China's great Olympic debate
August 10th, 2012
11:43 AM ET

China's great Olympic debate

By Elizabeth Economy, CFR

Editor's note: Elizabeth Economy is C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This entry of Asia Unbound originally appeared here. The views expressed are those of the author.

The Chinese currently stand second in the Olympic medals table – in both gold and overall – but you would never know it from what’s going on in their media. Of course, there’s celebration of the country’s athletes. Yet the flawless performances of the Chinese divers and spectacular achievements of the Chinese male gymnasts are in danger of being drowned out by a torrent of commentary focused on what the games mean for China as a society and for its place in the world. Some of the commentary is lamenting, some angry, and still other searching.

Some Chinese are concerned that the cost of an Olympic gold is too great, both literally and figuratively. People have reportedly calculated the financial cost of swimmer Sun Yang’s two years of gold medal-worthy training at approximately $1.57 million. Not a small sum in a country where per capita income still tops out at roughly $7,500. At the same time, the stories of Chinese athletes living away from their families for years – missing deaths, illnesses, and family celebrations – in state-run training centers also raise questions for some Chinese as to whether gold medal mania is a worthy substitute for the to and fro of daily life. Then, inevitably, there are those who are worried about the enormous pressure placed on state-supported Chinese athletes, such as the weight lifter Wu Jingbiao, the gold medal favorite in his event, who broke down in tears and apologized to his country after winning a silver medal.

Even more Chinese media attention, however, has been paid to what China’s Olympic experience signals for the country’s place in the world. As Caixin reports, many Chinese believe their athletes have been unfairly treated by the rest of the world simply because they are Chinese. There is anger over the silver-instead-of-gold finish by China’s amazing gymnastics rings master Chen Yibing; fury over the disqualifications of Chinese cycling and badminton teams; and outrage over the accusations of doping by the gold medal-winning swimmer Ye Shiwen.

Some commentators argue that these cases are simply one more example of how the rest of the world is attempting to keep China from assuming its rightful place as a global power. In a Global Times article, for example, director of the China Institute of International Studies Qu Xing argues, “It’s unavoidable that we will encounter jealousy and even unexpected obstructions during the process of rising, as is the case in other fields.” Peking University professor Zhang Yiwu further suggests, “What we can do is try to be stronger to let others acknowledge and get used to our power…It’s very difficult to change the bias of others, while we can defend ourselves with facts.”

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Others take a more measured approach. Zhang Yun, in the People’s Daily Overseas Edition, compares the Olympics to China’s participation in the WTO and IMF, arguing: “As China develops, dissonance that grates on the ears will only increase. The key is still to hold one’s ground, to withstand the test of bias, and to listen to accurate criticisms. This is an international initiation that must be experienced for China to move towards renewal. Going back to history, every developed country experienced a similar kind of initiation.”

And a lengthy editorial in the China Youth Daily entitled, “It’s very tiring to watch the Olympics with a victim mentality,” argues that China’s experience is really no different from that of any other country, pointing out that both the Koreans and Indonesians lost outstanding badminton teams for the same reason as the Chinese, and that even the very unfortunate doping accusations against Ye Shiwen have been heard many times by many athletes from many countries. That doesn’t make it right, but it does make it unexceptional. Moreover, the gold medal-contending British cycling team was disqualified earlier in the London games for the exact same violation committed by the Chinese cyclists.

The China Youth Daily also offered a profound critique of those who see an anti-China hand behind every silver medal: “At the Beijing Olympics, what tested the Chinese people was how to be a host. After the Beijing Olympics, at the London Olympics, what tests the Chinese people is how to be an audience with a gentle attitude and healthy mind. Sports is not war, the Western world is not the enemy, patriotism does not cover up one’s errors, and criticism is not treason.”

The Olympics have encouraged wide-ranging discussion in China over the relationship between the Chinese state and society and over the country’s relationship with the rest of the world. Neither issue will be resolved by the end of the games, but both are evidence of a Chinese citizenry deeply engaged in open discourse and debate within itself and with the rest of the world. This is an achievement everyone should celebrate.

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Topics: China • Sports

soundoff (224 Responses)
  1. American

    Do U read labels? If it is from China, put it back and buy American. That's a great way to participate in strengthening our economy instead of theirs

    August 13, 2012 at 12:05 am | Reply
    • JackWisconsin

      But the products are of US companies. The slave workers in China make pennies while most of the profit goes back to American corporations. You're not really hurting the Chinese workers as there will always be work for them, you'll hurt the admin and office workers, sales people, etc. of American companies + put another American product company out of business, hurting our own economy. Don't blame the overseas workers who's willing to take on a manufacturing job. They didn't come here to "steal" work. Blame your CEOs and politicians for off-shoring the jobs and not keeping it in the states.

      August 13, 2012 at 12:52 am | Reply
    • Maersk

      American, please explain to me why you still have a Chinese made dudo stuck in your azz? Shouldn't you be using your own fingers if you are so anti Chinese made products?

      August 14, 2012 at 5:59 pm | Reply
  2. Madhu S Vashist

    I think the performance of China has redeemed the expense. Any country will spend any amount of money to be a number one so there is no true meteric as to how you become No. 1 as long as you could. The expense could be devastating but sometimes you do go for suicidal move. If I am Chinese Premier i will do the same.

    August 13, 2012 at 12:19 am | Reply
  3. joe

    sad how any article about China brings out hundreds of racist comments from White people. White people have never changed, they still are as racist today as they were 100 years ago.

    August 13, 2012 at 12:20 am | Reply
  4. JackWisconsin

    "but you would never know it from what’s going on in their media" Really?? Xenophobe much? All their national media and papers are online and almost all include an English version. If they don't, use Google Translate for the web site. I pretty much stopped reading the article after that first line – as I realized it's just sensation reporting/writing at that point.

    August 13, 2012 at 12:50 am | Reply
  5. rico7207

    Bottom line, USA WON and china lost. No one cares how they feel. If they don't like it, stay home. Games go on just the same! They'd have hardly any medals if they let their athletes enjoy life like the Americans do. And they know it. Hurts to lose when you cheat all the time also.

    August 13, 2012 at 1:53 am | Reply
  6. RadZap

    China whines too much to be respected as a superpower. They insist on getting preferential treatment and refuse to act in a mature manner at the global level. I will enjoy seeing them collapse like the Soviet Union into smaller states in the next 20 years.

    August 13, 2012 at 2:11 am | Reply
  7. Steve

    China should not be ashamed or discouraged by their results at the Olympics. They fared incredibly well. Why should Wu Jingbiao feel obligated to apologize to his country for being the second best in the entire world? That is still a huge accomplishment. If any Chinese official or citizen is actually ashamed of his performance, they should try getting up on that stage and doing what he did in his place. The vast majority of Olympians, no matter their nationalities, are extremely capable athletes who have proven themselves. None of them should have to apologize if they gave their all and came up slightly short.

    August 13, 2012 at 2:20 am | Reply
  8. TnA

    We should respect China's olympic team because they are authentic 100% Chinese, as with most Asian countries and their own kind. USA is a umbrella of different races. Without "African-Americans" they wouldn't have had 28 gold and silver medals in Athletics to close the gap and take the medal lead. Olympics are about nations but deep down we know it is really about race. In that regard, China takes the cake.

    August 13, 2012 at 3:40 am | Reply
  9. I'm impressed.

    This lady did a great job writing this article. Really gave a great non-opinionated piece for us to talk about. That being said the Olympics were fantastic to watch, conspiracy theorys, politics and ramblings of the sheep or not. Great job to alll the athletes, China definitely had an amazing year. Good for them.

    August 13, 2012 at 4:25 am | Reply
  10. John Smith

    Welcome to the world of being or wanting to be a superpower.

    August 13, 2012 at 7:37 am | Reply
  11. Confucious confused

    Let us go back 5 decades ago. China is a communist country and will imposed it's rule of government. This no more or less portrayal of the east bloc before 1989 GDR revolution, where people are expedable to promote the communist ideology and fear mongul totalitarian rule. The only solution for the Chinese people; people power revolution.

    August 13, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Reply
  12. Juicy Banana

    China is a system of Hell. And empire army from hell go upon the world to make humanity suffering. Samething with Taliban, and Alqueda

    August 14, 2012 at 4:48 am | Reply
  13. Juicy Banana

    China is a system of Hell. And empire army from hell go upon the world to make humanity suffering. Samething with Taliban, and AlQeda

    August 14, 2012 at 4:49 am | Reply
  14. QQtinna

    China is a growing country.Now you can see it.He has done perfectly in olympic games.It is truth

    August 14, 2012 at 12:09 pm | Reply
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  16. Addison_Acton

    In 1984 for the Los Angeles Games, Betting Guide the IOC brought back the idea of sending professional athletes to the Olympics. Even though FIFA did not accept the game as official for the Olympics, they would still dictate what comprised an official team. Both FIFA and the IOC wanted teams that were composed of younger individuals. Some say this was a way to sabotage the game for other countries with stronger football teams, as shown by the low scoring these countries receive every Summer Olympics. However England has been working on this problem for a long time before the United States. In 1974 the Association of England declared that there was no longer a distinction between "Amateur" and "Professional" soccer.

    August 29, 2012 at 7:13 am | Reply
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