For China, Olympics are a time to display – and to conceal
As Olympic torch relay gets under way, officials are keenly attune to the face China presents to the world.
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Chinese national dignity has been badly trampled over the last two centuries, most humiliatingly during the 100 years following the Opium War in 1840.Skip to next paragraph
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The United States, European nations, and Japan used their military might to enforce their will in trade and other matters, and once-proud Chinese emperors proved powerless to resist. For more than a decade, the Japanese Imperial Army subjugated large swaths of Chinese territory.
Reasserting Chinese unity
When Mao Zedong declared in 1949 – when his Communist party took control of China – that "the Chinese people have stood up," he based much of his regime's prestige on that achievement.
The ruling Communist Party can no longer boast of victories over social inequality, corruption, or the other evils it battled 60 years ago but which have resurfaced in today's China, says Mr. Wasserstrom.
But hosting this year's Olympics "fits perfectly into the narrative … of reasserting Chinese unity and its place in the world," he says.
With the Games playing such an important symbolic political role for Beijing, officials have been quick to accuse opponents, such as the Dalai Lama, of deliberately trying to sabotage the event – as heinous a crime as his alleged pursuit of Tibetan independence.
That is a message that many ordinary Chinese citizens – raised in schools that systematically blame foreigners for all of China's historical ills – are quick to understand and sympathize with.
Despite tightly controlled access to Western reporting, the outpouring of anger against Western coverage of Tibetan unrest that has flooded Chinese websites in recent days indicates how close to the surface lies a strong strain of nationalism.
A clue to how closely Chinese citizens identify themselves with their nation lies in the two Chinese characters combined to signify the word for nation: they are guo and jia, meaning "country" and "family."
"When China comes in for foreign criticism, in our hearts we take it personally as individuals," explains Zheng.
Though Chinese citizens are free with their own criticisms of the authorities when they talk among themselves, says Mr. Rittenberg, "they tend to feel that criticism from outside is anti-China and an attempt to constrain China."
With China's modern history of foreign humiliation deeply inculcated by schoolbooks and government propaganda, "they say that 'our problems are our problems and we'll handle them in our own way in our own time,' " Rittenberg adds.
Seventy-four percent of Chinese are "extremely excited" about the upcoming Olympic Games, according to an opinion survey carried out last January by two Western marketing companies. They are just as keen as their rulers that the Games should be a success, and just as sensitive to issues of face.
Internationally, however, the Chinese authorities may meet with less understanding, warns Wasserstrom. "The Olympic Games pose a dilemma for the government," he says. "They really want them to go off without a hitch, but if their efforts to keep things clean are too heavyhanded, the story will become how controlled everything is. The government risks becoming its own worst enemy."