The patriot games

Neighbourhoods have been razed, protesters silenced and human rights activists jailed. China will al

Gasping and grimacing, Sun Yining struggled to lift the iron bar above her head. At 12, she is a head and a half taller and twice as sturdy as most Chinese girls her age. A star pupil at the Fushan Sports School in the coastal town of Yantai, she has set herself a goal: to win a gold medal in weightlifting at the next Olympics.

Sun's coach, Zhang Jianmei, proudly showed photographs of an illustrious former student, Tang Gong Hong, who won gold for China in the women's weightlifting at the Athens Games.

"The spirit of sports is all about being higher, faster, better," she said. "We made it."

"I want the same," said Sun. "I want to be a champion."

The Chinese government hopes that hosting the Olympics will enable the whole nation to share such glory. At Athens, the US won 36 gold medals, China 32. In the new sporting Cold War, the Chinese are determined to triumph on their home territory. Seven years ago, the State General Administration of Sport started "Project 119", which identified 119 golds - now 122 - going begging in athletics and swimming and other water sports. The strategy involved concentrating on disciplines with many categories, therefore many medals.

Canoeing, with 16 gold medals in Beijing, was one. The Chinese recruited a German coach, Joseph Capousek, under whose tuition Germany had won 18 Olympic golds for canoeing and kayaking in four Olympics.

In June, Capousek was sacked as Chinese team coach, allegedly because he was not getting good enough results. He believes he fell out with the sports officials partly because he criticised their obsession with winning, saying it was counterproductive, as it put too much pressure on athletes.

"For China, to win gold is political, it's very important," he said. "Everybody talks about gold in China. If you win bronze or silver, you are a loser." After he lost his job, he discovered that while the German version of his contract said he should aim to win gold, the Chinese-language version said he was obliged to do so.

If China beats the US in the medals table, Chinese officials will feel that history has finally vindicated them. "We know people will use the Olympics as an opportunity to humiliate China," said a senior diplomat. "Previously, the western media could humiliate China without Chinese people knowing, but now, because of the internet and TV, they know."

To outsiders, the idea that reporters will be running around Olympic venues seeking out opportunities to humiliate the hosts may seem absurd. But many Chinese share the government view that China was humiliated for centuries, from the Opium Wars when Britain seized Hong Kong, to the Japanese occupation in the 1930s and 1940s, and on through decades of poverty and isolation. The Olympics marks the moment to prove that those days are over.

"We have to have a good Olympics," said Wang Qishan, then mayor of Beijing, last year. "Otherwise not only will our generation lose face but also our ancestors." Such hyperbole has become normal. In this atheist nation, the Olympic flame is now routinely described as "sacred". Criticising the Olympics is therefore a form of sacrilege.

Yang Chunlin, a land rights activist who posted on the internet a letter entitled "We want human rights, not the Olympics", was jailed earlier this year, along with others who might let foreigners see that China is a land of diverse ideals and competing interests, not a homogeneous society of 1.3 billion automatons, all blindly agreeing with the Communist Party leadership.

Sacred flame

Fang Zheng would love to attend the Olympics, but he knows he would be unwise to try to come to Beijing. In the mid-1980s he dreamed of a career in sport. But on 4 June 1989 in Tiananmen Square, as he dived to save a female student, he was run over by a tank. Both his legs had to be amputated, one above the knee.

Still determined to be active, he learned to throw the discus and won two medals in the 1992 All-China Disabled Athletic Games. When he tried to compete internationally two years later, however, a sports ministry official told him he would not be allowed. The government was afraid that if he won, foreign journalists would ask how he lost his legs, and China would lose face. Now Fang keeps quiet, for fear of bringing more misfortune upon himself and his family.

"Of course, as a sports lover, I always wished that Beijing would host the Olympics," he said, speaking from his wheelchair in Hefei, a charmless town in eastern China. "But now it seems that the Olympics is a question of nationalism. The Chinese government always objects to the politicisation of sport, but they are the ones who politicise it most."

While critics say the government's attitude proves that it should never have been awarded the Games, in practical ways the Chinese system is ideally suited. With no public debate, no budget constraints, no transparent tendering, no citizens' groups challenging government decisions, and a large pool of migrant labour, the authorities have completed, on time, not only the 31 Olympic venues, but also three new subway lines and the largest airport terminal in the world.

"The readiness of the venues and the attention to operational detail for these Games have set a gold standard for the future," said Hein Verbruggen, head of a visiting International Olympic Committee delegation. "What our hosts have achieved is exceptional."

Architecture correspondents write breathlessly about the grandeur of the huge new buildings that dominate the concrete and glass skyline, yet these tell us little about how China has changed. Rather, they represent the latest manifestation of its ability to realise extraordinary infrastructure projects, from the Great Wall to the Three Gorges Dam, and now the Bird's Nest stadium. Most notable is the impact of globalisation: these new buildings are mainly designed by foreigners.

None of which negates the Olympics as an opportunity to celebrate China's undeniable economic success. In 30 years of "reform and opening up", hundreds of millions have been lifted out of poverty. Most Chinese are hopeful, because they see their children will have a better life than theirs.

With 80 heads of state expected to attend the opening ceremony, the Olympics also symbolise the country's new diplomatic reach and ability to influence events. China is criticised for vetoing sanctions against Zimbabwe and enabling the leadership of Sudan as it persecutes people in Darfur. According to the World Bank, however, it is also a major force for development, financing desperately needed infrastructure projects in Africa. Western unease is irrelevant - China must now be taken into account as the balance of world power alters.

Many Chinese, especially in Beijing, are excited and proud as they await the great day. The hurdler Liu Xiang and the basketball player Yao Ming are celebrities in the mould of David Beckham - great sportsmen now sought after for product endorsements as much as for their physical prowess. For their fans, the Olympics will be an occasion to celebrate their idols not just as representatives of China, but also as individuals.

However, as businesses are forced to close for two months because of Olympic anti-pollution traffic measures, and police comb the city checking people's hukou, their residency permits, others are asking if the Olympics are worth it.

A few weeks back, a small crowd gathered outside the home and nut stall of Yu Jinping. Her rickety old courtyard house at the edge of the hutongs, or alleyways, had been condemned as an "eyesore" along the torch relay route and was to be demolished. As a protest, she had festooned it with Communist Party flags and posters of great Communist leaders, past and present. "The district officials cheat and harm the people," she said. "They encourage the people to be against the party and against the central government. Their illegal evictions are destroying the flag of the great party."

Others were less patriotic in their objections.

"Is China the only country that's ever hosted the Olympics?" grumbled a middle-aged man in a grubby white vest. "Other countries have hosted the Olympics, too. Did they all rob their own people?"

"This is all wrong," agreed another.

These are ordinary people who - like "Mrs Brave", about whom Yiyun Li writes on page 28 - are not willing to be used as props in a piece of theatre staged by the government. But propaganda is an integral part of the Chinese system. South of Yu Jinping's house, the historic neighbourhood of Qianmen has been razed, the hutongs to be replaced by shopping malls and expensive residences, newly built to look as if they were old. A wall with an artist's impression of hutongs and flowers blocks the view of rubble. Genuine history is being replaced by a sanitised, safe facade.

As Ma Jian explains (page 24), a similar wall has been erected to shield modern Chinese from the more painful events in their recent past. The opening ceremony for the Olympics, details of which remain secret, will undoubtedly show something of China's epic history, in which dragons and heroic leaders are more likely to figure than tanks and students. The technocrats in charge of the Games stand in an unbroken line of Communist apparatchiks who believe that remembering the party's mistakes will lead to instability, not healing.

Other gaps loom even larger. The Cultural Revolution, during which millions were imprisoned and tortured, is still a taboo subject. In his new book, Tombstone, the 67-year-old journalist Yang Jisheng chronicles in painful detail the Great Famine of 1959-61, which was caused by Mao's agricultural policies during the Great Leap Forward. Using previously unpublished records, he establishes that 35 million people died, considerably more than in the First World War. The book, needless to say, is banned in China.

Afraid that foreigners may raise such sensitive topics, neighbourhood committees and work unit leaders have given Beijing residents "talking points". A taxi driver recently explained that he had been told that if the fare in the back of his cab got chatty, he should stick to "the five goods": Olympics are good, Communist Party is good, government is good, Beijing is good, taxi company is good.

The Czech writer Milan Kundera famously wrote: "The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting." As long as the Chinese central government dictates what people may remember and discuss, it is hard to see these Olympics as a real break with the past.

Lindsey Hilsum is the China correspondent for Channel 4 News

Lindsey Hilsum is China Correspondent for Channel 4 News. She has previously reported extensively from Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans and Latin America.

This article first appeared in the 04 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, China: The patriot games

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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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