China: Pride, Protest and the Olympic Games

The Olympics are an irresistible stage for athletes—but also for those who wish to act out their grievances before the world. The Beijing Games, which kick off on Aug. 8, are hardly an exception. While Chinese leaders furiously insist they're not, and should not be, "political," these Olympics promise to become one of the most charged in history. Rarely has a more varied array of contentious issues crystallized around a single sporting event.

China is bedeviled by internal problems—human-rights violations, media censorship, corruption, pollution, labor abuses and lack of due process, to name a few. Several "domestic" issues—Tibet, Taiwan and Hong Kong—have also regularly spilled over into the international realm. At the same time, a host of relatively new, purely international problems have accrued to China as the country has aggressively sought access to natural resources around the world. By dealing with pariah states like Burma, Sudan, Zimbabwe and Iran in order to feed the country's voracious appetite for oil, timber and metals, Chinese leaders have been accused of playing an irresponsible global role. Their critics would like nothing more than to flay Beijing before a worldwide television audience of hundreds of millions.

Chinese officials are doing everything possible to block such protests. They've designated three remote sites in Beijing in which to corral a few neutered "demonstrations." Rarely have the Chinese military and police been more anxious or at a higher state of alert. Surveillance cameras are everywhere. Tens of thousands of police, paramilitary troops and regular soldiers have been deployed to guard Olympic facilities, major buildings and public spaces. Many foreign NGO staffers based in Beijing have been asked to leave for the summer. Visa applications to attend the Games—now requiring not only letters of invitation but hotel reservations, round-trip airline tickets and bank statements—have frequently been turned down with no explanation. Indeed, the whole bureaucratic structure of the Chinese government and party seems coiled like a spring, ready to release into action if any errant soul emerges to make a disturbance, or even express unacceptable views, in a public way.

Now, I am the first to admit that the Chinese government gives ample cause for protest. Nor is vigorous dissent always counterproductive when dealing with Beijing. But I would argue that this is not the time—and not just because any unauthorized protest is quite likely to fail. The Beijing Games present a fraught and sensitive moment. China has made a Herculean effort to prepare the way for this spectacle, in which ordinary Chinese, not just their leaders, can announce themselves to the world as having regained their national greatness. Protests would almost certainly spark the kind of nationalist and autocratic backlash that they're meant to remedy. Remember what followed the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations—a nearly 20-year period of reaction and restoration from which China has still not recovered.

This proud prickliness has deep historical roots that involve China, the West and even Japan. As I argue in the current New York Review of Books, the most critical element in the formation of China's modern identity has been the legacy of the country's "humiliation" at the hands of foreigners, beginning with its defeat in the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century and the shameful treatment of Chinese immigrants in America. The process was exacerbated by Japan's successful industrialization. Tokyo's invasion and occupation of the mainland during World War II was in many ways psychologically more devastating than Western interventions because Japan was an Asian power that had succeeded in modernizing, where China had failed.

This inferiority complex has been institutionalized in the Chinese mind. In the early 20th century China took up its victimization as a theme and made it a fundamental element in its evolving collective identity. A new literature arose around the idea of bainian guochi—"100 years of national humiliation." After the 1919 Treaty of Versailles cravenly gave Germany's concessions in China to Japan, the expression wuwang guochi—"Never forget our national humiliation"—became a common slogan. To ignore China's national failure came to be seen as unpatriotic. Since then, China's historians and ideological overseers have never hesitated to mine the country's past sufferings "to serve the political, ideological, rhetorical, and/or emotional needs of the present," as the historian Paul Cohen has written.

Sun Yat-sen, for instance, described China in 1924 as being "a heap of loose sand" that had "experienced several decades of economic oppression by the foreign powers." In his 1947 book, "China's Destiny," Chiang Kai-shek wrote: "During the past 100 years, the citizens of the entire country, suffering under the yoke of the unequal treaties which gave foreigners special 'concessions' and extra-territorial status in China, were unanimous in their demand that the national humiliation be avenged." And when the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, Mao Zedong declared, "Ours will no longer be a nation subject to insult and humiliation."

Highlighting their victimhood has led Chinese leaders to rely on what historian Peter Hays Gries calls "the moral authority of their past suffering." This was especially true during the 1960s, when non-Western countries vied with one another to appear the most "oppressed" by imperialism, and thus the most authentically revolutionary. But it has continued to the present day. In 2001, the National People's Congress passed a law proclaiming an official "National Humiliation Day." (Of course, so many historical dates were proposed that delegates couldn't agree on any particular one.)

This history pretty much guarantees that certain traits will express themselves again and again whenever China responds under stress to the outside world. "The question of Western humiliation is always unconsciously inside us," filmmaker Chen Shi-Zheng—whose recent film, "Dark Matter," explores this theme—told me. "There is something almost in our DNA that triggers autonomic, and sometimes extreme, responses to foreign criticism or put-downs." Or as Lu Xun, China's most famous essayist and social critic, lamented almost 75 years ago, "Throughout the ages Chinese have had only one way of looking at foreigners. We either look up to them as gods or down on them as wild animals."

The Chinese themselves have made the search for a more self-confident, less-aggrieved persona harder. For much of the past 100 years China has been engaged in a series of assaults on its culture and history. These frequently uncompromising self-critiques started in the early 20th century when Chinese reformers began denouncing traditional Confucian culture, above all because it seemed to have left them so weak before the technological might of the West.

By the 1930s and 1940s, these attacks began to turn against Chinese nationalists. Having begun to fashion a new identity that combined elements of both East and West, Chiang Kai-shek and his Wellesley-educated Christian wife were criticized for, among other things, being too Westernized. Then, after Mao's communists had spent three decades trying to fashion a new revolutionary identity for China, Deng Xiaoping came along and performed yet another act of demolition, this time on the revolution itself.

The failures of these successive efforts at self-reinvention have cast the Chinese adrift, with an uncertain sense of cultural and political direction. We tend to forget this when focusing on how efficient the regime in Beijing is at building infrastructure, or managing the economy. Take the reaction to the anti-Beijing protests this spring in Tibet, and later around the world as the Olympic torch made its way to China. Old-fashioned police controls were tightened and rhetoric that harked back to Mao made China look retrograde, just when it most wanted to look modern. One official raged that the gentle Dalai Lama was "a monster with a human face, but the heart of a beast."

Equally surprising was the fact that many of the most indignant counterdemonstrators—those flooding the BBC and CNN with angry Internet threats, or shouting down protesters along the torch route—were young Chinese, born during the booming post-Mao era. Because they are better educated and more worldly than their elders, one might have expected them to have been exempt from the China-as-victim syndrome. But, perhaps because they, too, have been subject to the party's propaganda, many have turned out every bit as nationalistic as older Chinese.

What made the Tibet protests such an affront to so many Chinese was the timing: China had finally allowed itself to imagine that its national identity might metamorphose from victim to victor, thanks to the alchemy of the Olympic Games. In one grand, symbolic stroke, a successful Games was meant to cleanse China's messy historical slate, overthrow its legacy of victimization and allow the country to spring forth on the world stage reborn. The Chinese, though, may again be looking for self-confidence in the wrong places. As Xu Guoqi suggests in his new book, "Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895–2008," Beijing is fixated on winning gold medals as a means of proving its status as an economic and political powerhouse. "A nation that obsesses over gold medals," Xu notes archly, "is not a self-assured nation."

Ironically, on the surface China has never seemed more "equal" to the West. Anyone arriving in Beijing is bound to be impressed by the magnificent new Norman Foster–designed Capital airport. The Beijing Olympic Park, with its Herzog & de Meuron–designed "bird's nest" stadium and its bubble-skinned, transparent National Swimming Center, is stunning. The dingy Soviet-style apartment blocks, disheveled courtyard houses and defoliated streets that I first came to know in the 1970s during the Cultural Revolution have all but vanished. Now one is everywhere overwhelmed by new "development," or fazhan, a word that has attained almost sacerdotal overtones in China.

Yet few Chinese of my acquaintance have allowed themselves to be psychologically convinced by China's success, to believe truly in China's establishment as a leading nation. To do this, I suppose, they would have to be convinced that they already are, in fact, successful and powerful; that the world has already begun to look on their country with a growing sense of wonder, even envy, and that the past is, in fact, the past.

While honest criticisms should not be muted just because Chinese leaders find them grating, we foreigners should be mindful of this complex psychological landscape. In reacting to contemporary events, we tend to forget just how deeply implicated we are in how China came to experience and view the modern world. This long relationship has created a still rather unyielding tension as each country interacts with the other. Despite the fact that China has gotten closer than ever to escaping from this past, it's important to understand that its leaders and people are still susceptible to older ways of responding to the world around them. Now is not the time to provoke them further and impede their progress toward a new, more equal and self-assured sense of nationhood.