Nationalism in the Year of the Olympics

Originally published in Nan Feng Chuang, translated by Ryan Martinson and CC Huang in Morning China news digest:

In the era of Mao Zedong, was condensed into a single slogan: “the Chinese people have stood up.” During the 1960’s, the rise of China’s ping-pong prowess, especially the defeat of the ping-pong powerhouse Japan, formed the collective memories of an entire generation. At that time, the victory of Chinese ping-pong athletes could even make the front page of People’s Daily. As a result, ping-pong became the national sport. Not only was it charged with the mission of bringing honor to China, it also played an integral part in “ping pong diplomacy.”

Nationalism in the era of Deng Xiaoping was confined to the battle cry to “rejuvenate China.” As it happens, this saying came from the realm of athletics. The rise of the Chinese women’s volleyball team and its consecutive championships garnered high praise from the Party and warm appreciation from the people. Students from Beijing University and other colleges popularized the slogan “Learn from women’s volleyball, rejuvenate China.” Soon, the “women’s volleyball spirit” was disseminated throughout the country as material for ideological indoctrination, a model to be emulated by all trades and professions.

After 1990, Chinese nationalism was encapsulated in the phrase “the great revitalization of the Chinese nation.” In the peculiar political environment of that time, athletics took on a new political mission. After Beijing held the Asian Games, the city’s bid to host the Olympics became an important goal. The failure of Beijing to get the bid in 1993 brought back the specter of the “hundred years of humiliation” and thus there emerged the first explosion of Chinese nationalism in the reform era.Some have noticed that countries with a strong liberal tradition like the England and the United States have seldom suffered from rabidly nationalistic movements. Israel, a country surrounded by enemies and in a near constant state of war, has never experienced a morbid victimization complex or xenophobic tendencies. This is profoundly thought provoking.

… Obviously, if we want to avoid the dangers and threats of nationalism, then at the same time that we accept its objective existence, we should implement a system of democratic rule of law guided by values such as liberty, rights, and justice. To constrain and tame nationalism, to neutralize and confine it to reasonable proportions, we need to safeguard complete openness towards the outside world. This is the best and only way to prevent nationalism from spinning out of control. Thus, for the love of the nation and the country, it is vital to first forge liberal democracy.

Returning to the Olympic Games, at present there are a lot of people who are worried: when the French and the Japanese teams take part in events, will the Chinese audience hiss and boo? When CNN conducts interviews in Beijing, will people on the street use uncivilized language and behavior? When Western tourists wear clothes printed with heterodox views, will those nearby react with violence? Right now what we do know is that the authorities will take measures to prevent these things from happening. Who knows if they will succeed, but if nothing unfortunate does happen, we can’t say that it’s because ultra-nationalism has already been tamed. Those in power have only temporarily forced it into a cage.

Also from Morning China:

Where China’s “angry youth” come from

By Xu Boyuan ,Ryan Martinson

After reading my Global Times article from June called “Rejecting the nationalism label,” the Yomiuri [Japanese periodical] Beijing correspondent came to interview me. In our conversation he showed concern for China’s “angry youth” phenomenon and the patriotic feelings of the country’s young generation. I told him that Japanese had a lot of positive qualities, like being prepared for unexpected developments, perfectionism, scholastic spirit, obedience to the law, and cleanliness, among others, all of which are worthy of emulation. But sometimes, positive qualities have another side. For example, while it’s good to be prepared for unexpected developments, when taken too far people become worry warts. I’ve noticed that the Japanese media is quite interested in trends in China, things like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization rivalry with Japan and the US, improvements in Sino-US relations and the potential for Japan’s marginalization, and China’s developing naval power. It seems like China’s every step is not meant for its own good, but to antagonize others. In fact, this kind of thinking is completely unnecessary.

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