Games are over, but contest of ideas between China and West has begun

Liu Kang says China must prepare itself for more clashes with the West over values and ideology

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 August, 2012, 2:35am

In sharp contrast to the hyperbole and superlatives piled up by the Chinese media for the Beijing Olympics, CCTV labelled the London Games "the most controversial Olympics Games", and more than once sentiments ran high in the official Chinese media and among the public over Western bias towards Chinese athletes. By the end of the Games, Chinese authorities lodged official protests over judges' discrimination against Chinese athletes in cycling, gymnastics and the hammer.

Apart from being a worldwide sports event, the Olympics has always been a showcase of the host nation's "soft power". The media's role is, of course, central to soft power but when it comes to international events like the Olympics, the media cannot maintain a completely objective stance for obvious reasons - it must cater to the interests of its domestic and local audience first and foremost.

Political and ideological prejudices certainly play a part, as when the torch relay for the Beijing Olympics was disrupted in Paris, London and San Francisco. This time, China was not singled out for its Tibet policy and human rights record; instead its athletes' performances drew considerable scepticism and, in some cases, outright castigation.

Misgivings and distrust of China's overall performance in the international arena and its global vision and strategy (if there is such a thing) now tend to dominate the Western media and public opinion of most nations. While the world continues to marvel at China's economic miracle, it becomes increasingly wary of its global expansion, perplexed especially by its self-claimed exceptionalism, which in many ways clashes with Western-dominated universalism. Whether through "socialism with Chinese characteristics", the "China model" or the "Beijing Consensus", China challenges as fundamentals of the modern world such values as multiparty electoral democracy, the free market economy, and individualism and the middle class as a social foundation.

The Olympics should be true to its original goal of sportsmanship and fair play. However, it has also been a political and commercial vehicle for a nationalistic and ideological agenda, as well as business gains.

The London Games tried to fulfil both objectives. It was designed as a great party. It showed the values that Britain today tries to sustain. As British historian Tim Stanley said of the opening ceremony: "So after all of this, what is Britain? A country that can still put on a show, that has many identities, that is culturally rich … that is intensely proud of what it got right (free health care, women's votes), but not too comfortable about what it got wrong (empire was never mentioned). It is a mess. A jolly wonderful mess. We're good at those."

In the grand finale of the opening ceremony, Emeli Sandé sang Abide With Me, accompanied by dancers led by British-born Bangladeshi choreographer Akram Khan - an embodiment of the cultural diversity and pluralism that are mainstream values in modern Britain.

That stands in sharp contrast to the Beijing Olympics, where the host promulgated the theme of "one world, one dream" and the ideal of harmony and unity of the world peoples and nations, rather than plurality and diversity. It wasn't the difference in budgets that shocked the world. The fact that the ideas and values are vastly incommensurable between the two cities underscores the deeply contentious ideological nature of the two Games.

Even the names are different. The Olympic Games in Chinese is translated as "Olympic sports contest". "Games" or "play" and "party" are as foreign to the Beijing organisers as "the world as a harmonious one" is to most nation-states today, torn apart by ethnic, religious and political contention while benefiting from the dynamism and synergy that diverse cultures and global migrations have brought.

For a rising China, the Beijing Olympics was a global public relations show of its dreams and ambitions for a revival of its imperial glory, encapsulated in China's age-old dictum of "one unified world under heaven".

However, the world may not share this Chinese view of harmony and unity. The fluent Putonghua-speaking Jon Huntsman, former US ambassador to China, maintained that the United States has unfortunately no shared values with the Chinese Communist Party or government. His sentiments well reflect the Western media's suspicion of China and its athletes' performances, although the latter unfairly fall prey to media warfare of a deeply ideological nature.

When covering China, or anything that involves China, professional journalism is no guarantee of objectivity.

While the Chinese media remain to a large extent the mouthpieces of the party-state, the Western media's understanding of the deeper and complex realities of an ever-changing China is also limited, aggravated by the lack of access and press freedom.

The Western media and world public opinion can hardly understand Chinese nationalistic sentiment underlying its sports activities and policies, and have a strong suspicion of its future goals and ideals as a rising global power.

The London Olympics was merely the tip of the iceberg, signalling imminent clashes of values that China faces and must learn to cope with.

Liu Kang is professor of Chinese Studies in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, and director of the China Research Centre at Duke University, US