China, the Olympics, and antiquity diplomacy

I was just watching Question Time on the BBC, and the panel were asked what ‘we’ should do about Burma. Simon Schama was on the panel, and he suggested that, if China was stubborn about blocking any action via the UN, we should have a mass boycott of the Beijing Olympics, since Burma is a client state of China and the Olympics is one of the few pieces of leverage we have. I’m not going to offer any opinion about Schama’s analysis; I was just struck by something one of the audience members said: ‘What does sport have to do with politics?’

Because my immediate reaction was that this Olympics, the 2008 Olympics in China, is intensely political. I say that without knowing anything about the current state of Chinese politics; I don’t think you need to. The 2008 games just has a frisson around it, an aura. It’s the amount the Chinese government is spending, and the way they’re spending it. I mean, have you seen the stadiums they’re building? They are incredible: huge, dramatic, glamorous. Gesture architecture on the grand scale. It’s not enough for the Chinese to show they can put on a successful Olympics; they want to appear dynamic and, above all, modern.

Beijing National Stadium

It’s no coincidence that the British Museum has an exhibition that includes some of the warriors from the Terracotta Army. Or that last winter there was a huge show at the Royal Academy of work from the C18th Chinese court. It’s all surely part of a concerted effort of cultural diplomacy, an attempt to engage with the world and establish Brand China as sophisticated, exciting, a modern nation amongst modern nations. While, I’m guessing, fighting tooth and nail to keep a rigid grip on the levers of power.

Which isn’t to say that the people running China’s PR department are magicians. The insistence on using every opportunity to assert Tibet’s place as an integral part of China’s heritage seems like a bad idea to me; it just reminds people of the issue. Next year there will probably be literally millions of people who will experience a twinge of hostility, or guilt or whatever, at the moment in the opening ceremony when the mascot representing a Tibetan antelope appears. It would probably have been a better idea to avoid the negative vibes.

This isn’t particularly intended as an anti-China screed; trying to project the right national image is something all governments do, after all, it’s just that big totalitarian governments do it in a big, sweeping, control-freak manner that makes it more obvious. I guess it’s just a feeling that every so often you have to say these things explicitly because, after all, you’re kidding yourself if you think that propaganda doesn’t affect you. I’m planning to see the terracotta warriors; I’ll be watching the Olympics; it will all, inevitably, have some impact on my perception of China. The least I can do is remind myself from time to time that it is propaganda.

ยป the picture of the stadium is from Wikimedia. The terracotta horses are by molas on Flickr and are used under a by-nc-sa Creative Commons licence.

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