August 19, 2008
Since the start of 2008, a new international sport has emerged: Yellow Peril-mongering. International politicians, commentators and activists have competed to see who can issue the shrillest and most spine-tingling warning about the threat posed by the Chinese to the safety, security, and self-esteem of Western civilisation.
Inexorably, the Beijing Olympics“which are now in full swing”have been turned into an all-purpose platform for moral posturing about China’s pollution levels, industrial arrogance, interference in Africa, lack of free speech, human rights record and general wickedness. In America and Europe, the Great and the Good, offended by China’s rise and its apparently bad habits, no longer talk about “the Olympics””they talk about the “Genocide Olympics,” the “Smog Olympics,” or the “Human Rights Olympics.”
What ought to be The Greatest Show on Earth has been transformed into The Most Politicised Spectacle in the Universe, as every Western anxiety and prejudice about the East has been cynically attached to the Games.
I am no supporter of the illiberal Chinese regime, which continues to deny millions of people basic freedoms and choices. But nor am I remotely interested in taking part in what we might term the “Orientalist Olympics””the use of the Games to spread irrational fears about the Chinese.
This China-bashing is underpinned by fear, envy, double standards and a dash of old-fashioned prejudice. It is driven, not by a genuine commitment to liberty or solidarity with the Chinese masses, but by cheap moralism. Western observers pontificate about China in order to make themselves feel like medal-winning moralists taking a stand against Evil Far Easterners. Some have accused the Chinese of “betraying Olympic values” with their bad behaviour “ in truth, Western elements” relentless politicisation of the Games has done more to undermine the “Olympic values” of universality and good sportsmanship than anything the Chinese might have done.
Now, in the hope that over days remaining people might enjoy “the Olympics””both the sport and the spectacle”let us pick apart the fears and prejudices behind the various Orientalist Olympics that have been launched by Western activists in the past six months.
The Genocide Olympics
Morally pure, implacably outraged activists in Hollywood and elsewhere want the Beijing Olympics to be rebranded the Genocide Olympics, on the basis that China is funding “Khartoum’s genocide” in Darfur. Nothing better captures the childish moralism and double standards underpinning contemporary China-bashing than this relentless campaign to have Beijing 2008 lumped together with Berlin 1936.
In February, Steven Spielberg pulled out of his role as artistic adviser to Beijing 2008 over China’s support for “unspeakable crimes” in Darfur. On 8 August, the day the Olympics kicked off, Mia Farrow held an “alternative opening ceremony“: her Webcast showed refugees from Darfur playing sports in the barren deserts of eastern Chad. Dream for Darfur, a New York-based campaign group staffed by worthy students and celebs, says its message on China and Darfur is as follows: “Genocide bad; China helping.” That about sums up the cartoonish nature of the anti-Chinese “Save Darfur” lobby.
The double standards behind this attachment of the genocide tag to Beijing 2008 are gobsmacking. Celebrity do-gooders are actually calling on President George W Bush and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to take the opportunity of the Olympics to put pressure on China over its “unspeakable crimes” in Darfur. This is the same Bush and Brown who launched the Iraq War, where they didn”t simply do oil deals with a government involved in a dirty civil war”the accusation made against China over Darfur”but actually fought the war themselves, leaving Iraq a bombed-out, burnt-up mess and around 400,000 of its citizens dead. Calling on Bush and Brown to save the people of Darfur from “genocidal China” is a bit like asking Ted Bundy to open a halfway house for young female runaways.
The hysterical campaign to brand China as “genocidal” is built on myth and misinformation. It is true that China has trade and arms relations with Khartoum, but to leap from this fact to the insistence that China is “supporting genocide” is to overlook two inconvenient truths.
The first of these is that, outside of the organic coffee shops of Beverley Hills and NYC, very few experts or international organizations, including the UN, describe Darfur as a “genocide.” Indeed, the evidence suggests that Save Darfur activists have grossly exaggerated the death rates in Darfur in order to bolster their bizarre claim that the situation there is “comparable to the death camps in Nazi Germany”. Last year the UK Advertising Standards Authority chastised the Save Darfur Coalition for placing adverts in the British press which claimed that “400,000 innocent men, women and children have been killed” when, in fact, expert opinion estimates that around 120,000 people”including combatants as well as civilians”were killed in the conflict period of 2003-2005.
There was indeed a horrendous civil war in Darfur, but it reached its nadir five years ago. As Jonathan Steele argued in the Guardian earlier this year: “Today’s Darfur is still appalling, but not so bloody a place [as it was in 2003 and 2004.]” In the current issue of The Spectator, Justin Marozzi argues that “the mass slaughter took place in 2003-2004,” and yet “Darfur has become an emotive campaign in which awkward truths”not least that the genocide is over”have become hostage to a more superficially exciting story.”
That trendy Western activists want to use a five-year-old, all-too-familiar civil war in Africa to brand China as “genocidal” and comparable to Hitler in 1936 exposes their dishonesty, dimwittery, and moral turpitude. Their campaign is motivated, not by truth, but by a feverish international search for a wicked bogeyman which they, the bored elites of Hollywood and the chattering classes of NYC, can shadow-box with. And who better than the Chinese, who, you know, are so strange-looking, different, and most importantly over there“a million miles from what Mahmood Mamdani labels “the messy politics” of America and Iraq.
The second inconvenient truth is that China’s role in the events in Darfur is far from clear-cut. As Jonathan Steele writes, it is naÃ¯ve to pin the blame for this extremely messy conflict solely on Khartoum, much less on the Chinese officials with whom Khartoum does business: “There are around a dozen different rebel groups currently fighting the government. To put the blame on only one party makes no moral or political sense.”
In fact, according to Justin Marozzi, there are now more than a dozen rebel groups; “as many as 30.” The conflict is fast, and depressingly, become Monty Pythonesque, says Marozzi: originally there were two main rebel groups, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM). Now there is the SLM-Minni, SLM-Unity, SLM-Mother, SLM-Free Will, SLM-Peace, the United Revolutionary Front, JEM-Peace, JEM-Unity and others, many of which are fighting each other as well as Khartoum. And amidst this mess, what was the hard evidence that the BBC’s investigative show Panorama recently discovered to show that China is “funding a genocide” in Darfur? Two Chinese-made army trucks in the hands of some of the Darfurian rebels.
The labelling of a bloody, confusing, dwindling civil war in Africa as a China-funded genocide””Genocide bad; China helping””should expose what lies behind the campaign against China in relation to Darfur: a simple-minded attempt to demonise China’s role in Africa and in international affairs more broadly.
Indeed, the China-bashing over Darfur is driven, not by any genuine anti-imperialist sentiment, but by a cynical desire to preserve Africa as the playground of Western activists rather than Chinese officials. Farrow, George Clooney, Human Rights Watch and their supporters in positions of influence might pose as anti-colonialists who want China to release Darfur from its “grip,” but in truth they are motivated by the concern that China’s dealing with Khartoum and other African governments is undermining the power and impact of Western intervention on the African continent.
As the Washington Post complained: “Sudan’s government feels it can ignore Western revulsion at genocide because [thanks to China] it has no need of Western money… China, along with Sudan’s other Arab and Asian partners, feels free to trample on basic standards of decency.” Those horrible, indecent, no-standards Chinese, standing in the way of the politics of “Western revulsion”… don”t those uppity Easterners know that only white, well-educated NGO activists and LA trendies should have the right to interfere in Africa?
Human Rights Watch has been even more explicit in its real concern about Chinese investment, involvement and intervention in Africa. It believes that China’s “non-political” trading and aiding with African states might nurture more dictatorships on the continent: “China’s growing foreign aid programme creates new options for dictators who were previously dependent on those who insisted on human rights progress.” In short, Chinese investment in Africa is a problem because, unlike “enlightened” Western investment, it doesn”t use financial and political blackmail as a way of keeping naughty African rulers in line. In one fell swoop”or perhaps one foul swoop”the Africa-concerned China-bashers reveal both their distrust of African leaders and the fear of the rising Chinese. It is almost a form of double racism: Africans cannot be trusted to run their own affairs and China cannot be trusted to get involved in Africa. Only decent, latte-drinking Westerners, well-educated in Human Rights 101, should decide how African wars should be resolved and how aid and trade to Africa should be organised.
This gets to the essence of China-bashing over Darfur: it is about jealously guarding the power of “Western revulsion” and Western financial blackmail on the African continent, which the Chinese are seen to be undercutting. What dresses itself up as a liberal campaign to raise awareness about China’s antics in Darfur is actually a fact-lite, hysterical exploitation of an African civil war to demonise the Chinese and keep Africa as the political backyard of decent-minded Westerners. This is about ensuring that Africa remains the White Man’s Burden rather than becoming the “Yellow Man’s Burden.”
The Smog Olympics
When China is not being accused of destroying the people of Darfur, it is being accused of destroying the entire planet. Numerous Western commentators have seized the opportunity of the Beijing Games to scaremonger about China’s allegedly scandalous levels of pollution.
Again, this section of the “Orientalist Olympics” is underwritten by some disturbing double standards, as Western activists who live lives of supreme comfort in industrialized, modernized, super-technologized societies express horror at China’s attempt to achieve a similar level of development. It also reveals that one of the main driving forces behind contemporary China-bashing is Western society’s own discomfort with modernity and progress, and its conviction that China will make the same “mistakes” as us if it continues to pursue economic growth and material wealth.
In the run-up to the Games, and since they started, Western observers have used the most shrill, borderline misanthropic language to describe the “dirtiness” of China’s economic “leap forward.”
One writer argues that the Games will “showcase pollution as well as world-class athletes.” Reporters claim “the effects of pollution can be seen everywhere… smokestack factories spew toxins into the air… rivers teem with sewage.” The environment correspondent of the UK Guardian recently reported on the outcome of China’s “economic miracle””no, he didn”t focus on the millions of people lifted from absolute poverty and the fact that more and more people now work in cities rather than subsisting on farms, but on China’s “dust, waste and dirty water.” Some in the West seem capable of seeing only the dirty downsides of economic growth rather than its benefits for millions of people; they look at China, not through rose-tinted spectacles, but through grime-stained Ray-bans.
And apparently, it isn”t only the people of China and Olympian athletes in Beijing who will suffer as a result of China’s filthy economic miracle “ everyone in the world is under threat. One British journalist says China”that “rapidly advancing dystopia where rivers run black” “ is putting the entire planet on the “fast track to irreversible disaster” with its rush to use “the dirtiest fossil fuel of all: coal.” A news report warns us that China is about to become even more of a planetary threat than the United States: “China’s emissions of carbon dioxide, the most important global warming gas, are expected to surpass those of the US in 2009.”
In the recurring discussion of China’s “toxic toys” “ the billions of toys with loose magnets and lead paint that China exports around the world “ many Western commentators have argued that the Chinese are literally poisoning us. The evidence, however, suggests that the scare about China’s lead-painted toys was blown out of proportion. Though it went largely unreported, at the end of last year the toy-maker Mattel publicly apologised to the Chinese for recalling 20 million of their toys and thus spreading fear about Chinese products, since in truth 17.4 million of those toys were recalled because of a design fault by Mattel rather than a sinister manufacturing mistake by the Chinese. Mattel has admitted that “no cases of any harm to children have been reported.”
Yet that hasn”t stopped many Western writers from treating China’s “toxic toys” as an invasion of poisonous substances from the weird, exotic East”there was even a serious discussion about American children possibly suffering a fall in their IQ levels if they chewed on too many lead-painted Chinese toys (some believe a lead overload can lower one’s intelligence.) It was like the return of the old, foul Fu Manchu scare, only this time the Chinese are not going to send ships and guns to conquer Western civilisation but boxes of Thomas the Tank Engines and Teletubbies to damage the minds of our next generation. Those devious Chinese!
The depiction of China as a black-rivered dystopia that is polluting the West and the world has eerie echoes of the old “Yellow Peril” view of the Chinese. In the past, too, the Chinese were viewed as “pollutants” who might weaken the standing, authority and general health of Western civilisation.
At the end of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth century, when many in the insecure, fin-de-siÃ¨cle West feared the possibility of a “Yellow Invasion” of workers and goods from the East, the Chinese were looked upon as cultural “pollutants.”
As one author says, they were considered “racial, social and physical pollutants” who might cause the “demise of Western civilisation.” In his book Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture, Robert L Gee says Chinese domestic servants in turn-of-the-century America were seen as representing “a threat of racial pollution within the household.” Lee says the view of the Chinese as “pollutants” was telling: “Pollutants are anomalies in the symbolic structure of society, things that are out of place and create a sense of disorder. A mere presence in the wrong place, the intentional or unintentional crossing of a boundary, gives offense.” Today, too, in the more PC lingo of environmental pollution, the Chinese are accused of creating “disorder” in the world and of being “out of place” with their irresponsible, un-ethical industrialisation.
The academic Monica Chui has shown that the China-bashing dimestore literature of the “Yellow Peril” era was packed with images of the Chinese as “filth, pollutants and toxins.” In her study Fit to be Citizens: Public Health and Race in Los Angeles 1879-1939, Natalia Molina writes about the American public health officials who spread scare stories about Chinese immigrants as “carriers of diseases and pollutants,” giving rise to a “popular perception of the Chinese as a literal as well as metaphorical threat to the health of the body politic.”
Such scares were rehabilitated, albeit in more “acceptable” language, during the mad toxic toy scare of 2007″then, too, American public health officials did little to challenge the idea that Chinese-exported lead was a serious health problem, thus nurturing the perception that “they” over there are a threat to the health of “us” over here.
While the language has changed over the past hundred years”from “Yellow Peril“ to “environmental menace” (or Green Peril, perhaps?)”the view of the Chinese as pollutants and toxins has remained. This demonstrates an important historical fact: very often, Western views of China are forged, not so much by hard facts or evidence about China’s threat to the world, but by Western society’s internal fears for its own standing and survival.
During the “Yellow Peril” era of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the fear of the Chinese invader”in the shape of weird-looking workers, drug-addicted gambling addicts, or diseased prostitutes”was driven by a powerful fin-de-siÃ¨cle sense in the capitals of the West that Western civilisation was fragile and losing its authority. The Western elites” own fear for the survival of their way of life was projected on to the Eastern outsider, who was transformed into an all-purpose bogeyman who was said to be racially polluting the Western race pool and culturally polluting Western society.
Today, too, the more scientific-sounding discussion about contemporary Chinese pollutants “ whether it’s the lead content of their toys or the pollutant particles they are expelling into the global atmosphere”is underpinned by overblown Western angst for the safety and security of the globe. Our own culture of fear, our heightened sense that the world will shortly end in a fireball of our own making, has been projected on to the Chinese, who have become convenient symbols of human destruction and rapaciousness. And why? Simply because they are seeking to do what America and most of Europe have done already “ industrialise, develop, and become more prosperous. How dare they!
These “Smog Olympics“ are fuelled by double standards and by historic prejudices dusted down and dolled up in eco-garb. It requires a startling combination of arrogance and lack of self-reflection for well-to-do activists in the West, sitting in cushioned, air-conditioned offices as they sip on a five-dollar macchiato, to demonise China for its effort to join the twenty-first century and enjoy some of the luxuries we enjoy.
Human Rights Olympics
Finally, many are seeking to turn Beijing 2008 into Human Rights 2008 “ an indictment of the Chinese regime’s continuing denial of democracy, choice and basic rights to its citizens.
This seems like the most convincing politicisation of the Games. After all, there is no question that China remains an undemocratic state, ruled over by one, unchallengeable party that has little respect for people’s fundamental freedoms.
Still, even this exploitation of the Olympics to say “j”accuse“ to China ought to be challenged by those of us who genuinely care about liberty and democracy for the Chinese”because in the relentless politicisation of the Olympics “freedom” has been transformed into a weapon to be wielded by cynical and hypocritical Western governments against their alleged inferiors “over there.” The “Human Rights Olympics” are meant to expose Chinese authoritarianism”yet they also expose Western hypocrisy and, once again, Western double standards.
Various human rights activists are calling on American and European governments, and the corporations sponsoring the Beijing Games, to “pressurise” China over its human rights abuses. Yet the West has no moral authority to lecture anyone about rights and democracy.
Respect for liberty is at an historic low in Europe and the U.S. In Britain, the New Labour government has obliterated some of our most basic legal rights over the past 10 years. It has introduced 42 days” detention without charge (the highest in any Western state), watered down the right to trial by jury, and brought in new legislation severely restricting free speech and effectively introducing new thought crimes (most notably the Racial and Religious Hatred Act and the Terrorism Act.) Many are attacking China for putting up CCTV cameras to spy on people attending the Beijing Games”yet Britain has five million CCTV cameras, or one for every 12 citizens. We have more than 20 per cent of the world’s CCTV cameras, which, considering that our tiny island occupies just 0.2 per cent of the world’s inhabitable landmass, is a quite remarkable achievement. The average Londoner is filmed by 300 CCTV cameras a day as he goes about his business. What right Gordon Brown has to lecture China about rights or the problem of spying is anybody’s guess.
Across the European Union, government ministers and officials have become decidedly sniffy about democracy, too, over the past five years. Earlier this year, when the Irish electorate dared to reject the EU’s Lisbon Treaty in a referendum, they were roundly denounced by EU bigwigs as “plebs,” “clowns,” and “ungrateful” wretches, whose ignorant voting choices show that giving the plebiscite too much say is “absurd” because “when there is popular consultation, you get populism, nationalism, xenophobia, all sorts of lies.” European elites seem to view democracy as a terrible burden, a pain in their collective ass”who are they to demand that the Chinese live up to democratic ideals?
The double standards of the Human Rights Olympics are revealed in one awkward fact: during the last Games, in Athens in 2004, the Greek government introduced extraordinarily stringent forms of spying and surveillance and yet it was not subjected to criticism by an army of Western campaigners and journalists. Apparently it is okay for Western, white governments to be authoritarian, but not those sinister Easterners in Beijing.
The Greek transformed Athens into what one Greek academic labelled a “superpanopticon””that is, an open prison where everyone was monitored around the clock by the authorities. The academic says the Athens Olympics were turned into a “testing ground for the latest anti-terrorist superpanoptic technology,” which involved “exploiting real and perceived terrorist threats to prescribe extremely high security requirements.”
If the Chinese want to spy on people, they could learn a lot from Athens 2004. The authorities there installed a vast computer surveillance network, consisting of thousands of hidden cameras and microphones across the city that could analyse dozens of languages for any hint of “terrorist chatter.” Under the advice of the British authorities”the kings of CCTV”the Greek also introduced hi-tech CCTV cameras on the streets and roads around the Olympic village.
Greece spent an Olympics-record $1.5 billion on security. More than 70,000 security personnel, including 16,000 soldiers, patrolled the country’s borders and the perimeter of Athens. American troops assisted Greek troops in a mammoth three-week training exercise codenamed Shield of Hercules 2004, teaching them how to respond to potential “catastrophic scenarios” (there was none, of course.) Fighter planes patrolled the skies, and a naval ship”armed to the teeth”sat waiting in the docks. The then US ambassador to Greece was pleased with the results of the joint American-EU-Greek clampdown in Athens, arguing: “The job here is to put as many locks, sirens and alarms on the house called the Olympics so that the burglar goes to some other house.”
Do you remember journalists complaining about a culture of spying or the presence of so many menacing-looking armed forces? Do you remember angry global campaigns against the Greeks for “betraying Olympic values” with their locks, sirens, alarms, cameras, microphones and fighter planes? No”because there was none.
The message of the disturbingly differing judgement of China as against Greece”where Greece was assisted by the West in its Olympian authoritarianism whereas China is condemned by the West for its Olympian authoritarianism”seems clear: it is acceptable for “us” to sacrifice liberty in the name of security but not “them.” Our denigration of rights is somehow more legitimate and well meaning than theirs. Inexorably, perhaps unwittingly, the judgement of China by an entirely different standard to Western countries is rehabilitating the old idea that Easterners are in some way more naturally wicked than we Westerners: that we are morally pure with decent motivations, and they are a “cruel race.”
Worse, this use of the issue of freedom as a pulpit for Western rulers to hector China, despite the fact that our rulers wouldn”t know what liberty was if it jumped them in an alley, denigrates the universality of freedom, turning it ultimately into a weapon of re
Realpolitik. This undermines the potential for solidarity between Chinese people and people in the West, as all of us ought to fight back against our authoritarian, terror-obsessed, killjoy elites. In the Human Rights Olympics, the Chinese are treated once again as somehow different to and more unusual than us, rather than as our potential allies in the defence of freedom against fearful governments on both sides of the West/East divide.
This is where the Orientalist Olympics have taken us: to a situation where the Chinese are attacked as toxins, pollutants and genocidaires who must allow someone like George W. Bush to talk down to them about freedom; where the people of China are treated, in Rudyard Kipling’s words, as “half devil” (they are strange and wicked) and “half-child” (they are pathetic victims of their ruling regime.) Who will agree with me that this perverse politicisation of the Beijing Games has done far more to undermine human solidarity and respect than the Beijing Games themselves?
Brendan O”Neill is editor of spiked in London.