And the gold medal for China-bashing goes to…

The Beijing Olympics have been turned into an all-purpose platform for panicmongering about the Yellow Peril. We name the culprits.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

In the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, a new sport has emerged: Yellow Peril-mongering. Western politicians, commentators and even athletes (not previously known for their skills in political oration, or in any other kind of oration) have been competing to see who can express the shrillest and most spine-tingling fears about the Chinese beast looming on the Eastern horizon. The Beijing Olympics have been turned into an all-purpose platform for moral posturing about China’s pollution levels, industrial arrogance, meddling in Africa, lack of free speech, and human rights record.

spiked has no illusions about the Chinese regime. We are passionate defenders of democracy and liberty, which remain anathematic words to the Communist Party of China. Yet nor are we remotely interested in signing up to the current Orientalist Olympics, where writers, actors and activists are using the premise of Beijing 2008 to spread some snooty and frequently irrational fears about the Chinese.

This China-bashing competition is not about offering solidarity to the Chinese masses who want to live more freely. It is about making observers in the West feel like medal-winning moralists, possessed of an Olympian Outrage, warm and moist in the notion that they are taking a stand against Evil Far Easterners. Here, we list the main events in the Orientalist Olympics so far, and unveil the winners in each category.

Throwing the hammer at China for meddling in Africa

This week, film director Steven Spielberg pulled out of his role as artistic adviser to Beijing 2008 over China’s support for ‘unspeakable crimes’ in Darfur. Other Hollywood actors-cum-bearers of the White Man’s Burden, including George Clooney and Mia Farrow, have slated China for allegedly funding ‘Khartoum’s genocide’. Grotesquely, some are referring to Beijing 2008 as the ‘Genocide Olympics’, comparing China’s hosting of the Games with Hitler’s hosting in 1936.

Such hysterical language shows how purely and perniciously moralistic is the China-bashing over Darfur. It is true that China has trade and arms relations with Khartoum, but to leap from this fact to the accusation that China is ‘funding genocide’ is to ignore two inconvenient truths (a phrase that Hollywood types surely understand).

The first inconvenient truth is that few serious international organisations, including the United Nations, describe Darfur as a ‘genocide’; indeed, the evidence suggests that Save Darfur activists have grossly exaggerated, for political purposes, the death rates in Darfur (1). There was a bloody civil war in Darfur, but it reached its nadir five years ago. As Jonathan Steele argues: ‘Today’s Darfur is still appalling, but not so bloody a place [as it was in 2003 and 2004].’ (2) Yet a five-year-old, tragically all-too-familiar civil war in Africa is being used to label the 2008 Beijing Games as the ‘Genocide Olympics’ and to compare Chinese rulers to the Nazis.

The second inconvenient truth is that China’s role in the events in Darfur is far from clear-cut. As Steele writes, it is naive to pin the blame for this extremely messy conflict solely on Khartoum, much less on the Chinese officials with whom Khartoum does business: ‘There are around a dozen different rebel groups currently fighting the government. To put the blame on only one party makes no moral or political sense.’ Indeed, even as China trades arms with Khartoum in return for Sudanese oil, it has joined with the West in putting pressure on Khartoum to end the conflict: ‘It helped to pass the UN resolution to set up UNAMID [the UN peacekeeping mission in Darfur], and it has contributed several hundred military engineers to UNAMID.’ (3)

To accuse China effectively of being genocidaires is to distort both the reality on the ground in Darfur and to overestimate China’s influence on Khartoum. The celebrity posturing over China allegedly giving the nod to a new Holocaust is not about calling for a powerful state to stop interfering in Africa’s affairs (something that the celebrities’ own countries of origin do all the time). In fact, it’s about doing precisely the opposite: it is motivated by a sense that the Chinese, by doing business with Khartoum, are undermining Western activists’ ability to boss Khartoum around. China is seen as standing in the way of Western interference in Africa, which is apparently the right kind of interference, motivated by morals rather than money and greed and avarice and other Chinese traits. As one American commentator complained: ‘Sudan’s government feels it can ignore Western revulsion at genocide because [thanks to China] it has no need of Western money…. China, along with Sudan’s other Arab and Asian partners, feels free to trample on basic standards of decency.’ (4)

Those bloody, indecent, no-standards Chinese, getting in the way of Western efforts to financially blackmail an African country and determine its affairs. Don’t these uppity Easterners know that only Westernised, well-educated NGO activists and super-rich LA luvvies have the right to interfere in Africa? This event in the Orientalist Olympics is not about calling for ‘Hands off Africa!’ – it’s about calling for ‘Yellow Hands off Africa!’

Gold medal winner: Steven Spielberg, for magnificent displays of both moral spinelessness (by giving in to months of pressure from Mia Farrow who said he would be the Leni Riefenstahl of Beijing’s ‘Genocide Olympics’) and moral superiority (see his references to the power of his conscience in his resignation statement). It is hard to disagree with the Chinese official who accused Spielberg of spouting ‘empty rhetoric’.

Sprinting to denounce China’s pollution levels

This is a toughly contested event in the Orientalist Olympics: numerous green activists and green-leaning Western officials are looking at China’s stadium-erecting, road-building and subway-digging with barely concealed disgust and claiming that these will be the Grimiest Games in history.

Environmentalists are latching on to Beijing 2008 as a way of ratcheting up fears about China’s alleged poisoning of its own people, and its potential poisoning of we Westerners, too. One commentator says the Games will ‘showcase pollution as well as world-class athletes’. Reporters write that ‘the effects of pollution can be seen everywhere… smokestack factories spew toxins into the air… rivers teem with sewage’ (5). And it’s not just the Chinese who will suffer at the hands of their polluting rulers. Some say that athletes who have to run or ride bikes in Beijing this summer will be weakened and choked by smog (which will at least give British competitors a good excuse when they lose), while others remind us that China is cooking the entire planet: ‘China’s emissions of carbon dioxide, the most important global warming gas, are expected to surpass those of the United States in 2009.’ (6)

Here, even the most positive thing about contemporary China – its speedy, inspiring economic development – is discussed as something disgusting. What ought to be celebrated as a wonderful leap forward for mankind is seen as a threat both to the Chinese people and to the West itself. No doubt China is a smelly, smoggy, sooty place right now, but that is because it is experiencing the birth pangs of industrialisation. There is a powerful whiff of double standards when well-off greens in comfortable Western societies that were built on Industrial Revolutions moan about Chinese smog.

The view of China as a ‘green peril’ overlooks the fact that Chinese officials are taking serious steps to combat pollution. In the run-up to the Olympics, they have completely relocated 100 Beijing-based chemical, steel and pharmaceutical factories outside of the city, dismantling, transporting and rebuilding them in pastures new. Beijing is replacing 300,000 polluting taxis and busses with lesser-polluting vehicles. In 1998, Beijing recorded 100 so-called Blue Sky Days – that is, days with an acceptable level of pollution; in 2005, it recorded 244 Blue Sky Days (7). In Britain, ‘tackling climate change’ has become a code-phrase for officials making petty interventions into our lives: flush your toilet less; recycle your bottle tops; don’t drive to the supermarket. In Beijing, combating pollution is a targeted, meaningful and ambitious project.

The idea of the Chinese as a pollutant has a long history. Today that mass nation is seen as an environmental pollutant… in the past, as the American author Jess Nevins points out, they were seen as ‘physical, racial and social pollutants’ whose backward ways might undermine Western civilisation (8). Today’s pre-Olympics concern about the ‘green peril’ has ditched the overtly racist lingo of the past – but it has breathed life back into old Western fears about Eastern ‘pollutants’ poisoning us, and especially our super-healthy athletes, with their strange habits and thoughtless ways.

Gold medal winner: Environmentalist correspondents in the British press (you know who you are), who seem incapable of writing about China without using the words ‘poison’, ‘sludge’ or ‘smog’. They have displayed a truly Olympian ability to see only the bad in economic progress and never, ever, ever the good (less absolute poverty, rising living standards, greater mobility, and in the future more choice).

Boxing Chinese officials over freedom of speech

Some British athletes have attacked China’s attempts to curb their freedom of speech. British Olympians have been asked to sign a contract before they arrive in Beijing: it will prohibit them from, amongst other things, attending political demonstrations or making ‘propagandistic’ statements. Outraged athletes – including that well-known political activist, er, the badminton champion Richard Vaughan – have complained about being denied the right to criticise China’s human rights record or its antics in Darfur. The gagging of athletes is held up as evidence of China’s extreme authoritarianism, which threatens even to ruin the greatest show on earth.

In reality, these new contracts build on strict rules that were drawn up by the International Olympics Committee over the past 30 years. Following the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico, when two black American sprinters gave the Black Power salute as they received their medals, the IOC introduced Section 51 to its charter – this forbids athletes from taking part in any ‘kind of demonstration, or political, religious or racial propaganda in the Olympic sites, venues or other areas’ (9). In asking for the rules to include barring athletes from making ‘politically sensitive’ statements, the Chinese are building on already-existing IOC directives rather than importing their Stalinist distaste for liberty into an apparently free and open sporting event.

British athletes are not principled fighters for ‘freedom of speech’. If they were, we might have expected to hear them complain about New Labour’s numerous assaults on free speech over the past 10 years – from its criminalisation of criticism of religion to its imprisonment of five students for the ‘crime’ of browsing radical websites (10). The Chinese do not have a monopoly on criminalising ‘sensitive’ comments that are likely to ‘cause offence’ (11).

The British athletes are actually demanding the ‘freedom to be morally outraged’. They want the ‘right’ to use the opportunity of a visit to China to wear a Free Tibet t-shirt or to state their concern about pollution or to join Spielberg and Farrow and others in exaggerating the crisis in Darfur in order to get their moral rocks off. In this sense, they’re actually dragging free speech’s name through the mud, turning it into a political weapon that can be used to take potshots at foreign regimes. Their outraged reaction against their contracts gives the impression that illiberal attitudes to free speech are a peculiarly Eastern thing; in calling on British Olympics officials to reject the contracts and rewrite them – in the name of British fair play and liberty – the athletes are conniving in the mad idea that Britain is a free country and therefore it has the right and the responsibility to lecture the Chinese about their attitudes and affairs. Such a paternalistic and partial use of the banner of ‘free speech’ will do no favours whatsoever for either the campaign for free speech in Britain or the campaign for freedom and autonomy in China.

Laughably, some of the gagged athletes are comparing themselves to Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the black American runners who raised their black-gloved fists and bowed their heads during the playing of the American national anthem at the 1968 Games. Smith and Carlos made a serious protest at a time of violent conflict over civil rights within their own country, when an armed oppositional movement – the Black Panthers – was fighting under the banner of Black Power. And they paid an extremely heavy price: they were effectively barred from sports for the rest of their lives. To compare this brave and dramatic stand to the hurt feelings of a largely unknown badminton player who wants to express his pity for poor pathetic Africans while in China, and who would do so with the full backing of Hollywood, American and European liberals, most Western governments and a mish-mash of armed rebel groups in Darfur… that only highlights the extent to which this event in the Orientalist Olympics, bashing China over its gagging contracts, is driven by bloated moral pomposity.

Gold medal winner: Richard Vaughan, the British badminton champ who has made a right shuttlecock of himself by trying to pose as a warrior for freedom of speech. Clearly he has swallowed whole the idea that sportsmen and other modern-day celebrities are so supremely important that they must single-handedly try to topple the Chinese regime by wearing a shocking t-shirt or holding a press conference with some Tibetan monks.

Spearing China’s dedication to sports training

Forget the empty rhetoric of the Save Darfur missionaries and the ‘green peril’ screaming of the environmentalist lobby – the Olympics are, of course, all about sport. For all Western observers’ attempts to attach their narcissistic agendas to Beijing 2008, the vast majority of us will enjoy it as a spectacular competition between the fastest runners, longest jumpers and most agile gymnasts on Earth. And yet… even in the area of sport, China is getting an earful from concerned Westerners.

The Chinese are being attacked for ‘torturing’ their young people by forcing them to become the best. The Chinese training of gymnasts, some as young as seven or eight, has been described as a form of ‘child abuse’, where teachers and trainers bend kids’ bodies in ‘unnatural directions’ and push them, at all costs, to become the flexible champions of the future (12).

Apparently the Chinese are far too obsessed with self-sacrifice and winning at any cost. During an earlier Olympics contest, one commentator said: ‘When entertainment requires this kind of self-sacrifice, our values – for willingly watching and participating – and the values of the Chinese are severely out of line with basic human standards.’ (13) Notice how even the discussion of Chinese attitudes to sport, as well as their attitude to Darfur, focuses on their alleged inhuman depravity.

There’s no doubt that young sportsmen and women in China are put under extraordinary pressure. Yet even this desire to win, in a competition in which winning is the only thing that counts, is talked up in the Orientalist Olympics as evidence of China’s warped ways. The Chinese are seen as unemotional, unforgiving, as peculiarly arrogant. Again, this is an old prejudice that is being rehabilitated on the back of the Olympic Games. As Robert L Gee points out in his book Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture, China-bashers in the past talked about ‘Chinese arrogance’ and ‘Chinese aloofness’ (14). Back then, people saw ‘Chinese arrogance’ in their snooty ‘Yellowfaces’ (15); today it is glimpsed in the robotic automatons forcing young children to become winning machines.

Perhaps Western observers and athletes are making excuses for themselves early. If they lose, it won’t be down to their own lack of training or determination – which could be seen as products of the West’s distinctly PC and un-Chinese ‘everyone’s a winner’ attitude to competitive sports – but rather down to the strange powers of the Eastern weirdos.

Gold medal winner: BBC TV’s Newsnight, which recently sent a reporter to stare in horror at young Chinese children training to become gymnasts of the future. Much to Newsnight’s disappointment, however, the kids seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill attacked the idea that China’s toy industry was a threat to the world’s children.James Woudhuysen asked us to celebrate China’s economic miracle and suggested China shouldn’t be simply treated as a threat to the environment. Kirk Leech argued that China’s hosting of the Olympics was providing the pretext for an assualt on their environmental record. Rob Lyons said the London Olympics bid had been based on sustainababble. Or read more at spiked issue China.

(1) See Darfur: pornography for the chattering classes, by Brendan O’Neill

(2) Why blame China?, Jonathan Steele, Comment Is Free, 14 February 2008

(3) Why blame China?, Jonathan Steele, Comment Is Free, 14 February 2008

(4) China and Darfur: The Genocide Olympics?, Washington Post, 14 December 2006

(5) Will the 2008 Olympics in Beijing Showcase Pollution as Well as World-class Athletes?, Knowledge Wharton, January 2007

(6) Will the 2008 Olympics in Beijing Showcase Pollution as Well as World-class Athletes?, Knowledge Wharton, January 2007

(7) Will the 2008 Olympics in Beijing Showcase Pollution as Well as World-class Athletes?, Knowledge Wharton, January 2007

(8) See Polluting minds, Brendan O’Neill, Comment Is Free, 25 July 2007

(9) Athletes face Olympics ban for criticising China, Daily Telegraph, February 2008

(10) Five students win terror appeal, BBC News, 13 February 2008

(11) See In Britain, heretics get a metaphorical lashing, by Brendan O’Neill

(12) Pinsent shock at way China treats gymnasts, Independent, 18 November 2005

(13) ‘Chinese torture, Olympic style’, A Freudenheim, The Truth As I See It

(14) Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture, Robert G Lee, Temple University Press, 1999

(15) Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture, Robert G Lee, Temple University Press, 1999

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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