Time to Douse the Flame


As the Olympic torch and its entourage prepare to descend on Canberra today, it’s time for everyone to take a cold shower.

The Australian and overseas media have struggled to interpret recent demonstrations in Sydney and Melbourne by Chinese students and their supporters. Some have questioned their spontaneity, while others have made much of the strong political rhetoric employed by a few calling for a "people’s army" to guard the flame from pro-Tibetan "splittests" and anti-Chinese "scum".

While commentators in Australia warn that this type of incendiary language will only strain relations with China, the internet chatrooms and talk-back radio lines are filled with equally strong language. Here the torch has been dubbed a "symbol of Chinese thuggery and lies", its attendants examples of the "aggressiveness, arrogance and single mindedness" of the Chinese people, and IOC officials "apologists" for the Communist regime in Beijing.

For us here in Australia the torch relay might look like a "farce" or "fiasco", but for the Chinese it is no laughing matter.

Perhaps it is time for us to pause and consider some of the factors behind this wellspring of emotion among the Australian-Chinese community and other Chinese around the world. Overseas students from the Mainland were at the forefront of the April demonstrations and the rally to defend the torch on Australian soil. Although most of the 50,000 Chinese students studying here are favorably inclined towards Australia, many still feel alienated from Australian society: like cash-cows spun through the turnstiles of universities, only to be abandoned and discriminated against until the time they are told to return home after finishing their degrees.

More broadly, Chinese communities around the globe view the Beijing Olympic Games and its torch relay as an important and proud symbol of China’s re-emergence on the world stage. For over a century now, China has seen itself as a victim of the international system: the yellow-skinned coolies force-fed opium while being treated literally like dogs and refused entry to their own parks. Mao claimed that the Chinese people had finally stood up in 1949, but the chaos of the Cultural Revolution left China looking like the joker in the pack of the nation-state system.

Feeling increasingly proud of their country’s achievements since the death of Mao, the Chinese view the 2008 Olympics with a sense of great confidence and pride. Thus, it should surprise few that the embarrassing and sometimes violent attacks on the torch are interpreted as yet another affront to Chinese dignity. In the eyes of most Chinese people, the recent unrest in Tibet has little to do with the Olympics, and they cannot understand why the Western media insists on linking the two.

Didn’t we have our own unfinished business at the 2000 Sydney Games?

Our new Prime Minister is right to challenge China on its human rights record in Tibet and elsewhere. The brutal nature of the recent riots shows that all is not well in Tibet. Like other rapidly modernising states, China has its share of serious problems, and they deserve both international scrutiny and urgent domestic action. Yet Rudd’s call for Australia to be a tough-talking, "true friend" (zhenyou) of the Chinese people also requires a bit of empathy and understanding at home. As a start, we can begin to make our society and economy more open to overseas students while addressing the serious decline in Asian languages and studies in our universities and schools.

Just as Western fantasies about the loss of some unspoiled Tibet Shangri-la are misguided, so too are our fears about Chinese "thugs" and "goons" descending on our nation’s capital today.

Forget about extinguishing the flame; emotions on all sides need to cool off.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.