Blind Man with a Pistol

The New Peril

Boycott the Beijing Olympics. Free Tibet. Down with police states.

One can imagine China reading such Western stories and responding with mock incredulity and sly condescension. ‘But what have I done wrong? Where have I stepped awry?’

China has opened her doors to capitalist investment. Following the lead of North American colonization of the First Nations, she has ushered in modernity and development to the feudal and poverty-stricken theocracy of Tibet. She has made national security paramount and relegated political dissent to free-speech zones. All of these strategies come verbatim from the Western capitalist playbook. It would of course be easier for our protests if China were to adhere to the plot of the last Western-led Olympic boycott—the 1980 games in Moscow—and invade Afghanistan so we could assume a position of moral authority. Oh wait.

So China has needlessly amplified State security, is guilty of oppressing and attenuating indigenous cultures, and is flagrantly ignoring calls to address its growing poverty and human rights abuses? Make no mistake: these are massive crimes and acts of negligence. But I question the assumption that our concern with these abuses stems from a love of humanity and not from a hostile, orientalist political agenda. As the wonderful Claire Fox has put it:

None of these measures count for much amongst a sanctimonious Western commentariat because they are not interested in “Beijing’s smog” as a practical problem with practical solutions. Beneath the breathless headlines this week is our own anxiety about the growth of China and our willingness to put the boot into the toxic Chinese economy at any opportunity.

As the New York Times put it in a 10-part series at the end of last year, China is “choking on growth”. The possibility that China could become a fully industrialised and urbanised society, with living standards akin to our own, has become the ultimate environmentalist nightmare. It is often concluded that it would be better for the planet if China simply stopped growing.

The problem is that this selfishly sees only the pain and pollution that an industrial revolution brings to a country the size of China and ignores the undoubted and enormous gains to the Chinese people brought about by the concomitant economic prosperity.

If once Western racists dubbed China as the “yellow peril” and Mao’s regime was sometimes called the “red peril”, modern China is often viewed as a “green peril”.

It’s the yellow peril all over again, but we’ve learned a new vocabulary. This bias is exacerbated by our own hypocrisy. Canada turns a blind eye not only to the cartoonish cynicism of unapologetically hosting the Winter Olympics while occupying Afghanistan a mere thirty years after boycotting Moscow 1980 for the same imperialist crime, but for the exact same abuses for which it criticizes the inscrutable East (hat-tip to bcg on babble):

Often, with only hours’ notice, residents were dumped onto the streets to join the thousands of others who wander the alleys by day and sleep on the sidewalk by night. Anti-poverty groups such as the Pivot Legal Society, the Anti-Poverty Committee and the Downtown Eastside Residents Association say a number of hotels have closed in this manner, adding many more people to the legions of the homeless. According to David Eby of the Pivot Legal Society, a total of 1,314 rooms that formerly housed low-income individuals have been closed or converted to other uses since the awarding of the Games to Vancouver in 2003.


“Economic cleansing” is the ticket, and Mayor Sam Sullivan has the plan. If the Downtown Eastside is ugly and drug infested, he can sweep it all away courtesy of Project Civil City, Sullivan’s less than subtle manoeuvre to rid Vancouver of the relics of years of institutional neglect. Or maybe the city could ship the homeless out to other parts of the province “for treatment,” as the province’s Liberal Forests Minister recently suggested, the idea eerily reminiscent of the wholesale urban clearances of the poor in the run-up to Atlanta’s Olympics in 1996. The statement seemed likely to be a trial balloon, sent up to gauge public reaction.


The Anti-Poverty Committee began to get media coverage, and while the latter tended to be very negative, the genie was out of the bottle; many British Columbians were forced to face the fact that poverty in Vancouver had increased as a consequence of the 2010 Olympic developments. The city struck back: Anti-Poverty Committee members were arrested and charged, and another anti-poverty group allied to them, the Downtown Eastside Residents Association, had their city funding cut off.

Vancouver City Council had dug in its heels, and Mayor Sullivan declared that the city was not going to “surrender to hooligans.” They weren’t going to do anything serious about the underlying poverty issues either. The promises to the poor, promises that had led many social progressives to vote yes in the plebiscite, were simply abandoned. Although many Vancouverites noted the broken promises, a large number didn’t really seemed to care, at least if the mainstream media were to be believed. In this regard, Vancouver mimicked Sydney where, “Sydney Olympic organizers relied on ‘Olympic spirit’ discourse to diffuse public outrage on the numerous occasions when Olympic officials failed to live up to the lofty standards touted in pseudo-religious rhetoric.”

And just in case anyone in the Anti-Poverty Committee or any other organization had thoughts of doing anything even more radical, the Olympic security machine was beginning to sputter to life. As we will see, the 2010 security forces might not be able to do much against a real external threat, but perhaps that wasn’t to be their main purpose: Maybe their raison d’être would be to contain domestic Olympic opponents.

Economic cleansing, callous and active abuse of our Aboriginal populations (while hypocritically displaying the inukshuk on the Olympic logo to boast of our multiculturalism); while using it all to legitimate a security force more intent on suppressing domestic dissent and policing poverty than protecting us against an imaginary foreign menace. We prefer to focus our energies on China, who, coincidentally, are making a play for the global hegemony we used to enjoy. What really hurts is that this new yellow peril is stealing all our ideas and doing a better job. It’s enough to remind us of another wronged nation, whose ominous warning fell mutely on the oblivious ears of the Christian overclass:

—The villainy you teach me, I will execute. And it shall go hard, but I will better the instruction.

The Merchant of Venice, 3.1.60-1

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Sun Shuyan in today’s Grauniad:

I came back to England. If watching the Olympics on television is now the choice of the Chinese, I thought I would rather do it in London. But then I was overwhelmed by the avalanche of criticism in the British press and TV coverage: “‘Police-state wastes goodwill’, says stadium designer”; “Beijing Olympics: the spying games”, “Clegg urges PM: don’t endorse these tainted Olympics”, “Queasy rider – US cyclists combat pollution”, “Britons arrested for flying pro-Tibet banners”, “Tiananmen orchestra cannot drown out the chorus of protests” – and many, many more, ranging from abhorring the “hideous” Bird’s Nest, to accusations of exploiting the migrant workers who built it. This is not fact-finding but fault-finding. And now, at the eleventh hour, Bush has rasped at China’s record on human rights and religious freedom, fanning the flames.

China certainly has faults. But reading the papers and watching the news, you might think the country has nothing to take credit for. Do a billion Chinese not deserve their day in the limelight, their moment of rejoicing? The western press seems to equate the Olympics with the Chinese government, not the people – and the people must wonder what they have to do to win some approval.

Comment by matttbastard

*Sun Shuyun

Comment by matttbastard

Thanks for that mattt. I heard Claire Fox observe recently that China-bashing was becoming an Olympic sport. Any pretension toward constructive criticism tends to fade into hypocrisy when George Bush, Jr. starts lecturing China on human rights and political prisoners. I always wonder how the Chinese people must feel when self-righteous Westerners uncritically bandy terms about like “authoritarian” and “police state.” Shuyun’s point is potent: What do the Chinese have to do?

Comment by Blind Man

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