The Beijing Olympiad, China’s human rights record and Western Orientalism


By Paul Close
China has long held a prominent position in the Western imagination. From Marco Polo onwards, China – or the Middle Kingdom – has been viewed as a mystical, unknown and unknowable place.

Whether Sinophile or Sinophobe, early European merchants, missionaries and ambassadors, such as Lord George Macartney, have bequeathed fascinating accounts of the China they encountered, while telling us just as much about their Western prejudices as about China itself.

Many notable Western scholars have been drawn to the exotic features of Chinese civilization. For instance, Baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755) is one of many Western thinkers who have looked to China for inspiration in trying to make sense of and advances in politics and governance among other areas of social life. Equally significant has been the cultural and aesthetic impact of China on the West, with Chinoiserie as objets d’art having been transported to the West for many centuries to great critical acclaim.

Indeed, from Chinoiserie and Orientalism (*) to the Yellow Peril and US containment, China has loomed large in the Western psyche. The perceived wealth, luxury, eroticism and depravity of the East has variously attracted and repelled, while the Eastern political order has been depicted by some as despotic and tyrannical, but by others as an expression of enlightened totalitarianism – as a utopian polity, in which mandarins (philosopher kings) ruled benevolently.

From the philosophes, such as Voltaire, to twentieth-century intellectuals, such as Jean Paul Sartre, the Chinese state of affairs has been regularly idealized in the West. Eastern sensuality has been contrasted with, and indeed viewed as a threat to, Western virility. The decadent, emotional and irrational East has been feminized and counter posed to the virtues and masculinity of the West, providing in the process a justification for European imperialism.

This myopic Orientalism continues to figure strongly in Western writing, thinking and attitudes about the East in general and China in particular, colouring, shaping and determining the Western approach to everything concerning that part of the world. The question arises, therefore, ‘what will be the impact of China’s treatment of that Western inspired mega-event, the modern Olympiad?

An opportunity to study the West’s fascination with China
As a team of insiders and outsiders, my co-authors and I have been both caught up in the Western fascination with China and intrigued by this fascination as a topic in itself.

Herein lies the cocktail of influences that inspired our decision in the early weeks of 2004 as the Athens Olympic Games approached to research and write about the follow-on event, the Beijing Olympiad, the four-year period starting with the closing ceremony of the Athens Games and ending with the closing ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Games.

We would write a book (**) about the sport involved, but in the broadest sense, and in the widest possible context – that of the global developments within which all sport is embedded and in relation to which sport plays an important, formative role.

The Beijing Olympiad has presented us with an opportunity to study a subject which we enjoy personally but which, at the same time, has immense significance in relation to our respective, overlapping areas of scholarly research as well as to major social developments at the global level.

Multi-disciplinary academic evaluation of the Beijing Games
We hope that our pleasures, interests and also concerns surrounding the Beijing Olympiad will come over to the readers of our book. We are China watchers in the popular sense, while being more precisely China scholars, who have endeavoured to come up with an objective examination of the Beijing Olympiad along with much else besides.

At the same time, we recognize the limitations of any work which seeks to be scholarly and objective. We are committed to a critical approach to what we study, which for present purposes means being critical both of China and of those who are critical of China from the standpoint of Western society, culture and continuing (if only for the time being) hegemony.

We strenuously avoid making a simple, crude attack on Chinese society, governance, human rights record and the like from a narrow, taken-for granted Western point of view. Our approach is far more cautious and, we trust, more balanced, scrutinizing as far as possible Western-based notions, interests and motives, such as those that underpin the Olympic movement, which after all may be regarded as yet another vehicle of Western imperialism, albeit of the latter-day variety.

Our critical approach also entails taking to task our own scholarly disciplines for their limitations, bias and somewhat imperious tendencies. We hope to have contributed to the conceptual, analytical and theoretical strengths of such disciplines as Sociology, Political Studies, International Relations, and Legal Studies.

We are empiricists wanting to inform both the general reader and our academic colleagues. We are an interdisciplinary team of social scientists hoping to advance the study of such things as the Olympic Games, mega-events, China, East Asian social relations and developments, and global social patterns, processes and trends.

Each of us is committed in his own way to wishing well the Beijing Olympiad, along with the city of Beijing in hosting the event, and the Chinese people in their attempt to put on a good display. We are in no doubt that the Beijing Olympiad will turn out to be a highly impressive and memorable occasion.

At the same time, we are conscious of the issues, concerns and controversies surrounding the Games, such as those of whether Beijing should have been selected in view of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) human rights record, the prospect of so-called terrorist attacks during the Games, and so on.

However, notwithstanding these considerations, we are looking forward to a mega-event which will prove to be an outstanding sporting and scholarly experience of the kind to which we have tried to do justice in this book.

Beijing as a platform for politics
We recognise that the Beijing Olympic extravaganza could be sullied by one or more spoilers, including those stemming from remaining doubts, not least in some highly influential quarters around the world, about Beijing as a suitable venue for the Games:

  • human rights issues, perhaps in particular with regard to freedom of thought, belief and expression, such as through religion, via the media and the Internet, and in politics;
  • various other ‘local’ difficulties, such as those concerning Tibet and the Uighurs of Xinjiang among other minority, dispossessed and oppressed groups;
  • the persistence, even growth, of immense inequalities of wealth, incomes and life chances around the PRC, and perhaps especially between the major urban centres and the rural areas, in which still by far most Chinese people live;
  • the continuing uneven development, disjunction or contradiction within the PRC between the economy and the political arena of social life (whereby, for instance, Western culture, values and individualism are encouraged in the former, but hardly in the latter);
  • national identities, sensitivities and ambitions, at the ‘local’ (internal), regional and global levels;
  • the Taiwan problem;
  • regional rivalries, disputes and animosities, perhaps especially between China (along with much of the rest of East Asia) and Japan;
  • the real, perceived or putative threat of violence, perhaps in particular in the form of ‘terrorism’;
  • the so-called War on Terror and its associated alliances, divisions and clashes;
  • the Arab-Israeli conflict, perhaps especially over the Palestine question; ongoing wars, in particular those in Afghanistan and Iraq; the nuclear stand-offs involving Iran and North Korea;
  • Western, especially US, arrogance, imperialism and hegemony;
  • globalization and its consequences, such as by way of its ecological spin offs;
  • the outcome of the 2008 Games for the immediate (Beijing area) economy, environment and population, such as through the practice of land appropriation;
  • the emphasis on success and winning, with its implications for de Coubertin’s ‘golden rule’, the use of drugs, excessive training methods, and so on;
  • the extravagance of the Games, especially in the face of considerable world-wide poverty, deprivation and exclusion;
  • and the association between the Olympiad, on the one hand, and the event’s encompassing patterns, processes and trends of local, regional and global power, control and governance, on the other.

The Olympics as a sign of China’s rise to power
In the end, it is difficult when studying, analyzing and making sense of the Beijing Olympiad to avoid the question of the relationship between the character, course and consequences of this mega-event, on the one hand, and the distributions, configurations and uses of power with which it is associated, on the other.

In accordance with the globalization thesis, the power involved is becoming increasingly rooted in the global political economy; while, in accordance with empirical observation, the distribution of global power is decisively shifting towards East Asia at the hub of which sits the PRC.

If so, then does the award of the Games and subsequent unfolding of the 2004-8 mega-event reflect primarily the influence of an alliance among a set of prominent local, regional and global power players with certain overlapping, if not identical, political-economy interests?

In the end, do the Games reflect the achievement of some presiding global social compact or class? Whatever troubles afflict the Games, will their success and future be dependent mainly upon whether they deliver the goods, so to speak, for big business, at home and abroad, MNCs and TNCs, and the like?

In the process, of course, any such global social compact will probably conveniently turn a blind eye to the PRC’s record and struggle vis-à-vis human rights and related issues. While we far from ignore this matter, we are concerned that it is best viewed in context and from a perspective which also emphasises the role of power at the global level.

Accordingly, our critical approach draws upon an earlier book: Asia Pacific and Human Rights: A Global Political Economy Perspective (***).

China and human rights
Human rights are acquiring an increasingly prominent role on the world stage. Interest in, concern about and action on human rights are widespread and rising, albeit in a far from globally even, uniform and untroubled fashion.

Human rights have generated a booming global industry while having become, not unconnectedly, highly controversial and deeply contested. Human rights matters have emerged as a major source of disagreement, dispute and discord at and between the local, regional and global levels of social, cultural, political and economic life.

These developments are addressed by us in Asia Pacific and Human Rights through an examination of the links between the evolving global human rights regime (GHRR) and the character and course of human rights in the world's most dynamic, complex and problematic region, that of the Asia Pacific.

It is argued that although the Asia Pacific and human rights nexus is influenced by cultural clashes, it is largely shaped by power distributions and struggles rooted in the global political economy (GPE).

The prevailing GHRR reflects the way in which globalization processes have been Western led, but its future is far from certain given the current shift in the balance of GPE power towards the Asia Pacific, and especially East Asia.

The Beijing Games and China's position in the global poltical economy
There are grounds for assuming that the Beijing Olympiad may act as a catalyst in the re-alignment process within the GPE and, not unconnectedly, will provide a spur to important changes inside Chinese society itself, not least in the area of human rights.

After all, the Olympiad will be a convergence point, or focal event, for a cluster of major developments at and between the local, regional and global levels of social life.

The developments involved include the deepening institutionalization of Olympism at the global level; the global spread of the Western cultural account around the doctrine of individualism; the advance of market capitalism and liberal democracy on the global plane; the progress of globalization in conjunction with the consolidation of global society; and the rise of China as a regional and global political economy player and superpower.

It is because of the way in which the Beijing Olympiad will draw together in a highly concentrated, dense and intense fashion these developments that the 2008 Games are likely to be not merely another sporting mega-event, but moreover the greatest ever mega-event, at least for the time being, with unprecedented internal and external social, economic, political and cultural consequences.

The Olympics will change China and the West
We expect the Beijing Games to be highly successful, including in consolidating the current rise of the Middle Kingdom to the rank of a global superpower, in encouraging progress in the PRC’s human rights record in accordance with the Western cultural account, and perhaps – but only perhaps – in helping amend Western Orientalism.


* Edward Said, Orientalism, New York: Pantheon Books, 1978

** Paul Close, Xu Xin and David Askew, The Beijing Olympiad: The Political Economy of a Sporting Mega-Event, London: Routledge, 2006 (hardback: 0-415-35700-4; paperback: 0-415-35701-2)

*** Paul Close and David Askew, Asia Pacific and Human Rights: A Global Political Economy Perspective, Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2005 (ISBN 0-7546-3629-1) 

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As co-author of The Beijing Olympiad: The Political Economy of a Sporting Mega-Event, Dr. Paul Close has analysed China’s approach to the Olympic Games, as well as the intense interest in how China will treat the Western inspired Olympics. The Games will undoubtedly be the playing field for more than sports in the summer of 2008 , and global developments, within which all sport is embedded, will be played out.

Close and his co-authors believe that the Games will be an important step in consolidating China’s status as a global superpower, as well as in encouraging progress in the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) human rights record in accordance with the Western cultural account, and perhaps – but only perhaps – in helping amend Western Orientalism.

Dr. Close has kindly provided us this personal introduction to his book, which examines the issues that have been relevant in his research into the Games and will continue to be so during the Beijing Olympiad.

Paul Close, Xu Xin and David Askew, The Beijing Olympiad: The Political Economy of a Sporting Mega-Event, London: Routledge, 2006 (hardback: 0-415-35700-4; paperback: 0-415-35701-


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