Protesting the Olympic Protests

Let me make one thing very clear off the start: yes, China has issues with human rights, and its treatment of Tibet and Xinjiang independentists is an important issue.

That being said, I have a major problem with the way the West is dealing with the Olympics being held in China right now. The protests along the olympic flame’s paths were pretty embarrassing, but the slew of smug reporters talking about China, not to mention the misspelled Powerpoint presentations I’m getting by email, are making me facepalm vigorously.

I’ve taken part in protests in the past, so I’m not condemning this mode of citizen expression at all. I stood in the streets of Montreal in -30 weather when I felt I should send a clear signal to my Government that it shouldn’t participate in the unlawful invasion of Iraq. I did so because standing in the streets by the thousands is an effective way of talking to your elected Government. It is stronger than a vote, in a way, because it requires initiative and active participation on your part.

But what are the objectives of protesting against the Beijing Olympics? Specifically, why do some journalists and tourists go to Beijing, then protest and get kicked out by the PRC? Do these people believe one second that doing so is going to change the way things are run in China?

The worst part is, it aggravates things. The young Chinese have an unparalleled access to Western media and information nowadays. Of all the people I’ve met in my age group, none ever suggested things were perfect in China. Some may argue that the theory of communism is very sound, but none would deny the state of affairs in the country.

And these are the people who can make a difference. This is the first generation of Chinese who are seeing the world open up before them once again. They are informed and critical, and they listen to what the West is saying about them. And you know how they react to seeing sensationalist attacks on China throughout the Olympics?

They see it as an attempt by the West to make them lose face. It’s all the more problematic that these reactions are not posted in plain English for us Westerners to see; they happen on Chinese forums, and are written in Simplified Chinese. In their eyes, the protests are not a rallying call, they’re a humiliation of their nation in a critical moment of openness to the world.

Is that worth having the smug feeling that comes from acting like an ass on Tienanmen Square before getting expelled?

The problem with China requires much more complex means to resolve. It demands that we open up a dialog with the people of China, so that we can present them with our values, in the hopes that this might leave a mark. This approach demands that we also listen lest the dialog turns to a sermon: and the danger in listening is that you, too, might change your mind.

And to me, that demands a lot more courage, conviction and will to change things than wearing a Free Tibet t-shirt.

About Daniel Roy

Daniel is a writer, backpack foodie, slow traveler, and endurance runner. He is the author of the upcoming book, "The Way of Slow Travel: A Hands-On Guide to the Best Travel of Your Life."

7 comments

  1. Are we weird for thinking this way? Can anyone who has not lived in China see this? Or are people just protesting because they need something to protest against? Man, our world is messed up…

  2. Neither of you are weird for thinking this way, but I think it is strongly influenced by you living in China and seeing what it is really like. And I’m sure there are some westerners who just want to be difficult and get on TV, but I can only speak from my perspective which I like to think is more rational but hey, I’m open for criticism.

    I can’t watch these Olympic games because my conscience won’t let me.

    I’m not a huge fan of amateur sport to begin with, but I have always enjoyed watching the world come together and celebrate the limits of physical endurance. It had, previously, always given me warm fuzzies.

    But with the Beijing games I am plagued with guilt; guilt at being a consumer who exploits the Chinese working class; guilt at being part of the west that takes with one hand and condemns with the other; guilt at being part of a world filled with suffering when I do not suffer.

    That might seem overly existential but my connection is based on the lack of individual rights and democracy within the Peoples Republic, and the lack of a free and open press within China. I have been shown in woefully incomplete detail the impact of the Beijing games on the Chinese. I know there is a lot of resources devoted to the games, I know there is some displacement. I will never know how much because I am not allowed to know by the Chinese government. I will rarely, if ever, see an investigation into the details that the Chinese government does not want me to see.

    I did not watch the opening ceremonies, but the lavish images I did see made me think “what was this built on top of?” and I did not like the answers that came to mind. But I have no actual facts, no genuine cause for concern. I am left with nothing but speculation, rumor, and paranoia. But because there is no free and open press to do investigations and to bring me some other non-party version of the facts I am left with … nothing.

    But that nothing can hide all manner of sins. Corruption, exploitation, pain, suffering, misery. I think it is reasonable to suggest all have been involved in all Olympic games, but when you have an authoritarian regime that seems externally more concerned with image than with fact, with perception than with problems, who knows what has happened here?

    The importance of the press in a democracy is to create transparency and ensure accountability. Without that press I am left without information, and am thus suspicious.

    But I am self aware and I know that however sound my reasoning there are elements of xenophobia and ignorance. I am an outsider, but from the outside looking in I view all perceptions of China as highly suspect. If I went there and saw and felt and smelled and tasted myself I would have genuine understanding to work with, like you guys do.

    Something I’m doing here is treating China as a monolithic “thing” and only using generalizations to discuss them. Having lived there it would be impossible to see China the way I do – it has faces and names and feelings that I could never have without going there. This is a good thing. You should speak out more often about it.

    But to speak to what I believe is you question directly. Take my feelings as explained here, and have them magnified by the astounding ignorance of the American media, and the never ending hubris of the American cultural zeitgeist. Result: rampaging patriotic xenophobia and cultural snobbery presented as news.

    But the more China puts on a dog and pony show, the deeper in shadow there secrets are seen, and the more fuel thrown on this fire.

    tl;dr – with no free and open press within China, the press outside China had nothing to work with other than cultural stereotypes and political generalizations.

  3. Thanks for that comment, Ed… I think it’s written from a place of conviction and humbleness, the later of which I typically see missing from the people intent on putting such a show of protesting the Olympics.

    The thing to keep in mind about your perception of China is that it is very much a construction of Western media. I’m not saying it’s done on purpose, but somehow the popular image of the Chinese is ‘they’re weird and inhuman’, and the stories that corroborate that notion float to the top, whether it’s on big issues like Tibet, or silly stuff like the street food.

    The West doesn’t construct the image of the world it wants with such obviousness as the Chinese Government, but it definitely does so. Living in China, I was always amazed at how little the articles I read managed to even scratch the surface of what is the Chinese life.

    I think the Olympics are a missed opportunity to have a frank exchange between human beings on both sides of the “Great Firewall”. It should have been a moment of innocent discovery of each other, where the West gets to travel the streets of China and realize how complex the Chinese world really is. Instead, we end up with a lot of smugness from the West that alienates the people who really can make a difference in the long run: the young Chinese.

    To give you a counter-example; 3 years ago, in an unprecedented show of openness, North Korea allowed South Koreans to visit during the Mass Games held in Pyongyang. What happened might have sowed the seeds of change in North Korea: South Koreans wandered the streets and spoke directly to North Koreans, speaking about their life. Say, how they hated their job, or had trouble paying for their car. The North Koreans were astounded to learn that the South was crazy rich enough to afford personal cars. This kind of dialogue is what changes mindsets.

    The US has been through pretty scary changes in the last 8 years. Whether it’s the Geneva Convention being ignored at Guantanamo Bay, the warrantless wiretapping, or the unlawful invasion of Iraq, there’s a lot going on that would warrant protests or boycotts. But we’re close enough to the US that we understand that the US’s policies does not reflect the thoughts of all its citizens. We understand that the bad in the US is one of the shades of that nation, and we distinguish between the Government enacting it, and the citizens trying to figure it out.

    China, however, receives no such benefit. And keep in mind THEY didn’t elect their leaders. I don’t think it’s because the Chinese government chose to make it that way – the fault lies with the West, I’m afraid.

  4. Une lecture rigoureuse de l’Histoire nous donnerait sans nul doute de bonnes raisons de boycotter tous les Jeux des 50 dernières années, et probablement ceux des 50 prochaines. Un souverainiste radical pourrait bien boycotter les Jeux de Londres parce que les Anglais ont battu ses ancêtres sur les Plaines.

    À mon avis, le débat ne se situe pas sur le problème de conscience qui consiste à regarder ou pas les Jeux, ou à les boycotter ou non, mais bien à ce qu’est un problème de conscience dans un monde aussi complexe que le nôtre.

    Ne l’oublions pas, les gens qui s’énervent le plus à propos de la liberté de presse en Occident, ce sont… les journalistes occidentaux. Écrire des articles fouillés sur la Chine et les publier de retour à la maison, c’est trop compliqué. Faut blogguer ça au plus crisse puis passer à autres choses…

  5. This made me sad, and seemed relevant to this issue in so far as it demonstrates the “westerners, idiot or otherwise, should protest because the Chinese can’t”.

    http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/peter_foster/blog/2008/08/20/the_ioc_plays_appeaser_in_beijing

    But I think you are spot on when you raise the Pot, Kettle, Black issue. The behavior of the US and (to a much lesser degree, as it always is with Canucks) Canada is alarming. But that is a much deeper issue, and to mount a campaign against it we should arm ourselves with alcohol and find a comfy corner and a few more people keen to get excited about such things. 😉

  6. The issue the two women tried to protest over – that of being evicted from their homes – is a REAL problem in China, and one I’ve seen first-hand. It breaks my heart, too. There are protests organized over this – and they don’t tend to end well.

    But I ask you:

    Is there a single Westerner who protests against China over this?

    Do you hear about it in the media much?

  7. This is funny and sad at the same time!

    Manuela Parrino, an Italian woman who has lived in Beijing for the last 41/2 years said she was “fed up with all the visiting journalists talking negatively about China.” She decided to prove China’s commitment to free speech during the Olympic Games by applying to protest against pollution, with her 4 year old son, in one of the designated zones. After 9 hours, over 2 days, of officials trying to dissuade her cause, and parrying almost nonsensical questions from the local police officials, Manuela’s application was unsuccessful because her son was deemed “too young”.

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