I just read a very interesting article by Chinese actress and director, Joan Chen in The Washington Post. The thrust of the article is that the current clamor for boycotting the Beijing Olympics – or, at least, the Opening Ceremony – by some people and politicians in the West is likely to prove counter productive.
For the uninformed, Chen is an acclaimed actress, both in Chinese and Hollywood movies. Her list of international acting awards would be the envy of many Hollywood stars. Although she now lives in San Francisco, she was born in Shanghai and goes back regularly for visits.
Although Chen was born to a family of doctors and was therefore relatively well off, she did not have a pleasant childhood. She grew up in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution and personally witnessed some of its excesses. Those who are too young to recall the Cultural Revolution may not appreciate how bad things were back then. In his messianic zeal to transform China into a 'workers' paradise', Mao Tse Tung tried to impose his own distorted version of Chinese culture on a country of a billion people. He virtually tried to dictate what his people should think. They read what he wanted them to read and saw what he wanted them to see. The consequences of resistance were severe. If a group of hooligans (dubbed as 'patriots') decided that an individual or an enterprise was 'bourgeois', they would be paraded through the streets and sometimes even strung up. Even a basic exercise like getting enough food on the table was sometimes harrowing.
Chen compares those dark days with today's China with its booming economy, where the Chinese people have not just full bellies, but sufficient disposable income to indulge in small luxuries. Yes, some of the basic freedoms that people in the West take for granted – like freedom of speech; and freedom to read and watch whatever one wants – are still in short supply, but it does not seem to bother the average Chinese too much. Compared to his lifestyle a few decades ago, he feels he never had it so good.
What does irk the Chinese is that, despite being the world's second largest economy – far ahead of many European countries – they are still treated with a certain amount of disdain by people and governments in the West. Americans, for example, will happily buy Chinese products for a quarter of the price they would pay for similar American ones, but they still display a measure of contempt for those who make them. Rightly or wrongly, many Chinese feel they are not getting their due.
That is why the 2008 Olympic Games are so important to them. They have pulled out all the stops to make it a glittering event. It is their opportunity to demonstrate that anything the West can do, they can do as well – if not better. When Chen went to Shanghai last month, she saw for herself how proud and excited the man in the street is about the Games. He regards it as a wonderful opportunity to showcase modern China to the rest of the world.
For sure, there are a sizeable number of Chinese who are disturbed by the recent protests in Tibet. But they do not condemn their government for cracking down on rioters indulging in arson and looting, to restore law and order. They are also bewildered at the sudden international outcry about a region that has been part of China for more than 50 years.
Perhaps there was no justification for China's annexation of a defenseless Tibet all those years ago. Unlike like in the first Gulf War where Saddam Hussein paid a heavy price for annexing Kuwait, the Western governments of that time made depreciatory noises, but actually did nothing. At the risk of sounding cynical, my personal opinion is that the West did nothing because, unlike oil-rich Kuwait, Tibet held nothing of value to them. As far the Chinese are considered, the annexation is ancient history.
Some people and governments in the West justify their rancor by pointing out that China is currently trying to overwhelm the local Tibetan population by importing millions of Han Chinese. True enough, but this in itself is hardly a revolutionary historical event. The native populations of America and Australia were almost obliterated by White conquerors and settlers centuries ago. Nobody raised a murmur then. Serious students of American history would know that the treatment of Native Americans back then was far removed from the romanticized version made popular in John Wayne movies.
As Chen mentions in her article, people in the West need to be open minded and far sighted. They need to make more friends than enemies. Richard Gere may be trying to portray the Chinese as monsters, but he will find few sympathizers within China. If anything, Chinese with knowledge of history remember the long periods of China's imperial domination. They do not want their domestic policies to be dictated by outside powers.
The recent demonstrations against the Olympic torch in San Francisco and other places may make for exciting television footage, but they are not going to achieve anything. If George Bush does not attend the Opening Ceremony, the Chinese will be offended, but the games will go on. Perhaps it is time for the rest of the world to recognize the Olympics for what it is – an international sporting event.