PtG Article 06.10.2005

Olympic impact across the Chinese Wall: Human rights and humanism

When it comes to Beijing 2008, China’s human rights record is not the only thing worth talking about. At Play the Game 2005, the debate broadens its scope from human rights to including the Chinese concept of humanistic Olympics and how China might change our idea of Olympism.

“In discussing the Beijing Olympics, Western observers readily express a desire to change China. But why are we so concerned about changing China, and not concerned about China changing us?” asks Susan Brownell, an associate professor at the University in Missouri in the US and an expert on China and sport.

Susan Brownell is invited to speak at Play the Game, and she believes that when China was awarded the Olympic Games for 2008, we began moving beyond the modernist and colonialists assumptions underlying the ideal of Olympism and toward what she calls post-Olympism.

In an essay in the book “Post-Olympism: Questioning Sport in the Twenty-first Century”, Susan Brownell describes Olympism as the belief that the force of an ideal can propel the modernized nations of the globe towards world peace by disseminating the values of the Western civilization to the darkest corners of the world.

“It is modernist and colonialist for the Western media and the IOC to fixate on whether the Olympic Games will move Beijing toward a more Western-style democracy. It is also modernist for the Chinese people to fixate on whether the Games will propel China into the ranks of the world economic and political superpowers."

"I am not saying that these questions are not worthwhile, but they are old questions, not post-Olympic questions,” says Susan Brownell.

Instead post-Olympism recognises that the world is multicultural, that the Olympic movement is a dialogue between cultures and that Olympism will inevitably be changed by this dialogue.

The professor believes that Beijing’s most important cultural goal is to display China’s humanistic characteristics to the world – a concept that instead of personal freedom emphasizes that individuals are part of a group with a duty to clan and nation.

“The humanistic concept is very difficult to communicate to the media, the general audience and even the IOC. It goes against the West’s negative stereotype of China. People who do not think China values human rights will not be receptive to the notion that China has an ancient and unique kind of humanism to contribute to Olympism,” says Susan Brownell.

However, when the Olympic flag waves over Beijing it will mark the greatest contact and cooperation between Eastern and Western cultures of all time and will also reveal the appeal of the Eastern culture to the entire globe.

“This will be an Olympics unlike any other because it will truly propel the Olympic movement to become a transcultural, transethnic, transnational, global cultural system,” says Susan Brownell.

Direct dialogue continues

Play the Game 2005 continues the direct dialogue with the Chinese which began in 2002 when Sun Weijia from the organising committee for the Olympic Games in Beijing 2008 took part in Play the Game and faced critics of China’s human rights record head on.

This year the conference welcomes Hai Ren, director of the Olympic Studies Centre at Beijing University. Hai Ren will introduce the conference to Chinese thinking on the value of humanism.

The dialogue on human rights also continues with  Brad Adams, Director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, who will outline what human rights activist would still like to see happening in China.