual is commonly expected to defer to the group, the concept of rallying around “China” in a time of need is nothing special or new. And it certainly isn’t a sign of a resurgent nationalism.

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