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.”
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.