The Beijing Olympics and Nationalism

|China

The first half of 2008 has passed in the blink of an eye, and very soon China will be playing host to the Beijing Olympics beginning on 8 August.

This year is also one that marks the 30th anniversary since China, thanks to Deng Xiaoping, set its course for “reform and opening-up,” and in terms of relations with Japan there was also last year’s 35th anniversary of the restoration of diplomatic relations between China and Japan, followed by the 30th anniversary of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and the People’s Republic of China.

The Japanese Prime Minister at that time was Takeo Fukuda, and today, thirty years on, it is a historical nicety that the person who is prime minister is his son Yasuo Fukuda.

Right at the start of the year China suffered from the damage of the heavy snowfall centered on the south of the country; entering February, in Japan–China relations there was the gyoza [dumplings] affair; in March the first large-scale rioting in Tibet since 1989 broke out; in April trouble followed, tied up with Tibet, for the Olympic torch relays all over the world; and after the visit to Japan of President Hu Jintao, the first by a Chinese head of state for a decade, in May there was the major earthquake in Sichuan, and close to 70,000 lives were claimed. China, amid a critical period of turmoil, while calling for the unity in datong [Great Harmony] of the Chinese people, is hailing the Beijing Olympics.

Come to think of it, the road to attracting the Olympics to China was not a smooth one either.

As with accession to the WTO, it was early on, in the late 1980s, when the winning of the Olympics was being readied, but particularly with the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and as a way of cooling that unrest, in the following year of 1990 they managed to host the Asian Games in Beijing, with the assumption that they would attract the Olympic Games.

Apologies for straying into private matters, but in 1988, the year of my second stay in Beijing, my youngest child was born, and when I asked the advice of a Chinese friend about naming the child, I was told “988 is the Year of the Dragon, and in years of the dragon, as 1976 also was, convulsions occur.” Without thinking I named my child “Ryuhei [dragon-peace]” having the meaning of “praying for peace in the Year of the Dragon,” and I have been praised for it by Chinese people.

The upshot, with the Tiananmen Square protests occurring the following year, was that the whole family returned by emergency evacuation to Japan, and I was told wryly by my Chinese friends: “Because the Year of the Snake is also called a little dragon year in China, in the end the turmoil of the Year of the Dragon couldn’t be averted, could it?”

Incidentally, when Beijing lost out to Sydney as a candidate city for the 2000 Olympic Games, I consoled my friends with: “Because 2000 is a Year of the Dragon, it was probably better that you didn’t have the Games.”

Talking of dragons, in China they are also the symbol of emperors.

Around the time that the Tibet problem was hitting the headlines, I spoke with Chinese friends living in Japan and I was surprised with them coming out with the opinion that: “Oughtn’t the current leaders of China to learn from the wisdom of the Qing emperors?”

When I asked why, they said “In the period of territorial expansion, in order to place Tibet and Mongolia within their own sphere of influence, the Qing emperors made efforts to appease those other ethnic groups, deliberately converting to Lamaism, and building the Lamaist Yonghe Temple in Beijing.”

Naturally, this being talk of a period of feudal dynasties, it may not have been a situation that would have ended in such clear-cut talk, yet I was told by one of my Chinese friends that “They managed to do that because the Qing Dynasty itself was an ethnic minority”, and that was strangely satisfying.

Historically, the dramatic expansion of China’s sphere of influence was when minority peoples such as the Yuan and the Qing ruled the Chinese mainland, and although there is talk of it probably being down to a cosmopolitanism due to minority peoples ruling over the overwhelming number of Han, as to where the Manchu are today, they have mostly assimilated with the Han, and that Chinese friend says that one of their own grandfathers was one of the Manchu Eight Banners.

Lastly it is a matter that is ridden with complex emotion, being told by that Chinese person, as if it making it doubly clear, that: “Japan has been protecting the identity of Japanese people after they returned to their island nation after losing the last World War”, and being told that if Japan had ruled China, “the Japanese race would probably have been assimilated in the same way as the Manchu, and have disappeared.”

With the Beijing Olympics which are also a symbol of China’s internationalization, today, Greater Chinese nationalism is on the upsurge, and it is thought that how China subsequently overcomes the recently suddenly talked about internet nationalism and Olympic patriotic movement will be questioned amid subsequent globalization. After the Olympics, there will be the 2010 Expo, and then the year 2012, with its change in leadership, will be a Year of the Dragon: I now once again sincerely hope for a “dragon peace.”

[Translated by ERINA]