I'm back from summer vacation. Our England trip was great. We saw a lot (London, Oxford, the Cotswolds, Stratford-upon-Avon and Bath Spa) and we walked a lot. Best of all, it was a stark change of scenery and activity for me. I was out of the office, away from work, absorbed in something completely different. That makes it easier now to gear up for the coming semester, a job which is complicated by the move into a new office. At this point, the books and files are all unpacked and in place. The pictures are hung (or at least some of them are) and I am turning my attention to updating my class. Blogging, too, can resume....
As I have mentioned before, I have been trying not to comment on the Olympics, as much as that is possible with the global media splurge. It was rather fun, however, to watch the BBC in Britain focus on British athletes and their accomplishments. It was exactly like US or Chinese coverage - each place gives pride of place to its own. But being a foreigner insulated us a bit from the nationalist breast-beating. Coming home has exposed us, once again, to the bias of American coverage. Through it all, however, it is still possible to get a fairly good glimpse of a range of different sports and countries. My favorite participant thus far is Zhang Zhilei, the Chinese super heavyweight boxer. He is a gigantic man, 6'7", with an extraordinary reach. I watched him defeat a much smaller Kazakh boxer. Zhang was not especially fast but he was so big and long that there was virtually no chance for the shorter man to get at him. I expect China to have guys like Zhang. With 1.3 billion people there are going to be some huge men who can go far in fighting.
Although I am a sports fan, and enjoy all sorts of competitions, the thing that bothers me most about the Olympics (beside the knee jerk nationalism it stokes everywhere) is the outpouring of commentary that over-analyzes every aspect of the games. What most of this punditry ignores is the fact that the Olympics, in and of themselves, are not very significant at all in terms of economics or politics or culture. Yes, the host country has to have the economic resources and organization capacities to stage such a large and complex series of events. But China's economic rise and political strength are not consequences of the Olympics: they are independent facts unto themselves. Had China not held the Olympics it would not be weaker economically or politically. And if China holds a successful games (success here defined in terms of pulling off all of the events smoothly), as seems clearly to be the case, it will gain no more economic or political clout in the world. Yes, there might be some "soft power" gains but those will have little effect on the pressing political and economic issues that will continue after the world leaves China.
A successful Olympics will have no effect on Sino-Japanese historical controversies. Sino-Indian territorial disputes will continue. American politicians will still see China as a rising power challenging US hegemony in various ways. European complaints about human rights in Tibet will not disappear with the Olympics. Africans will still harbor a certain ambivalence about the growing Chinese presence on their continent.
The Olympics are, in short, important primarily for the sporting events. All the rest is transient and shallow. It obviously provides a moment of pride and happiness for many, many Chinese people, but Chinese pride in their history and contemporary economic accomplishments would certainly exist without the Olympics. Yes, China has "arrived" in a sense, but the world does not, or should not, need the Olympics to learn that.
I know this sounds dyspeptic and unsportsmanlike. So, let me say something clearly: I think China has done a great job putting on the Olympics and Chinese athletes deserve their hard won metals. It's all the other stuff, the pontificating and prognosticating, that is largely irrelevant.
I have been thinking, however, about a longer term issue. The Olympics has brought the world to China for a moment. The athletes, the global media, the spectators have come from the four corners of the earth. But, when the closing ceremony ends, the world will go home. Or, at least, most of those involved in the Olympics will leave. I thought about this as I was wandering around London, which is dazzlingly multicultural. Indeed, the flow of immigrants to Europe and the US has fundamentally transformed these societies in recent decades. Not so long ago, if one were to ask "can one be black and British" there would have been a strong public resistance to an affirmative answer. Today, while a vestigial racism is still to be found, the default response is "yes, obviously." The same process has unfolded in other parts of Europe and the US. Citizenship and nationality have become increasingly detached from race and ethnicity. Civic, and perhaps economic, participation and presence are what matter.
To the extent to which that is true, the cause of multiculturalization is, I believe, largely economic. People come to the US from other parts of the world in order to make a better life for themselves. Yes, politics is part of that experience, and political liberty matters. But my sense is that in the US and Europe, immigrants are looking primarily to improve their material economic conditions. That is why they are willing to work hard to succeed.
So the question arises: since China is the most dynamic sector of the world economy, and is currently attracting people from all over the world looking to take advantage of that economic dynamism, how long will it be until the world not only comes to China, but also stays there? How long, in other words, until China begins to experience processes of multiculturalization similar to what has transpired in Europe and the US? How long, to be most pointed about it, until we face the question: can one be black and Chinese?
I don't have an answer at this point, but it strikes me as a more important issue than the Olympics.....