The state of China as the Olympics begin

United behind the spectacle, the nation, and the chance to buy stuff.

I write this as the Olympics get under way in 北京/Beijing, and 中国/China begins its "coming-out party to the world". Thus far coverage in the American media has been execrable, dwelling almost exclusively on Beijing's pollution and the "rights violation" of not allowing foreign reporters access to a handful of English-language websites. Time has also been found, of course, to report on important issues like whether government restrictions would make the Olympics "no fun" for foreign visitors and the pole-dancing craze sweeping the world of bourgeois Chinese women's fitness. When articles touching on the key issues facing China today have appeared, like this one on the eviction of many of the workers whose labor has created the Beijing cityscape but who will never enjoy what they built, or this one on China's macroeconomic juggling act, they've been superficial and completely failed to capitalize on this unprecedented opportunity to educate Americans on China's complex reality.

It's hardly surprising, tho. Concentrating on individuals and ephemeral "events" that float ahistorically in the the present, at the expense of deep contextual or structural understanding, is precisely the model of mainstream journalism. Yet the media can do - and have done - a much better job than this. Witness the outstanding New York Times series a couple years ago on the massive social tensions among the winners and losers of China's reform era. At the time I summarized and expanded on these articles and also wrote a broader critique. These are worth going back and reading, because such structurally induced conflicts remain at the root of China's tense social situation.

The Western media's obsession with "human rights" (in their usage, little more than free speech and elections) has massively distorted their portrayal of the Chinese situation. As despicable as is the persecution of internet dissidents and the like, the most serious rights violations in China today are tied to the violence created by free market competition. Severe labor exploitation, repression of independent unions, inadequate access to healthcare, unequal access to schooling, expropriation of peasants' land for development schemes, subjection to horrific pollution - these are the pressing injustices in China, and they are all variations on the theme of class warfare.

The Western media, having served as continuous cheerleader for market reforms over the course of three decades, is constitutionally incapable of recognizing this. Instead, severe class tensions are absorbed within the fatuous formulation of a "liberalizing economy alongside and an authoritarian polity". American writers evince no end of bewilderment at such a paradox. Yet if they examined the history of the last two hundred years, they might discover that in each and every case harsh authoritarianism has accompanied the early stages of capitalist accumulation. Workers do not quietly accept being dominated, at least not until relentless repression and the lure of consumerism work their magic.

To cope with these increasingly stark social contradictions, the Chinese state and its allies in the emerging capitalist class have resorted to an old formula: channel popular anxiety and rage into passions that unite those with power and those without it. For the moment, xenophobic nationalism and a putative shared culture - the most powerful examples used by many ruling elites over the last two centuries - are actually being given a relatively low profile in these efforts. Right now, none other than the Olympics is the focus of attempts to repress class conflict. The Olympics serves first as spectacle, a latter-day bread and circuses. Second, it has been promoted with almost messianic enthusiasm as a symbol of China's rise. Every citizen has been encouraged to take pride in the nation, as China's leaders have obsessively sought out whatever amenities (fancy hotels, striking buildings, immaculate toilets) are thought to command respect in the international realm. Finally, the Olympics are the focus of that other great desire that unites the entire nation - endless accelerating consumption.

How the quest to avoid class conflict will proceed after the Olympics is a hugely important question, for Chinese culture, politics, and international relations alike. The fleeting unity forged by the Olympics may be sorely tested in the next year or two if the rich countries sink into prolonged recession, causing China's export markets to contract and unemployment to rise. Yet aggressive nationalism probably cannot provide immediately relief - China has staked its international reputation (in striking contrast to the United States) on a "peaceful rise", and the ideological groundwork for a more muscular imperialism has yet to be laid.

If unrest starts to increase, the state will probably make tactical concessions, and may even start the shift from export-oriented development to concentrating on developing the internal market. Fortunately for Chinese capitalism, the state retains a powerful role in the economy and can respond far more rationally - in the interests of capitalists as a class - than would individual capitalists, who would no doubt prefer ever more brutal repression. The victims of the market have little capacity to produce something more radical - they remain extremely fragmented and the only group that might overcome this, the intellectuals, still fear them more than the state. Thus far, protesters have only infrequently turned to the rich history of revolutionary China as a resource in challenging the radical inequalities that have emerged in the reform period. But if the intellectuals find their social position deteriorating and some join the popular movement, this history could become a powerful weapon against the Chinese "Communist" Party and its capitalist running dogs.


Justin said...

Great article, and I agree with most everything you write.

Though, I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on what effect the west's set of "human rights" would have on the problems you mentioned. It seems that those problems would have a greater chance of being exposed and would be more likely to generate pressure for change (both domestic and internationally) if citizens were also to have the set of rights that the west emphasizes. My suspicion is that voting wouldn't matter much, but freer speech would matter quite a bit.

n said...

I think you miss the point about the limits on internet access for journalists at the olympics (not just a couple sites, by the way, but a whole host of NGO and media sites).

what is galling is that China can openly disdain and disregard freedom of religon, press, and expression at this "world event" and at the same time put on this spectacle of munificence. practically speaking, the "direct actions" that activists took at the olympics have not been reported on at all - yes, that's partly because the western press would rather talk michael phelps etc., but it's also because of the limited press access. how many news outlets are willing to write negative stories about the olympics, when they know their access could be limited even more?

What's more worrisome is that the successful repression of dissent of the beijing olympics appears to legitimize and prop up the current chinese regime.

As a separate matter, I do not think it's necessary that civil and political freedoms trade off with the human rights issues that you are concerned with, namely, economic exploitation. You seem to identify human rights talk with a non-critical, sort of "centrist democrat" ideology, but i don't think it is inherently so. human rights can and should be radical.

Jake said...

"human rights can and should be radical."

i don't disagree with that, and i certainly agree with justin's point that freedom of speech and press would increase the ability of the victims of market reform to organize to defend themselves. but the fact is that ever since the contemporary notion of human rights became widespread in the 1970s, human rights discourse has been consistently used 1) to exclude more radical conceptions of what society should look like by concentrating attention on intellectual freedoms, marginalizing economic rights, and favoring procedural equality over substantive equality, and 2) as a rhetorical club to beat america's rivals and defend the fantasy that the united states must maintain global hegemony in order to expand human rights and democracy. the human rights discourse surrounding china right now fits these patterns all too closely, which is exactly why chinese people perceive it as the alien intrusion it is.

again, the *only way* to move human rights discourse away from its current position as handmaid to capitalism and imperialism is to start including basic economic rights in the list of grievances, to start condemning the domination of other countries as a violation of human rights, and to start making structural analyses of the sources of rights violations.

"the successful repression of dissent of the beijing olympics appears to legitimize and prop up the current chinese regime."

as despicable as chinese repression is, i'm pretty sure that if dissent were allowed during the olympics it would have no effect, and i'm not sure how you think this particular case of repression is propping up or legitimizing the regime. the problem is much deeper than the state's heavy-handedness - the fact is that the ideologies of nationalism and neoliberalism have penetrated deeply into chinese culture, and this gives the party-state a fundamental legitimacy in the eyes of most chinese people. any major irruption of dissent would have been met with scorn and anger by the population at large.