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China’s Olympic Debate

by Elizabeth C. Economy
August 9, 2012

China's Feng Zhe, the eventual gold medal winner, reacts after competing in the men's gymnastics parallel bars final during the London 2012 Olympic Games on August 7, 2012. China's Feng Zhe, the eventual gold medal winner, reacts after competing in the men's gymnastics parallel bars final during the London 2012 Olympic Games on August 7, 2012. (Brian Snyder / Courtesy Reuters)

The Chinese stand second in the Olympic medals table—both in gold and overall—but you would never know it from what’s going on in their media. Of course, there is celebration of the country’s athletes. Yet the flawless performances of the Chinese divers and spectacular achievements of the Chinese male gymnasts are in danger of being drowned out by a torrent of commentary focused on what the games mean for China as a society and for its place in the world.  Some of the commentary is lamenting, some angry, and still other searching.

Some Chinese are concerned that the cost of an Olympic gold is too great, both literally and figuratively. People have reportedly calculated the financial cost of swimmer Sun Yang’s two years of gold medal-worthy training at approximately $1.57 million. Not a small sum in a country where per capita income still tops out at roughly $7,500.  At the same time, the stories of Chinese athletes living away from their families for years—missing deaths, illnesses, and family celebrations—in state-run training centers also raise questions for some Chinese as to whether gold medal mania is a worthy substitute for the to and fro of daily life. Then, inevitably, there are those who are worried about the enormous pressure placed on state-supported Chinese athletes, such as the weight lifter Wu Jingbiao, the gold medal favorite in his event, who broke down in tears and apologized to his country after winning a silver medal.

Even more Chinese media attention, however, has been paid to what China’s Olympic experience signals for the country’s place in the world. As Caixin reports, many Chinese believe their athletes have been unfairly treated by the rest of the world simply because they are Chinese. There is anger over the silver-instead-of-gold finish by China’s amazing gymnastics rings master Chen Yibing; fury over the disqualifications of Chinese cycling and badminton teams; and outrage over the accusations of doping by the gold medal-winning swimmer Ye Shiwen.

Some commentators argue that these cases are simply one more example of how the rest of the world is attempting to keep China from assuming its rightful place as a global power. In a Global Times article, for example, director of the China Institute of International Studies Qu Xing argues, “It’s unavoidable that we will encounter jealousy and even unexpected obstructions during the process of rising, as is the case in other fields.” Peking University professor Zhang Yiwu further suggests, “What we can do is try to be stronger to let others acknowledge and get used to our power.… It’s very difficult to change the bias of others, while we can defend ourselves with facts.”

Others take a more measured approach. Zhang Yun, in the People’s Daily Overseas Edition, compares the Olympics to China’s participation in the WTO and IMF, arguing, “As China develops, dissonance that grates on the ears will only increase. The key is still to hold one’s ground, to withstand the test of bias, and to listen to accurate criticisms. This is an international initiation that must be experienced for China to move towards renewal. Going back to history, every developed country experienced a similar kind of initiation.”

And a lengthy editorial in the China Youth Daily entitled, “It’s very tiring to watch the Olympics with a victim mentality,” argues that China’s experience is really no different from that of any other country, pointing out that both the Koreans and Indonesians lost outstanding badminton teams for the same reason as the Chinese, and that even the very unfortunate doping accusations against Ye Shiwen have been heard many times by many athletes from many countries.  That does not make it right, but it does make it unexceptional. Moreover, the gold medal-contending British cycling team was disqualified earlier in the London games for the exact same violation committed by the Chinese cyclists.

The China Youth Daily also offered a profound critique of those who see an anti-China hand behind every silver medal: “At the Beijing Olympics, what tested the Chinese people was how to be a host. After the Beijing Olympics, at the London Olympics, what tests the Chinese people is how to be an audience with a gentle attitude and healthy mind.  Sports is not war, the Western world is not the enemy, patriotism does not cover up one’s errors, and criticism is not treason.”

The Olympics have encouraged wide-ranging discussion in China over the relationship between the Chinese state and society and over the country’s relationship with the rest of the world. Neither issue will be resolved by the end of the games, but both are evidence of a Chinese citizenry deeply engaged in open discourse and debate within itself and with the rest of the world.  This is an achievement everyone should celebrate.

Post a Comment 12 Comments

  • Posted by TJA

    Good article, especially in exposing that the discourse and debate on these issues in China are not a monolithic voice of “everyone is ganging up on us”.

    N.B. the Chinese are first in the Olympic table with 36 golds. Most countries, and the IOC, measure table rankings in terms of gold medals, not total medals. The US is the only country to count total medals.

  • Posted by bob walker

    Dear S/M,,,,,,,,,,Freedom wins,.

    The US is the personification of freedom.

    China is the personification of non-freedom

    bob

  • Posted by Sourabh

    with 36 gold medals and counting, might be helpful if NBC’s Primetime broadcast for ONCE at least would choose to televise the PRC national anthem at a medal ceremony.

    What does that say about America??

  • Posted by dae

    #bob

    Did you even bother to read the article? Your robotic comment shows that you have such a closed mind that you don’t have the freedom to think an independent thought

  • Posted by Joe

    China is supposed to get more Olympic gold.

    Why?

    Because Chinese athletes are mostly career athletes. They pay more effort and they deserve more.

    Go ask all athletes that if they like what London prepared for them.

    It’s sorta big fail for a developed country like London.

    There will be consequences… ^ ^ believe me

  • Posted by einer

    We are all happy to see the down down of USA Reich that will bring a more balanced world. If China were powerful enough US could not fake a Iraq WMD.
    Bravo China!

  • Posted by Raja M. Ali Saleem

    It is so encouraging to hear about these debates in China. Usually rising powers are only concerned about national aggrandizement.

    It also puts into perspective unsuccessful efforts by many populous developing nations such as India, Pakistan and Nigeria. With millions of people, it seems strange and a bit disconcerting that these nations don’t win many medals. However, as the article shows, a lot of medal winning is about diet, trainings and regular competitions, all of which cost money. Very few Kenyans, Ethopians etc. can overcome this big hurdle.

  • Posted by mikki

    It is stirring to read this article’s profound and moving quote from The China Youth Daily. The new generation of Chinese exudes hope and level-headed mindfulness.
    As an Cuban-American who has great admiration for the accomplishments of the Chinese, I am equally proud of them as I am of our USA and all Olympians. I sincerely cheer each victory-regardless of who. the gold medal winner is- with a prayer of thanks for the privilege of living in the most benevolent and greatest country in the world. Go USA!

  • Posted by peter png

    A rising power, in dimensions such as sports, economics or military, attracts attention and creates envy, jealousy and distrusts. In short, equilibrium has turned into disequibrium, and this gives rise to stress.
    What we are witnessing today about the worldwide negative reactions to China’s sporting achievements are in large part a reflection of the emotions of people used to the status quo of the west being number one.

  • Posted by bob

    Joe – i would like to point out that London is not a country. worry not this is not an uncommon mistake amongst those without a world view

    As one who lives in China i can only state that Olympic coverage is wall to wall here. This article obviously has an anti Chinese government stance and agenda. There is little rhetoric in the local media regarding a rising power or such.

    i am no apologist for China as many awful things happen here, as do they elsewhere in the world

  • Posted by Fred

    #bob This article DOES NOT have an “anti-Chinese government stance”. You obviously do not understand the article, or misread it. Your grammar is so awful I almost can’t understand what you’ve written. However, with english as your second language, I can’t hold that against you. Simply just making an observation. After all I don’t know a lick of mandarin.

    I think historically, China has a self/state-inflicted self-esteem/public relations complex. Try to stop obsessing over media manipulation, international sabotage conspiracies, and conditions you cannot control (e.g. sport referees or olympic judges). Of ANY international/intergovernmental organization it seems to me that the IOC is the most objective and most fair! Of course discrimination exists (internationally and INTRAnationally), however a person or a nation must do what is necessary to put itself in the best position to succeed. My example is the Wu Jingbiao incident Elizabeth, the author, mentions. He broke down and wept apologizing to his state and countrymen, he DIDN’T immediately point to the camera and blame the referees, or the judges for not winning gold. He didn’t blame the weight bar for not being chalked properly for not winning. He didn’t cheat. He didn’t break the rules. He didn’t complain, or point blame elsewhere.

  • Posted by CFRA

    There are many topics worth to look closely with some thoughtful remarks.

    The comment on the cost to train the athletes in China is thoughtless. I can only imagine is double or triple in US dollars. China is considered a super power in economy with booming GDP. Which country is the biggest of holder of US bonds?

    Athletes are professional that take years of training. What is the definition of professional? It is something that people make a living of what they do best. The Chinese athletes might come from very poor family, so they could have a better living in a training camp. There is no difference than people want to make a better living to move from suburbs to cities with a better work opportunity.

    My remark is simply to ask the people to open their mind and being more thoughtful. Comment most of the time is unfair, however, that is contributed by ignorance.

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