May 14, 2008: A moment with...
This summer’s Olympics, which will be held in Beijing, have been called China’s “coming-out party,” its chance to show off its athletic, economic, and cultural achievements on a world stage. But unrest in Tibet has led to international protests and calls to boycott the Olympic opening ceremonies. Perry Link, a professor of East Asian studies and an expert on Chinese culture, spoke about the games and recent events in China and Tibet with PAW’s Mark F. Bernstein ’83.
What do the Olympics mean to the Chinese people?
It’s their day in the sun. China is an ancient, proud civilization, yet from at least the middle of the 19th century, the Chinese have felt that they have not been given full respect by the Western world. Despite all the social and political problems that intelligent Chinese people see in their country, hosting the Olympics and gaining international recognition and respect are very important to them.
What have the Chinese thought about the Olympic torch protests?
I think the protests actually stimulate Chinese nationalism. There was a photo in the newspaper recently of a Chinese woman athlete in a wheelchair reaching up, trying to protect the Olympic torch from protesters. If that photograph is put into a Chinese newspaper, it will have a big impact. People will think that their culture is being disrespected. Many Chinese regard the protesters as anti-China, when they are really anti-Chinese government, anti-dictatorship, and showing sympathy with the Tibetans.
So, are the Western protests counterproductive?
I wouldn’t want to tell protesters not to protest. I blame the Chinese government for the way it has stimulated and used Chinese nationalism. After the Beijing massacre of 1989, popular esteem for the government was at a nadir. Deng Xiaoping, the top leader at the time, then did a very clever thing. He sought new legitimacy for the Communist Party by stoking nationalism. Staging the Olympics has always been a win-win bet for the leadership. If the games are glorious, the government gets the glory. If there is trouble, it can be blamed on “anti-China” foreigners, and Chinese popular opinion again is drawn to the government. In recent years there has been a rising number of protests in China over crony-business land-grabs, layoffs, corruption, environmental degradation, and the growing gap between rich and poor. Nationalism diverts attention from all this.
When China was awarded the Olympics, people thought it would prod the government to improve its human-rights record.
People thought things would improve for two reasons. For one, the government promised to make China more open to foreign journalists. Also, in other authoritarian countries that had gotten the Olympics — South Korea, for example — international scrutiny had forced a relaxation of control. But instead there is clear evidence that repression in China has gotten tighter.
Should countries consider boycotting the opening ceremonies as an act of protest against Chinese actions in Tibet?
I think it’s good to make these symbolic gestures. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently made the distinction between supporting the Chinese people for what they have achieved but criticizing the government for its human-rights abuses in Tibet and elsewhere. It’s best if you can do both — give scope to these nationalist feelings, but not give support to the government’s human-rights abuses.
Why are the Tibetans protesting?
The principal reason is religious repression of Tibetan Buddhists, but there are also complaints about socioeconomic colonialism by the Han Chinese, the main ethnic group in China. The Han Chinese have migrated into Tibet in growing numbers and now have wealthier lifestyles — better housing, cars, and so on. The ethnic Tibetans feel like a subjugated people, but the Han Chinese feel miffed because they invested billions to develop Tibet and they think the Tibetans ought to be grateful for it.
There were reports recently that the Chinese government was considering dropping its one-child policy. Is that likely to happen?
It appears they won’t drop it, but the one-child policy has always been applied unevenly. It’s applied much better in the cities than in the rural areas because the ethic of enforcing it is more accepted in the cities, so people don’t try to evade it as much. Still, it is unequally enforced in many areas because as Chinese society has grown wealthier, it has become easier to buy your way out. If you have a second or third child, the sanction has been that you are denied certain perks, like schooling or medical care. But the importance of perks — which were vital during the Mao years — has gone down considerably, because now people can afford to buy the things that the perks would have given them.