Here’s a bit of pre-Olympic anxiety for you: No matter how many gold medals the Chinese team grabs in Beijing next month, or how many records its athletes set, they won’t make up for the woes of the Chinese men’s soccer team, writes history professor and author Xu Guoqi in today’s Washington Post:
The real metric by which China judges itself against the rest of the world isn’t the discus or the decathlon. It’s not even our record-breaking economic growth rate or our postmodern skylines. It’s soccer. And when it comes to our beloved sport, China is not just the sick man of Asia. It’s the sick man of the world.
That’s pretty strong. Xu ties the feeling to a deeper current (particularly among men) of insecurity about China’s place in the world (and caps off the article with a cheeky quote):
Our ongoing soccer misery highlights a basic paradox about today’s China. On the surface, we seem to be feeling pretty ebullient, with our fast-growing economy, our newfound wealth and our showcase Olympics, with their peppy theme of “One World, One Dream.” We’re confident that the future belongs to us. But on a deeper level, many Chinese — especially we men — are unhappy, deeply frustrated and prone to strong, deep-rooted pangs of helplessness and abandonment. And it’s all soccer’s fault. …
Our raw, unruly and wild feelings about our prowess at soccer, I think, have become something of a metaphor for the way we view our place at the world’s table. Are we respected? Are we truly welcome? And above all: Are we a great power or just a middling one? As one Chinese Netizen posted, somewhat ungrammatically: “Now, you touched the Chinese’s softest and most sensitive part.”
Looks like the WaPo, as the bloggers like to call it, is gearing up for full-on China mode, with a number of other China goodies. Following a theme in Xu’s article, John Pomfret has an op-ed on the weaknesses underlying the many strengths overstated by American think-tankers and media types about China, with this interesting tidbit:
One important nuance we keep forgetting is the sheer size of China’s population: about 1.3 billion, more than four times that of the United States. China should have a big economy. But on a per capita basis, the country isn’t a dragon; it’s a medium-size lizard, sitting in 109th place on the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook Database, squarely between Swaziland and Morocco. China’s economy is large, but its average living standard is low, and it will stay that way for a very long time, even assuming that the economy continues to grow at impressive rates.
UPDATE: Noted China scholar Orville Schell has written the cover story of this week’s Newsweek on the role China’s “century of humiliation” plays in its modern national identity, and why it means that criticism during the Olympics might not have the intended effect, here:
In reacting to contemporary events, we tend to forget just how deeply implicated we are in how China came to experience and view the modern world. This long relationship has created a still rather unyielding tension as each country interacts with the other. Despite the fact that China has gotten closer than ever to escaping from this past, it’s important to understand that its leaders and people are still susceptible to older ways of responding to the world around them. Now is not the time to provoke them further and impede their progress toward a new, more equal and self-assured sense of nationhood.