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Date Posted: 10:34 10/06/2004

Revolting students greet the Olympic torch

Passions are inflamed in Beijing

AMID ALL the excitement about the Olympic torch as it was carried by an assortment of stars and bureaucrats through the streets of Beijing, the Chinese press neglected to mention the fact that there were a number of demonstrators hanging about along the route. Responding, one would think, to the bluster from the Chinese government, which claimed only a few weeks ago to be willing to sacrifice the 2008 Olympiad in order to prevent the 'rogue province' Taiwan from declaring independence, a gang of student nationalists were waving banners bearing the message, 'The Olympics, Taiwan, the Diaoyu [Senkaku]: we will not do without any of them'. The slogan managed to capture the crooked, contradictory heart of Chinese national pride, combining the joy at being awarded the Games with a bit of old-fashioned Japan-bashing, not to mention the feelings, sometimes spiritual and usually inflammatory, that the notion of 'One China' often arouses.

Some of the protestors in Beijing yesterday

An observer told a Sina bulletin board today that when the torch entered the West Gate of the city and the students began waving their banners, the cameramen from the local media walked straight past them. Expressing some disgust, he also pointed out that once they had reached Tian'anmen, and plucked out a slogan saying 'Hello [Deng] Xiaoping', the cameras once again turned away in fear of 'making a political mistake'.

The students were probably guilty of nothing more than the sort of patriotic pride that the government has been trying to instill in them over the last twenty years or so, and they will be treated – one expects – with the same solicitude and encouragement that greets the Diaoyu protestors. While the Chinese government is no longer in a position to emphasize Maoist doctrine, it has been putting the emphasis on nationalism, and its own role in the reunification of the motherland, but they are playing a dangerous game.

People, naturally, want to express themselves, and they generally prefer to believe that they are acting freely when they do so. In some cases, particularly in societies where free speech or free association does not exist, there are those who choose to identify themselves completely with official dogma, enabling them to internalize the restrictions that exist in all societies by claiming to be entirely at one with them. To express their freedom more positively, they may even join sanctioned or semi-sanctioned groups like the Red Guards and fulfil what they believe to be the wishes of the leadership with a Dionysian zeal that is, itself, subversive. Or they march through the streets chanting vehemently about the Japanese or the Americans, or they join the 'Protect the Diaoyu Movement'. While remaining some distance away from the strictly unacceptable, they push themselves to such extremes that the government, or at least the parts of it that are not exploiting nationalist extremism, are bound to feel a little worried.

Openly anti-party movements like the Falungong tend to harden the regime, and are perhaps easier to manage, but these other kinds of protest are in some respect more dangerous - they undermine government language and iconography through excessive zeal, or by taking things just too far. A bristling, seething sense of discontent finds its outlet in what is, on the face of it, an approved way of behaviour.

In some cases, particularly during the promotion of the Mao cult in the early 1990s, they manage to be subversive by situating themselves in the cult wholeheartedly, overlaying revolutionary songs with heavy metal beats or wearing T-shirts with old Party slogans on them. This is a kind of dissent emerging from the discourse of the government itself, sometimes from the contradictions that have emerged between rhetoric and reality, but also because the biggest threat to any state-sanctioned ideology – be it Capitalism, Communism, Catholicism or Wahabbism – is its whole-hearted, uncynical implementation. This is especially the case with a firebrand, revolutionary theory like Marxism.

Curiously, an article in this week's edition of the official Xinhua-backed political magazine, Liaowang (Outlook) seems to concur, blaming a spate of recent protests on 'internal contradictions'. Those 'internal contradictions' have not been alleviated, creating 'mass incidents'.

But the article is not talking about the semi-official demonstrations against Japan or the US by students in the cities, but about a number of uprisings that have taken place in the industrial heartlands. The 'opening up and reform', and 'the establishment and development of the socialist market economy' has broken the old system, the article said. 'As a result of bureaucratic corruption and the distortion of official government policy, the relationship between the cadres and the masses has become increasingly tense.' But as any old Marxist will tell you, it all comes down to economics. What we have seen is the 'reform' of state-owned enterprises and millions of subsequent job losses, the removal of already negligible salaries and welfare payments, and a state of general desperation among so much of the population. As the article indicates, the mobs of laid-off workers in China's decaying old industrial centres are the real source of anxiety for the govenrment.

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