Join the celebration

August 08, 2008|By Alison J. Dray-Novey

The 2008 Olympic logo alludes to three Chinese characters: ren, person; wen, culture; and jing, capital city. The character ren clearly shows a side view of a person walking. In the logo, however, the artist drew ren to show the person running - thus creating an emblem of the Beijing Olympics that is apt in more than one way.

The significance of the Games is not that China has arrived at its modern incarnation, the search for which has been so long, so full of false starts and so frustrating. It is, rather, that China is finally in rapid motion - running, not walking, toward its goal of a modern nation commensurate with the greatness of its past.

Yes, criticism of China often is in order. But energy also should be devoted to cultivating the many seeds of potential cooperation. To understand China's complex role in the world today, and the significance of the Beijing Games, it is helpful to examine its turbulent modern history.

For the residents of Beijing, as for other citizens of the People's Republic, the theme of running, of catching up, has overtones far beyond athletics. From about A.D. 600 to 1600, China was the world's most impressive state, the source of brilliant achievements in art, technology and government. But it fell behind as other leading peoples industrialized in the 19th and 20th centuries. Many painful moments that resulted from China's weakness occurred in Beijing, as European powers naturally chose the capital for punitive actions (including the burning of the Summer Palace in 1860 and triumphal parades in the Forbidden City in 1900).

In 1911, the Qing dynasty was overthrown by a nationalist revolution. Its initial leader, Sun Yat-sen, was in a great hurry to establish China as a modern nation-state. Beijing remained the capital until 1928. But republican government did not work out and regional "warlords" seized power. At Beijing universities, despair caused by these events produced a drive for intellectual modernization. Mao Zedong and other founders of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921 were deeply influenced by those ideas and by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917.

In 1928, a new nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-shek, united China by co-opting or defeating the warlords and moved the capital to Nanjing. Beijing, now no longer a capital as it had been almost continuously for a thousand years, struggled economically and militarily. After war between China and Japan broke out in 1937, first Beijing and then Nanjing came under Japanese control until the end of World War II.

When civil war brought Mao and the Communists to power in 1949, they returned the capital to Beijing. Their rule veered between reconstruction and economic advance on the one hand and a series of increasingly radical campaigns on the other. The Communists too were in a hurry; disastrous misjudgment in the Great Leap Forward (1958-1960) caused millions of famine deaths. Many of the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution (1965-1970s) occurred in Beijing.

The China that emerged from the nightmare of the Cultural Revolution after Mao's death in 1976 was still far behind fully industrialized nations. Subsequent market-oriented economic reform and opening to the outside produced high annual growth rates and lifted millions out of poverty. The reform era too suffered from hastiness; by the mid-1990s, however, its positive trajectory was clear. Rapidly rising expectations had much to do with the weeks of pro-democracy demonstrations at Tiananmen in spring 1989.

Many have taken the Olympic spotlight as an opportunity to criticize Chinese actions on Tibet, human rights, Sudan and other issues. It does not minimize these crucial matters in any way to recognize that in China, many major stories are always unfolding at the same time. For example, the People's Republic may not have taken helpful actions on Sudan or Zimbabwe, but it has assisted in negotiations with North Korea. Beijing may be a center of pirated goods, but the government's interest in protecting the Olympic logo has inspired a new interest in intellectual property law.

For China, this is a time of acceleration. Both the pace of change and the percentage of citizens affected for the better have increased sharply. Most citizens of the People's Republic are proud of the Games and of the full Chinese dignity in the international world of the new century that they represent. These things have been achieved only over a long time and with great difficulty. This is why the flaws of Chinese institutions and policies that have drawn so much attention do not vitiate the Olympics' historic significance. And it is also why foreign visitors may - indeed, should - join the celebration.

Alison J. Dray-Novey is professor of history at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland and co-author of "Beijing: From Imperial Capital to Olympic City." Her e-mail is adraynovey@ndm.edu.

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