What do the Games mean to China?
The Top Story by Chris Graham
Never underestimate the Chinese. Bill Crutchfield, the CEO of the Charlottesville-based Crutchfield Corp., learned that on his short jaunt through Hangzhou, China, carrying the Olympic Torch in May.
Tens of thousands of young Chinese among the 1 to 2 million people lining the streets that day were sporting T-shirts that read “I Love China” – printed in English.
The message was clear. “They were very excited, a tremendous amount of national pride. I mean, this is one of the biggest things that has happened to the Chinese people in their lifetimes. And you could see that on the streets that day,” Crutchfield said.
The 2008 Beijing Games are very much a coming-out party for the 21st century China, which more than any country perhaps since Germany hosted the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin is using the Olympics to serve as a political and cultural validation of its place in world affairs. “It’s a circumstance that she sees as a validation of what the world thinks of what she is and what she has become – a major world power, a major world player, and not simply in the world of sport, where she has indeed become very significant, but economically, politically and diplomatically as well,” said David McQuilkin, a professor of history and political science at Bridgewater College. “It’s a recognition that China has become one of the great players. And in many ways is replacing the once-great powers that have more or less declined. You’ve had the decline of France, of Britain, of Germany, even of Russia, to a certain degree, although Russia is trying to make her way back. But China sees herself as one of the dominant players in the world, in every aspect of world affairs.”
And let’s give the Chinese Communist government credit, too, for seizing the opportunity. China has used the Games as a driving force to modernize its economy, its industry, its cities and its infrastructure. “What China has poured into the development of China has been dramatic,” McQuilkin said. “China has used this as a very significant means to uplift China, to make China visible, but also to modernize much of that infrastructure, which was necessary for China to continue to compete as we look down to the next several decades into the future. Some Chinese are beginning to say, and we’re hearing this more and more now, that the 21st century is going to be the age of China, much like the 20th century was the age of America.”
The media glare that comes with the Games also brings with it unwanted attention on human-rights abuses that are felt half a world away in Central Virginia. The growing Tibetan community in Charlottesville convinced the city council there to fly the flag of Free Tibet on the March 10 commemoration of Tibetan Uprising Day, sparking a minor international controversy. Tseyang, the president of the Tibetan Association of Charlottesville, hopes that the Beijing Games will give local Tibetan exiles another chance to raise awareness of the ongoing political stalemate in Tibet.
“What is getting known to the world right now because of the Olympics is the lack of human rights in China. Holding the Olympics in China means the world’s eyes are on China. And the world will know what human-rights abuses there are. The reality of Chinese rule in Tibet will become known to the world. We as Tibetan people are lucky to have this opportunity to bring our case to the world,” said Tseyang, whose family fled Tibet in 1963 and asked that her last name not be used to protect her family still in Tibet from possible retribution.
The hope is that young Chinese will be able to take advantage of the opening in Chinese society that has come with the impact of the Olympics. “We have a great hope for them, that with their great Chinese minds, their intellect, I think they could have a greater understanding with the world advancing of why these issues are important. Why do they not have a free press? Why do they not have freedom of access to information? They need to ask these questions, and I think they will be asking these questions,” Tseyang said. But there is evidence that young Chinese might actually be moving in the other direction. “These Games have also advanced the national spirit and identification of the Chinese with China. And this is important to the Chinese because you have Chinese citizens and people spread all across the globe, and this is something that will orient them to China, and this will only serve to enhance China’s image, China’s importance, China’s presence,” Bridgewater College’s David McQuilkin said.
“Let’s not get overexcited here,” McQuilkin said. “China is only going to allow those things that it sees as being beneficial to the state. And they’re going to continue to maintain controls upon that which one can do. They’re not going to change that. They’re going to become more subtle, perhaps, in finding ways to deal with that, but they’re not going to allow any of those new, modernist forces to ultimately transform China into an open society. It’s still going to be a controlled society. People are going to have to obey the authority of the state. And this has always been part of the Chinese experience. Don’t expect to see a great burgeoning of democratic activity. A little bit, yes, but only insofar as it is going to benefit the state.”
Bill Crutchfield saw that for himself firsthand in the sea of “I Love China” T-shirts.
“The growth of China is spectacular. You have to see it to appreciate it. I think all young people need to see it, because they’re going to become an even bigger factor in the world as we move forward. In some respects, it’s very scary. In other respects, it’s exciting,” Crutchfield said.