Grown-up politics goes up in flames

Yesterday’s public grappling with the Olympic torch shone a light on the self-satisfied, cartoonish nature of contemporary China-bashing.

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spiked writers Tim Black and Brendan O’Neill report from central London and Chinatown on the protests against the Beijing 2008 Olympic flame.


As part of its 85,000-mile ‘journey of harmony’ through 20 different countries, the Olympic torch passed through London yesterday. The torch relay has already encountered various Tibet-inspired protests, first in Athens and then Istanbul. If the April snow was unexpected in London yesterday, the angry, sometimes violent disruptions were not. Like moths to a propane-fuelled flame, the plight of the Tibetan region of China really look does like the raison d’être for some disillusioned Westerners.

Since the military suppression of the anti-China protests in the Tibetan capital Lhasa last month, the focus on China’s treatment of its Tibetan population has intensified. But while it has been the West doing the focusing, the Beijing Olympics has provided the lens. Everything related to the games, as French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s recent threat to boycott the Olympics opening ceremony shows, has now become an opportunity for moral grandstanding, an opportunity to portray China as everything we in the West are not. The 31-mile journey of the Olympic torch, from Wembley in north-west London to Greenwich in the south-east, was to prove no exception.

Yesterday morning at the British Museum stage of the route – one of the protest points for the campaign organisation Free Tibet – the air was already thick with indignation. ‘Human rights, free Tibet. Human rights, free Tibet’ went the chant, before the megaphone-wielding orchestrator changed tack: ‘Shame on China, stop the killing, shame on China, stop the killing.’ Placards and banners reiterated the point, when you could see them amongst the Tibetan flags. ‘Blood on China’s hands’ read one; ‘Oi, China, get out of Tibet’ read another. As the torch-bearer and a phalanx of blue-and-white suited attendants and police cyclists finally approached, the chants were replaced by the proper response to a pantomime villain: booing.

As one followed the procession down past the British Museum, however, a change in the crowd became noticeable: the placards calling for an end to Chinese brutality were replaced by the official Beijing Olympics logo, the Tibetan flag by the Chinese standard, and the jeering by cheering. Whether or not this lasted over the entire route is doubtful, but it was certainly a pattern throughout the torch’s central London passage. For every stretch of anti-Chinese, pro-Dalai Lama sentiment, there would be an expanse of Chinese defensiveness – each an attempt to out-protest the other.

At one point in Trafalgar Square, this battle of the protests became a little absurd: a group of Chinese students were actually fighting a couple of pro-Tibet protesters, not with their fists, but, literally, with their flags. ‘China just wants everyone to like them’, shouted the thirtysomething Tibetophile in perfect mockney. ‘Asshole’, came the reply.

There was another contingent in the crowd that has been mentioned rarely in the press coverage of Sunday’s events. I mean, of course, those who turned up to see the torch relay itself, perhaps out of some sense of its symbolism, or maybe just to see, for example, Olympic gold medallists Denise Lewis or Steven Redgrave carry the torch. These were the anonymous bystanders, the silent audience for whom the point of being there was not self-affirmation, but quiet appreciation. As a woman rushed up to the barrier in Trafalgar Square to shriek ‘shame on China’ at veteran TV newsreader Sir Trevor McDonald, one such man, visibly shaking, turned round and said ‘you shouldn’t be here – this is not the right place’. She was quick to retort: ‘We’ve all got opinions, and this is mine.’ And with that she scampered off after Trevor and the torch.

I asked a young Chinese couple what they made of all this. Their response was understandably weary: ‘I don’t want to talk about politics anymore – Olympics is for the Olympics.’ Unfortunately, as the Beijing torch relay has shown, such a plea is likely to be ignored.

While many have complained that the Chinese politburo is using the Olympics to promote a positive image of itself, which is no doubt true, the protests against China seem to be a no less spectacular self-advertisement. This was apparent in their theatrical nature – that is, the protesters’ self-dramatisation of moral virtue. Nowhere was this more evident than in the protests that seemed to be aimed at the TV cameras, and in the seeming determination to get arrested (there were 37 arrests in total). All you had to do was try to leap the security barrier, and make for the torch, whereupon you would be pounced upon by the police. So pleased was one grinning bloke, who had leapt the cordon at the British Museum, that he seemed to be taking the Chinese jeering as the police waltzed him past as some sort of personal vindication.

Labour MP Kate Hoey’s incredulity as to why Gordon Brown refused to condemn China evinced a similar emphasis on the importance of acting righteously. ‘He’s not even coming out publicly and saying “I think what China has done inside Tibet is abhorrent”. He has got to do that. I am absolutely appalled by this’, she said (1). Speaking at the Free Tibet rally on Sunday afternoon, she went further by expressing a similar sentiment in reverse when attacking Chinese ambassador Fu Ying’s decision to carry the torch through ‘our streets’. ‘How dare she do that?’ Hoey shouted. Cue much hollering and whooping.

The Western pro-Tibet network’s tendency to posture has been duly noted by no less an authority than Patrick French, the ex-leader of the Free Tibet campaign group. While retaining admiration for the Dalai Lama’s moral rectitude, French is less than impressed with his political programme: the Hollywood strategy. In an article for the New York Times, French argued that the support the Dalai Lama has spawned in the West, which the Chinese government now calls the ‘Dalai Lama clique’, is less interested in practically helping the Tibetans gain political autonomy than it is in appearing to believe in a good cause (2).

Even the reasons why Tibet is the recipient of Western largesse testifies less to a solidarity with the Tibetans than to a particular idea of Tibet. When the actress Joanna Lumley, a Free Tibet supporter, stood up on stage yesterday and decried the ‘cultural genocide’ in Tibet, she betrayed what the lobby groups actually value – not the struggles of real people but a reified notion of Tibet as a ‘culture’, a ‘way of life’. In this sense, imagined as a static set of social practices, rural and in thrall to superstition, Tibet acts as the enchanted counterpoint to the soulless materialism of the West (see Why Tibetophilia won’t set Tibet free, by Brendan O’Neill). Or as one placard put it ‘China is a superpower, The Dalai Lama is a moral superpower’.

Quite. Just about the only thing burning brightly yesterday was a sense of moral superiority.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.


There was a flag-waving, camera-clicking party atmosphere in Chinatown yesterday. Once you negotiated your way past the rows of bag-searching police officers posted at both entrances to Gerrard Street – ‘What’s this?’ asked a 12-year-old cop as he spotted a book about China inside my bag; ‘It’s a book about China’, I replied – you found yourself in a glittering Mini-Beijing.

There were dancing red-and-gold dragons, Chinese drummers, beautiful young women handing out Beijing 2008 flags for everyone to wave when the torch finally arrived. ‘It will be here in 20 minutes or so’, a policewoman assured an impatient Chinese boy. ‘That’s what she said 20 minutes ago’, the boy complained to his father. Kitchen workers in crisp white jackets, fags hanging from the corners of their mouths, stood precariously on the railings outside restaurants. The staff of Everwell, a Chinese medicine store, held up a small, makeshift placard saying: ‘Everwell supports the Beijing 2008 Olympics.’ That’s a radical political statement these days.

The revellers didn’t seem to have much time for the protesters planning to disrupt the Olympic procession. Word arrives that two pro-Tibetan, or possibly pro-Darfurian, activists in leafy, well-to-do Holland Park tried to put out the flame with a fire extinguisher. ‘That’s plain wrong. The flame represents the Olympic spirit’, says Rui Chen, a second-generation Chinese. Indeed, the flame has Promethean origins. In the Ancient Greek Games, the always-burning torch commemorated Prometheus, the Titan who dared to steal fire from the god Zeus and hand it over to we mere mortals. It seems strangely fitting that those freaked out by the onward march of Chinese modernity would wish to snuff out Prometheus’ fire, to extinguish mankind’s cocky command of this most unpredictable element. Zeus would be proud.

There were only a handful of protesters in Chinatown, ranging from the mad to the maddeningly earnest. One elderly white gentleman got bemused looks from the Chinese cheerers: he was wearing a placard around his neck that said ‘Gang of Three State Terrorists crashed Twin Towers to justify launching Global War of TERROR’. I’ve seen that placard before. I think it refers to Bush, Blair and Sharon (the three ‘state terrorists’) and their behind-the-scenes puppeteering of 9/11. Quite what this deranged conspiracy theory has to do with Beijing 2008 is anyone’s guess, though I suppose ‘Gang of Three’ sounds a bit like ‘Gang of Four’ (the four Chinese Communist leaders who, following Mao’s death in 1976, were held responsible for the excesses of the Cultural Revolution).

Near the Shaftesbury Avenue entrance to Chinatown a man held up a piece of paper saying ‘DON’T FORGET DARFUR: CHINA FUNDS GENOCIDE’. A British-Chinese woman was angry. ‘This isn’t about Darfur, it’s about the Olympic Games’, she said, standing in front of a restaurant window that had a spectacularly lit-up Mickey Mouse and the words ‘Year of the Mouse’. ‘Everyone says Gordon Brown shouldn’t have anything to do with the torch. Why don’t they tell Gordon Brown about Iraq instead?’, she asked. ‘He wrote the cheques for that war, not the Chinese.’

She has a point. There are plenty of things for Brits to get angry about here in Britain – and there are plenty of things on which we might line up, in proper solidarity, with Chinese people. For example, Britain still has stringent immigration controls, and our rulers are forever passing laws or codes that limit freedom of thought and speech. How might we hook up and share ideas with people in China who are fighting for more rights and respect for migrant workers, and for that most important liberty of all: free speech?

No such questions were raised or answered yesterday. Instead, protesters along the torch procession indulged in simple (in both meanings of that word) displays of moral sanctimony, in which they played the part of brave and good slayers against the evil, crazed, polluting, tyrannical beast in the East: China.

It was cartoon politics; it was about avoiding serious debate and instead taking refuge in the warm and moist-feeling arena of super-simplistic moral condemnation. The author and professor Mahmood Mamdani has tried to explain trendy New Yorkers’ preference for campaigning on Darfur over campaigning on Iraq: ‘Iraq is a messy place in the American imagination, a place with messy politics… In contrast, there is nothing messy about Darfur. It is a place without history and without politics – simply a site where perpetrators clearly identifiable as “Arabs” confront victims clearly identifiable as “Africans”.’ Or as George Clooney has seriously said of Darfur: ‘It’s not a political issue. There is only right and wrong.’ The end result, says Mamdani, is the ‘reduction of a complex political context to a morality tale unfolding in a world populated by villains and victims who never trade places and so can always and easily be told apart’ (3).

Throw China into the mix, as the alleged evil funders of the genocide in Darfur, and you have the ideal campaigning issue for lazy liberals looking for an escape route from the complications of everyday life and politics. The depoliticised ‘morality tale’ of Darfur has both victim foreigners (the black sufferers of genocide) and evil foreigners (the strange, unfeeling Chinese officials who do business with Khartoum). Perfect! Activists on the apparently non-political issue of Darfur, where there is only right and wrong, can pose as the saviours of little black babies from the gun-wielding Yellow Peril, and not have to worry their pretty little heads about anything too taxingly political.

The cartoonish nature of the Evil-China-Genocide-Darfur bandwagon was unwittingly revealed in an article about the new campaign group Dream for Darfur (DfD), published in the New York Times Magazine last weekend. It revealed that Ben Cohen of the ice-cream maker Ben and Jerry’s has been recruited by DfD to come up with some sleek, easy-to-get campaign slogans. He was told to ‘keep his message short’ because ‘the message here isn’t hard’. It should be something like ‘Genocide bad; China helping’, said the people at DfD. So Cohen has decided to launch a ‘jihad’ (his words) against China’s cute, cartoonish Olympic mascots: Beibei the fish, Jingjing the giant panda, and other big-haired symbols of the Games. The message of Cohen’s anti-mascot campaign is: ‘Looks cute – supports genocide.’ (4)

Darfur activists are literally taking action against Chinese cartoons! In Chinatown yesterday, massive blow-up versions of Beibei, Jingjing and the other mascots danced in the streets, causing great excitement amongst the scores of Chinese kids waiting for the torch. They didn’t look genocidal to me.

Tibet, too, has been robbed of its political complexities and turned into a cartoon issue for the benefit of Western campaigners. This is best captured in a British Free Tibet poster, which shows smiling, serene Tibetans on one side of a mountain, and heavily-armed, smog-emitting Chinese men with notably slitty eyes and a sickly yellow pallor on the other. It asks: ‘Whose side are you on?’ Well? Are you with the happy child-like Tibetans or the strange-faced, trigger-happy modernisers of evil China? Come on! Make your minds up.

Today’s campaigning against China is motivated more by events in the West than by a proper analysis of what is happening in the East. At a time of political flux and uncertainty, Western activists wrap up in the comfort blanket of China-bashing, kidding themselves that they are pure and morally righteous and that China is simply and always dirty and violent. Not surprisingly, having China turned into a whipping boy, a cartoon Jerry that the brave Toms of Western activism can beat up on, irritates Chinese people. ‘If you say China shouldn’t be allowed to have the Games, then you are saying China is second-class’, says Rui Chen. ‘And what does that say about people like us?’, he asks, looking around Gerrard Street. ‘Second-class, too?’

He seems especially upset when the torch finally arrives in Chinatown, because it is being carried by Fu Ying, the Chinese ambassador to Britain. She was supposed to carry the flame through Bloomsbury and past the British Museum. But following a storm of controversy it was thought best to relegate her to carrying the torch amongst her ‘own people’ in Chinatown – safer that way, you see. A Communist official she may be, but as she passes by, an elderly woman in a Beijing 2008 tracksuit surrounded by a veritable army of jogging Chinese officials and Metropolitan police officers, you can’t help feeling that she is a pantomime villain in the day’s cartoon proceedings. That’s all, folks.

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

(1) London Olympic procession disrupted by protests , Bloomberg, 6 April 2008

(2) He may be a god, but he’s no politcian, New York Times, 22 March 2008

(3) The Politics of Naming, Mahmood Mamdani, London Review of Books, 8 March 2007

(4) Changing the rules of the Games, New York Times Magazine, 30 March 2008

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