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The muddled kingdom

The ordinary Chinese is stumped as to why the world has a problem with the Beijing Olympics, writes Reshma Patil. Also read: Tibet Unrest

india Updated: May 06, 2008 02:49 IST
Reshma Patil

On a sunny Saturday in Beijing last month, I had visited the French supermarket Carrefour that has, for over a decade, been a symbol of the changing lifestyles of a modern China with its supply of cheap mineral water, wines, bread, cheese and international brands sold in packages with Chinese script, by Chinese staff who don’t speak English. Inside, there were customers but none of the usual weekend hypermarket chaos. And there was a TV crew stationed on the street outside. From Vienna to London to Berlin, Chinese expats marched that Saturday to express support for the Beijing Olympics and to protest what they believe is ‘distorted’ and ‘biased’ media coverage of the March riots in Tibet. In Japan, Chinese students started a signature campaign to champion the Beijing Olympics.

This Sunday, talks between the Dalai Lama’s envoys and the Chinese authorities broke down. Beijing demanded “credible moves” from the Dalai Lama to “stop violence” as a precondition for the next round of talks. But on that Saturday in Beijing, ordinary Chinese people, along with those protesting against anti-China sentiments, were wondering why the world was against the Beijing Olympics.

One of the Carrefour regulars, who subsequently swore to shun the store, was a 30-year-old Chinese property consultant who used to stroll the supermarket’s corridors to buy her shampoo, fresh food and toilet paper. Unlike her elders, she lunches on bread and coffee instead of sticky white rice.

She sips extra large takeaway latte from the American coffee chain Starbucks and wears business suits to sell real estate in the skyscrapers that loom over a cityscape once sprinkled with traditional courtyard homes. Her ancestral home, where she spent 20 years of her life in, is likely to be bulldozed. But with an attitude that would baffle people like her in a democratic country, she expresses no rage against the system for her personal loss. She is one of the young, educated Chinese who have turned the Middle Kingdom into the world’s largest community of internet users, and her e-mail inbox and pink Nokia are now full of angry discussions on the world’s view of ‘independence for Tibet’.

Requesting anonymity, she told me that she finds it ‘strange’ that the Western media is criticising China at a time when the Chinese have great expectations of basking in global glory. As Olympics hosts, who have built iconic venues, passed stiff environmental laws to clean up the air, started learning English and instructed volunteers, migrant workers and taxi drivers in matters of etiquette, the Chinese are stumped by the anti-China protests. In between catering to international clients, her colleagues discuss this dilemma in her office every day. The Chinese are not embarrassed over the criticism of China’s human rights record in Tibet. For them, there is only one truth: the information they receive from Chinese newspapers and on China Central Television (CCTV).

The property consultant tells me that she believes Tibet to be a part of China and asks why the rest of the world is interfering in her country’s internal matter. She blames the French government — “It’s not very nice,” she says with characteristic Chinese politeness — for protests during the Paris leg of the Olympic torch relay when Tibetan activists unsuccessfully tried to wrest the torch from wheelchair-bound Paralympic athlete Jin Jing on April 7. As the images flashed on television, Jin Jing became known as the ‘Smiling Angel in the Wheelchair’, and the protestors ended up sparking an online movement of solidarity in support of China. In the process, the incident diverted attention from the cause for a ‘Free Tibet’ into a debate over the international media’s portrayal of China. Till last week, it wasn’t not the rising price of pork and rice, or the opening of the spectacular 91,000-seater Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium, but the boycott of Carrefour supermarkets that was creating the biggest buzz among China’s netizens, despite Carrefour denying rumours of funding pro-Tibet groups.

In multinational offices in Beijing, Chinese employees are flashing ‘I Love China’ status messages with red hearts on their office instant messaging mail. An anonymous Nanjing resident bought a full-page advertisement in a local newspaper to show his support for the Olympics and the ‘fight against Tibetan separatists’.

If you speak Chinese, taxi drivers passionately discuss the Western media’s ‘bias’ against China. A British woman who works in Beijing told me how a taxi driver complained to her about the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown who will be skipping the Olympic Games’ opening ceremony in August.

‘The West is waging a new Cold War against China,’' headlined a front page report in the State-run China Daily on April 17. Over the last few days, its front page — Aamir Khan holding the Olympic torch in New Delhi was a recent lead photograph — has spurred Chinese patriotism with reports of a cheeky new hit track called Don’t be too CNN. Inside the same issue, there was an excerpt from an article in the Chinese press titled ‘Horror history of Old Tibet,’ which quoted Chinese scholars saying that the feudal ‘serf system’ in Tibet was crueller than that in western Europe during the Middle Ages.

But this is not just China’s year of the Games. It marks three decades since the opening of its economy with a slew of reforms. Today, even ordinary Nescafé jars and coffee mugs are packaged as gifts in the land of teashops. In Asia’s largest Ikea store in Beijing, shoppers try out the fluffy beds by lying on them with their shoes on, click photographs of model rooms with minimalist design, while elders take a nap on sofas for sale in the Swedish homestore. China knows that a boycott of Carrefour is bad economics for ‘Made in China’ products and the chain’s Chinese employees in 122 outlets. So, although it’s hard to come across a variety of views on Tibet among the Chinese, a separate opinion was being heard in the official media, this time from Chinese scholars. They have begun to speak up against a Carrefour boycott, urging citizens to express patriotism in a ‘rational’ way.

Let’s try to improve the foreigners’ understanding of China, suggested one professor in the China Daily on April 20. Another expert maintained that how China deals with conflicts will affect its future development. This message won’t be lost on the masses. When it’s time for the Olympics, the focus will again be on showcasing China’s sunny side, with a smile.

As for the Carrefour boycott, it was lifted last week. In the meantime, Chinese officials have announced that they will meet the Dalai Lama’s representatives “at an appropriate time”. And the Chinese trust the Xinhua news agency.