Revolution #140, August 17, 2008
“One World, One Dream” and Beijing Olympics:
What World, and Whose Dream?
Li Ning, the Chinese Olympian, flies around the rim of the Bird’s Nest stadium with giant steps. He touches his torch to the wall. The fire races up a spiral and bursts into the great flame of the Olympic Torch standing at the head of the stadium. “One World, One Dream.” The 29th Olympiad is open.
One World, One Dream. Billions of people around the world dream of a world without wars, without hunger and poverty, without cruel and oppressive divisions among people. But the harsh and painful reality is that the world that now exists is an imperialist world, where a handful of dominant imperialist powers and their capitalist cohorts in the oppressed nations rule over the vast majority in the oppressed regions of the globe. Where a small handful control and appropriate the wealth created by the masses of people slaving in the factories and on the farms worldwide. Where wars rage for control of key regions and resources. People are divided by race, by religion, by gender, and in an almost infinite number of other ways. Ideologies like white supremacy, patriarchy, religious fundamentalism to justify and support this exploitation and oppression, to keep whole sections of the human race under the domination of others. There is no peace, no better world—just the relentless demand that people accept and acquiesce to what for most in the world is a relentlessly profit-driven, unending brutal nightmare.
The Olympics traditionally start with national teams marching into the stadium, each under their own flag. The days that follow are filled with intense, even fierce, competition. But through the course of this, respect and even friendships begin to form among many of the competing athletes. By the closing ceremonies, when the athletes are encouraged to re-enter the stadium not with their own teammates, but with athletes from other nations, their arms-around-each-others-shoulders camaraderie comes from a genuine respect and love for other athletes and cultures.
The distance traveled between the opening and closing ceremonies promotes the illusion that the Olympics are meant to break down the walls dividing us nation by nation and unite humanity as one. But the reality is far different. What goes on between the opening and closing is the conscious manipulation of the aspirations of many people, redirected into the promotion of national pride and narrowness. And especially in the hands of the imperialist powers, it becomes national chauvinism—like the ugly “my-country-first-and-above-all” Americanism we are all too familiar with. There’s the endless speculation over whether the U.S. or China will win the medals race—packed full of implicit and explicit criticism of how China trains its athletes. There’s the whining to come when “our” team loses, and the gloating when it wins.
And for the U.S. ruling class, “One World, One Dream” is the dream that the whole world, entrapped as it is in the imperialist web, will forever remain under the domination of this one superpower.
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Beijing’s hosting of the 2008 Olympics has given China the chance to step out onto the world stage, no longer kept in the background. A chance to dazzle and astonish people around the globe and put on its best performance, to show the world what it has become. It is China’s “coming out party” as a new world power, and the Chinese rulers have pulled out all the stops.
But China has emerged as an economic and political power in a complex world.
To start with, there is the nature of China itself. There is a great deal of confusion—deliberately spread by the media, by world leaders, and by China’s government itself—over the claim that China is “socialist.” China is actually a capitalist country, not a socialist one. Socialism was overthrown in 1976 by opponents of Mao right within the top ranks of the Chinese Communist Party who joined the revolution to liberate China from the humiliating domination of the imperialist powers but whose sights were not on the communist goal, but instead on making China a rich and powerful country. As the socialist transformation of society towards communism advanced, they developed a deep hatred for the revolutionary direction China was traveling, and when they seized power they quickly turned China into a capitalist country—one that is now profoundly enmeshed in, and in some ways pivotal to, global capitalism.
For their part, the U.S. imperialists have welcomed China’s entry onto the world stage—but with the understanding that by walking onto that stage, China is agreeing to act as a “responsible member” of the imperialist world community, to abide by international agreements and function as part of U.S.-dominated institutions like the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. It’s like the Godfather inviting a rival, and less powerful, mobster to sit at the table and share in some of the mob’s illicit proceeds—the Godfather still sits at the head of the table and has overall control of the division of mob spoils, and the invitation comes with the understanding the junior mobster will find his place within the Don’s framework.
One expression of this complex relationship is when—and how—the U.S. raises criticisms of China. On August 7, the day before arriving in Beijing, Bush gave a major speech in Thailand about U.S. relations in Asia. He criticized China’s detention of political dissidents, human rights advocates and certain religious activists. At the same time he stressed that China and the U.S. share important economic, political and military-security concerns. Bush’s criticisms attempted to take some of the sheen off the Olympic rings—to say China might be making huge strides toward joining the powerful nations of the world, but it still hasn’t gotten there, it still doesn’t really qualify as “modern” and “enlightened.” But, at the same time, the remarks were carefully measured. CBS News correspondent Jeff Glor noted that they were made to “appease critics of China, but...the speech won’t have a huge long-term impact.” Bush then went on to attend the opening ceremonies. In other words, the U.S. isn’t willing to admit China as an equal plunderer in the world, but it does recognize that China needs to be one of the teams out on the field of play.
It is important to understand that China’s rise as a major capitalist power has come in a period where the global capitalist-imperialist system is in flux. The U.S. still occupies the primary position in the imperialist world economy, but it is encountering difficulties in pursuing its global agenda. At the same time, China is a highly dynamic element in the equation: It is dependent on foreign capital and foreign markets, but it has also emerged as an economic power—a center of world manufacturing; a country that has accumulated vast foreign exchange reserves and gained considerable financial leverage, including increasingly over the dollar; and a country aggressively seeking markets in the Third World and exporting capital beyond its borders. And China is increasingly playing a political role in the world.1 The Olympics are taking place in the midst of this flux.
China’s Objectives in the Olympics
China’s rulers see the Games as an opportunity to firm up their control within China, to help solidify China’s place as a member of the world’s economic and political powers, and within all this to “stretch their muscles” and try to gain further strength. This involves a number of interpenetrating initiatives and objectives:
They are using the Games to forge a sense of national pride among the Chinese people and a feeling of “confidence and hope for the future,” as basketball superstar Yao Ming said at the end of the opening ceremonies. Tens of thousands of Chinese citizens filled the stands at the Bird’s Nest national stadium for the opening events, and perhaps a billion more watched the events on TV. This is an opportunity to “bring the nation together,” an opportunity to cover over and blunt what are sharp—indeed, potentially explosive—social divisions within Chinese society.
Bringing home the gold—medals, that is—is an important element in this. As soon as the Olympic bid was clinched in 2001, China’s government launched a national effort to develop and fund special centralized programs to train world-class athletes dubbed “Project 119,” named for the number of gold medals China believes it can win. The authorities understand that not only will this be a powerful boost to national pride, but that the number of medals won reflects on a nation’s stature in the world. Many commentators expect China will win the largest number of gold medals.
The Chinese government has poured an estimated $43 billion into reinventing Beijing to project an image to the people of China and to the world that China is now a modern, advanced society, able to handle the complexities of global power and influence. They tore down almost all of the ancient hutongs, or narrow alleyways and courtyards, constructing in their place dramatic Olympic venues, dozens of new hotels and shopping complexes. More than one commentator has likened China to a phoenix, rising from the ashes of its past as a subjugated country, and now able to stand up as a world power.
There is an economic element to this, using the Olympics to project an image of stability and solidity, and through this to attract new and bigger investors from among the imperialist powers, as well as to penetrate new markets in the imperialist countries and elsewhere to sell Chinese manufactured goods. But China’s rulers have international political and ideological objectives as well. For example, they are making some particular efforts (going well beyond the framework of the Olympics) to appeal to other countries in the Third World who chaff under imperialist domination by promoting China’s path as a model of “socialist” economic development, and thereby hopefully convince other Third World nations to enter into economic and political arrangements with China so that they, too, can benefit from this path. Such arrangements, no matter what their “socialist” cover, will offer the rulers of these countries aid, technology and expertise to develop their economies. And such a relationship is not aimed at freeing these countries from outside domination, but with the aim of locking them into a relationship which is subordinate to and benefiting Chinese capital and its position in the world.
Forging National Unity and
The Olympic Opening Ceremony was a dramatic and spectacular combination of high-tech artistry, collective human skill and precision, and backward-looking feudal philosophy. It was China’s powers-that-be unabashedly promoting the wonders of material wealth and high-tech know-how acquired from capitalism, all put in the service of the explicit promotion of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s Confucian ideal of a Harmonious Society.
Confucius was a reactionary philosopher who lived in China 2,000 years ago. He championed the view that the division of society between oppressed and oppressor flowed from the “Mandate of Heaven” and therefore could not—and should not—be changed. Harkening back to the time of Confucius, the current Chinese government is promoting this idea at a time when Chinese society contains significant discord, with potential for major disruptions. The Harmonious Society that the revisionist—phony communist—Chinese “Communist” Party offers the people is the same kind of promise made by the emperors centuries ago: that those in charge will take care of the people in exchange for the population obediently following the dictates of the rulers.
This promise has significant appeal to certain sections of people. While the Party is “communist” in name, it has jettisoned any genuine revolutionary and communist aims as part of the overthrow of socialist society after Mao died. China’s rulers have kept the “communist” pretense—the Party name and structures, the ability to mouth “revolutionary”-sounding rhetoric when it is useful in misdirecting people’s aspirations for a better world. They have tried to use Mao, the revolutionary, as a nationalist icon to legitimize their rule—leaving the giant portrait of Mao hanging over Tiananmen Square, and using other symbols from the revolutionary past when it serves their ability to maintain social control in Chinese society. The overthrow of the actual socialist relations, and the ugly rebirth of grinding exploitation and poverty—and the sharp and severe class polarization in society which has resulted—has given rise to broad discontent (including sharp instances of resistance and struggle) and a widespread “nostalgia” for Mao.
Many people who lived through the period when Mao was alive remember how society was much more egalitarian; how working people were treated with honor and respect, rather than simply as sources of profit. Millions of them were students during the Cultural Revolution and have very positive memories of going to the factories or the countryside to live side by side with workers and peasants, “learning from the masses” and “serving the people” as the revolutionaries put it while also bringing their knowledge, skills and revolutionary enthusiasm to help further transform and revolutionize society. Even those who were not born until after the 1976 coup that restored capitalism have some sense that Mao stood for the people, while large sections of the current leadership stand only for themselves and their power and fortunes.
In the face of all these sharp contradictions, these capitalist rulers have been striving to forge legitimacy on a new, nationalist basis, which involves China becoming a great power and the great mass of Chinese people “investing” their hopes for a better future in that—a hope that is as illusory as it is cruel.
These nationalist feelings didn’t spring up out of thin air. China has a long and bloody history of national oppression and humiliation at the hands of foreign imperialist powers: British gunboats sailed up the Yangtze River in the 1850s to crush the rebellion of Chinese who rose up against Britain’s importation of opium from India into China to keep the masses of Chinese “coolie” labor addicted and unable to resist foreign exploitation. Tens of thousands of Chinese who emigrated to the U.S. to help build the railroads were the victims of degrading national oppression and periodic murderous pogroms. Japan invaded China in 1937 as part of the growing imperialist rivalry leading up to World War II, seizing control of some of the richest industrial areas in the northeast and subjecting the Chinese people to years of horrendous oppression, like the assault on the city of Nanjing where 75,000 civilians were murdered and women were subjected to mass rape by the invading Japanese imperialist troops. And today the U.S. is the imperialist power dominating and dictating to China. All of this and more has led to a deep, justified hatred among the people of China for the national humiliation and subjugation they have endured.
But let’s be clear: There was a time when China had broken the vice grip of foreign domination, when China was developing independent of imperialist control. It was the period of Maoist revolution and socialism from 1949 to 1976. The Chinese Revolution broke the stranglehold of the foreign imperialist powers and the bureaucrat-capitalist rule that served the imperialists. It uprooted the foundations of feudalism in the countryside. For over 25 years under Mao, the Chinese people built a balanced economy that truly served the people, not the imperialists. And that period ended only after the bourgeois forces currently ruling China overthrew socialism and delivered China back over to imperialist domination.
China’s leaders are attempting to leverage their increasingly important role in the imperialist system to carve out a place in the world economy and world politics. But they are doing this from within the imperialist system, not in opposition to or outside of it. This is bound to increase social and class divisions in society as a minority of Chinese improve their situation, while the majority remain locked in desperate poverty and suffering. Both the Confucian idea of a “Harmonious Society” and the promotion of national pride work in different ways to provide the ideological glue to hold the Chinese people together under the domination of the revisionist “Communist” Party.
Sharp Contradictions in
While enormous amounts of the profits generated by China’s capitalist economic boom have flowed to the imperialist countries, the boom has also had significant impact on income levels for sections of the Chinese population. A relatively small number of the biggest industrialists, financiers and other corporate leaders have amassed huge incomes. Higher-ranking government officials and mid-level factory owners and developers are buying townhouses in brand new gated communities, shopping in luxury stores and taking vacations in other parts of the world. Estimates put the number of people in this category in China at about 175 million, which is a large number in absolute terms, but only about 15% of the population. In China, car ownership is growing, but only about 3% of Chinese people currently own a car—from the perspective of the auto industry, China is a major market, but from the perspective of Chinese society, only a very small percentage of Chinese households owns a car.
In short, there are significant newly better-off sections of Chinese society that are very supportive of government policies and China’s current political and economic path.
But China has a population of 1.3 billion people. Hundreds of millions of workers in the cities live in horrific poverty. And 700 to 800 million people live in China’s vast impoverished countryside (most surviving on less than $2 a day). The rural healthcare system has collapsed—as a group of elderly villagers told Discovery Channel’s Ted Koppel when he asked them what they do when they get sick, “We wait to die.” Many peasant children cannot afford to attend school beyond the first few grades. Parents who want to keep their kids in school are often required to pay as much as half or more of their annual income in tuition.
Political and economic policies of China’s capitalist ruling class—like the decision 25 years ago to dismantle the rural communes (large-scale collective farms) and instead institute a system where individual families were given small plots of land and basically told to fend for themselves—have led to extreme economic and social polarization. The income gap between China’s urban and rural areas is, by some statistics, greater than in any other country in the world, and this is profoundly destabilizing.
In the last 20 years, 200 million peasants unable to provide for themselves and their families in the countryside have been lured to the cities in search of jobs. They are denied residency permits in the cities and therefore cannot obtain housing, medical care or many other services while living there. They are illegal immigrants in their own country. When these migrants can find work, the hours are long, the pay may be no more than $2-$3 a day, and they are forced to sleep in campsites or in crowded dormitories.
Peasant lands are being seized and used for housing developments and new businesses through a collusion between village party officials and developers. Peasants are removed from the land, often without enough compensation to find another place to live, and village officials get big pay-offs. For those who are still on the land, the pollution of streams and lakes by newly built factories and housing developments often make it impossible for farmers to grow their crops. And people are left without drinking water.
Workers in the giant factories and assembly plants filling the needs of companies like Walmart and American garment retailers often work 16-hour days and are locked inside the factories at night. Most of China’s energy comes from coal, much of it from tiny, dangerous mines that pockmark whole sections of the countryside. Safety conditions are often so poor that in recent years, an average of 17 miners a day have died in mine accidents.
These horrifying conditions led to 87,000 officially acknowledged incidents of mass protest in the last year alone. In June, for example, anger boiled over in the southwestern Chinese town of Weng’an after a teen-age girl was found dead and family members disputed the official story that she had committed suicide, claiming that she had been raped and murdered by a high-ranking official’s son. When relatives paraded through the town of 65,000 carrying her picture and demanding justice, they were quickly joined by 30,000 people who rioted for almost 7 hours, ransacking the police station and two government offices.
The massive earthquake that struck rural Sichuan Province in May 2008 brought many of the social contradictions to the surface. The quake caused massive destruction and left as many as 70,000 people dead. While the earthquake was a natural disaster caused by forces of nature, much of the death toll and much of the economic devastation stemmed from human causes. For example, an estimated 7,000 schoolrooms collapsed because of shoddy construction. Large numbers of these “tofu buildings” were put up with grossly deficient amounts of steel and concrete reinforcement. While corruption is rampant in China, the main factor in the shoddy materials and construction is the fact that China is a capitalist society in which class divisions lead to better education and investment in better educational infrastructure for the more privileged—and neglect, inferior education, and criminal cutting of corners in construction and safety when it comes to the masses. When the quake hit, the schools pancaked, crushing to death the students and teachers inside, while buildings right next door remained standing.
People throughout China and around the world were brought to tears by TV coverage of parents who set up makeshift memorials, propping photos of their dead children on school desks pulled out of the rubble and demanding an accounting from the government for why this happened. For the first few weeks after the temblor, Chinese TV was filled with images of grieving parents, juxtaposed with coverage of Chinese premier Wen Jiabao—dubbed “Grandpa Wen” by the media—personally touring the damaged towns and shedding tears at the people’s losses. But once the TV cameras were gone, Chinese government officials moved in, forcibly cleared the memorials and made it clear no further protests would be allowed.
It’s unclear how much of the internal dissatisfaction in China will remain simmering below the surface, and how much of it might actually boil over into organized protest. But China’s leaders are taking no chances. The government has mobilized 110,000 commandos, paramilitary and soldiers to guard the Olympic venues, along with 900,000 police, security guards and citizen volunteers trained to report “suspicious persons.” Special “protest zones” have been set up far from the Olympic venues and would-be demonstrators are required to submit detailed permit requests days in advance—not that different from what U.S. government officials have done in relation to the Democratic and Republican Conventions.
Moreover, the U.S. imperialists themselves have a direct interest in how internal dissatisfaction is handled by Chinese officials. Any serious outbreak of social unrest could destabilize China and spread to other sections of society—with the potential that this could shake foreign investor confidence, weaken the flow of foreign capital into China, and possibly lead to dramatic disruptions of world financial arrangements. That is at least in part why U.S. and other imperialist spokespeople have been fairly muted in their criticism of China for heavy-handed government efforts to suppress protest during the Olympics and have not pushed the Chinese leadership very hard on this. There is the sense that China’s authoritarian government is at this point the best guarantor of the kind of stability that both Chinese and foreign investors demand.
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The Olympics remind us of the incredible athletic feats of speed, grace, and creativity that human beings are capable of. It is infuriating to watch the unique skills and artistry of these amazing athletes cynically twisted to promote an obsolete and obscene way of looking at and organizing the world. It is taken as human nature that humanity be divided up into gold, silver, bronze. . .and all the rest who can’t even compete. It is supposed to be perfectly natural that the great diversity that is our planet is dominated by a small handful who control the wealth and resources, while billions barely survive on one or two dollars a day.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can celebrate the wondrous performances of individual athletes without the winner having to stand on the broken bones and dreams of his or her opponent. The history of socialism and the profound lessons we have learned from that history show that it is possible and how it is possible to get beyond this horrifying division of the world to something far different, and far better—with a goal of a communist world.
1 For a much deeper analysis of the complexities of current world geopolitics and geo-economics, see Raymond Lotta’s essay, “Shifts and Faultlines in the World Economy and Great Power Rivalry: What Is Happening and What It Might Mean” that has been running in Revolution in recent weeks, especially “Part 2: China’s Capitalist Development and China’s Rise in the World Imperialist System: Its Nature and Implications,” Revolution #137, July 27, 2008.[back]
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