This was printed in the New Indian Express dated 10th Jun 08:

Here’s my original copy.

The fallout from the Olympic torch relay

By Rajeev Srinivasan

The Olympic torch relay was completed in China recently. and this was followed by the horrendous earthquake that leveled parts of Szechuan province. Apart from the human tragedies associated with both (including the protests that dogged the torch relay based on the genocide of Tibetans), the way the Chinese State has responded to both show some inklings of the way things work behind the Bamboo Curtain.

First, the Communists in charge of China pay enormous attention to symbols and pride, what East Asians call “face”. The Olympics are clearly their coming-out party, and they intend to impress the entire world with their new-found wealth and their march towards super-power-dom. Just as their neighbors in Japan and Korea announced their arrival on the world stage by staging the Olympics, China wants to host a perfect event, and they will stop at nothing to ensure this.

This is why the Chinese were so keen on ensuring that the torch relays went perfectly everywhere, and this explains their anger at disruptions in France and Britain. Interestingly, the only stop in the US, in San Francisco, was stage-managed through subterfuge: the torch took an unannounced path, so that protesters were fooled.

The Chinese State views the torch relay as the equivalent of an aswamedha yaga, wherein the emperor’s horse is free to wander as it pleases, and anyone who hinders it does so at the peril of facing his wrath. The vassal kings naturally pay obeisance. Thus, all the nations where the torch relay took place without incident are vassals of the Chinese King Emperor.

It is not surprising that the Indian government chose to bend over and kowtow to Chinese imperiousness. But the right thing for India to do once the violence in Tibet had commenced would have been to cancel the torch’s arrival in India altogether, citing security reasons. This would have been a painful snub to China, and quite appropriate to India’s role as the home of the Tibetan nation in exile. That would have got India respect.

Similarly, San Francisco was chosen – not New York, not Los Angeles – for the US appearance for good reason. It is because San Francisco was where the majority of Chinese coolies arrived. They built the railroads, and were discriminated against via the Asian Exclusion Act, which prevented them from owning property, marrying white women, or bringing Chinese brides. Thus the parading of China’s might where they were humiliated once upon a time.

Those who monitor the Chinese newsgroups on the net, or callers to talk shows, know how ultra-jingoistic Chinese people are. They are brought up on a steady diet of myths about great glory and great humiliation (by white imperialists) in the past. They cannot tolerate even the mildest criticism of their State or their country. The Communists are betting that by creating this new idol of nationalism they can stitch a large nation – well, actually an empire – together.

In this mythology, the Chinese State is remarkably similar to the German State between the two world wars. That too had memories of great Prussian glory, and the reality of great humiliation (by the victors in World War I). This led to a national psychosis, especially when mixed up with the idea of the Master Race. The same seems to be happening with China as well, with their vanity of being the Master Race (or Middle Kingdom) and their racist derision for all gwailo, foreign devils.

That brings up an interesting historical parallel: the Berlin Olympiad of 1936, which was intended to be the celebration of the ‘Aryan’ Master Race. Which it didn’t quite turn out to be, thanks to the black American runner Jesse Owens and others. Unless the Chinese win all the gold medals in Beijing, some ultra-nationalists will be upset.

But what is even more interesting is the parallels with both Berlin 1936 and Moscow 1980. Both were held when their respective empires were at their zenith. But by 1945, the Nazi empire was defeated; by 1990, the Russian empire had imploded. One possible future for China’s empire, then, may well be its collapse within the next ten years. After all, 60% of the land currently held in their iron grip by the Han Chinese belongs to Tibetans, Mongols, Uighurs, Manchus et al, who are not enamored of being second-class citizens in a Han-dominated land.

Of course, the other comparison is with Japan and Korea, both of which thrived. But there is a major difference: those other East Asian States had moved much further towards openness and democracy by the time they held their Olympics. China, as a one-party, totalitarian dictatorship is inherently unstable: they are playing a dangerous game encouraging ultra-jingoism, because that may well turn against the dictatorship itself.

But there are encouraging signs of realism on the part of the Chinese Communists. Although they have railed against His Holiness the Dalai Lama, using their customary unparliamentary language against him, nevertheless they are continuing a dialog with him. This is because they realize that there is considerable world opinion in support of the Tibetan cause. China’s modus operandi is to constantly test the limits; as soon as they get some push-back, they withdraw. China is not immune to world pressure.

Similarly, after the earthquake, China been remarkably open about the damage as well as the casualties. They have admitted that 10,000 have died. This is in marked contrast to their past behavior: in the 1970’s a dam burst and killed 100,000 people; the news was suppressed for thirty years. Similarly, they pretended that SARS and avian flu did not exist. There might be two reasons for this new-found candor: the demand for accountability from a more demanding population; and the darker possibility that this is an “Olympics Special”, and they intend to return to regularly scheduled opaqueness later.

If the Chinese State is on the way to becoming a more normal entity, and not a pathological misfit bent on imperialism, then that would be a good thing for all of Asia.

990 words, May 13, 2008