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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Paul Mason: How the left should respond to Brexit

It's up to the labour movement to rescue the elite from the self-inflected wound of Brexit.

For the first time in a generation there is a tangible split between the Tory leadership and the business elite. Forget the 41 per cent poll rating, forget Theresa May’s claim to have moved towards “the centre”; the most important thing to emerge since the Tory conference is a deep revulsion, among wide sections of normally Conservative voters, at the xenophobia, nationalism and economic recklessness on display.

Rhetorically, May has achieved a lot. She quashed any possibility of a soft Brexit strategy. She ended 30 years of openness to migration. She scrapped the Tories’ commitment to balanced books by 2020 – though she neglected to replace this keystone policy with anything else. And she pledged to stop constitutional scrutiny over the Brexit process from Holyrood, Westminster or the courts.

Yet in reality she achieved nothing. May’s government is not in control of the crucial process that will define its fate – the Brexit negotiations. And on Scotland, she has triggered a sequence of events that could lead to the end of the UK within the next five years.

In the light of this, the left has to be refocused around the facts that have emerged since the referendum on 23 June. Britain will leave the EU – but it faces a choice between May’s hubristic nonsense and a strategy to salvage 30 years of engagement with the biggest market in the world. Scotland will hold its second referendum. Labour will be led through all this by a man who, for the first time in the party’s history, cannot be relied on to do the elite’s bidding.

Brexit, on its own, need not have caused a great shift in British politics. It is the new, visceral split between Tory xenophobia and the implicitly liberal and globalist culture in most boardrooms that makes this a turning point. It is a challenge for the left as big as the ones Labour faced in 1931, when the gold standard collapsed; or in 1940, when the reality of total war dawned. It represents a big opportunity – but only if we jolt our brains out of the old patterns, think beyond party allegiances, and react fast.

Let’s start with the facts around which May, Philip Hammond and Amber Rudd constructed their rhetorical body swerve at the Tory conference. Britain is £1.7trn in debt. Its budget deficit cannot be eradicated by 2020 because, even on the steroids of quantitative easing, growth is low, wages are stagnant and its trade situation deeply negative. Austerity, in short, did not work.

With sterling weakened, by next year we’ll begin to feel the pressure of imported inflation on real wages, re-creating the economic pain of 2011-12. On top of that, by attempting a “hard Brexit”, May has created damaging uncertainty for investment that no degree of short-term positivity can mitigate. Even if the range of outcomes only widens, investment will get delayed – and with May’s commitment to hard Brexit the range of outcomes will get significantly worse: 7.5 per cent lopped off GDP, according to a leaked Treasury assessment.

Civil servants believe Britain’s negotiating position is so weak that it will have to leverage its intelligence-providing services to Europe and concede “free movement of high-skilled workers”, just to persuade the French and the Germans to cut any kind of decent bilateral deal. Yet in the two years of brinkmanship that begin when Article 50 is triggered, the EU27 will have no reason whatsoever to concede favourable terms for bilateral trade. By adopting hard Brexit and hard xenophobia, Theresa May has scheduled a 24-month slow-motion car crash.

To orient the Labour Party, trade unions and the wider progressive movement, we need first to understand the scale of the break from normality. Labour already faced deep problems. First, without Scotland it cannot govern; yet many of its members in Scotland are so dislocated from the progressive Scottish national movement that the party is bereft of answers.

Next, the old relationship between the urban salariat and the ex-industrial working class has inverted. With a vastly expanded membership, Labour is the de facto party of the urban salariat. Its heartland is Remainia – the cities that voted to stay in Europe. Its electoral battlegrounds are now places such as Bury, Nuneaton, Corby and Portsmouth, where the “centre” (as measured by the Lib Dem vote) has collapsed, to be replaced by thousands of Green voters and thousands more voting Ukip.

This was the known problem on the eve of Brexit, though layers of Labour MPs and councillors refused to understand it or respond to it. The solution to it was, even at that point, obvious: Labour can only attract back a million Green voters and hundreds of thousands of Ukip voters in winnable marginals with a combination of social liberalism and economic radicalism.

The alternative, as outlined in the Blue Labour project of Maurice Glasman and Jon Cruddas, was an overt return to social conservatism. That cannot work, because it might win back some ex-Labour Ukip voters but could not inspire Labour’s new urban core to go on the doorstep and fight for it. On the contrary, it could easily inspire many of them to tear up their membership cards.

A new strategy – to combine social liberalism, multiculturalism and environmentalism with left-wing economic policies aimed at reviving the “communities left behind” – was, for me, always the heart of Corbynism. Jeremy Corbyn himself, whatever his personal strengths and weaknesses, was a placeholder for a political strategy.

Brexit, the attempted Labour coup and the Tory swing to hard Brexit have changed things all over again. And Labour’s leadership needs to move fast into the political space that has opened up. The starting point is to understand May’s administration as a regime of crisis. It is held together by rhetoric and a vacuum of press scrutiny, exacerbated by Labour’s civil war and the SNP’s perennial dithering over strategy to achieve Scottish independence. The crisis consists of the perils of hard Brexit combined with a tangible split between the old party of capital and capital itself. The elite – the bankers, senior managers, the super-rich and the ­upper middle class – do not want Brexit. Nor does a significant proportion of Middle Britain’s managerial and investing classes.




All this presents Labour with a series of achievable goals – as an opposition in Westminster, in London, as the likely winner in many of the forthcoming mayoral battles, and at Holyrood. The first aim should be: not just oppose hard Brexit, but prevent it. This entails the Labour front bench committing to an attempt to remain inside the European Economic Area.

The wariness – shared by some on the Corbyn side, as well as the Labour right – is born of the assumption that if you commit to the single market, you must accept free movement of labour. The party’s new spokesman on Brexit, Keir Starmer, expressed perfectly what is wrong with this approach: first it’s a negotiation, not a finished relationship; second, you start from the economics, not the migration issue.

Leaving the single market will be a macroeconomic disaster, compounded by a social catastrophe, in which all the European protections – of citizens’ rights, labour rights, consumer and environmental standards – will get ripped up. That’s why the Labour front bench must commit to staying inside the single market, while seeking a deal on free movement that gives Britain time and space to restructure its labour market.

John McDonnell’s “red lines”, produced hurriedly in the days after Brexit, embody this principle – but not explicitly. McDonnell has said Labour would vote against any Brexit deal that did not involve some form of single-market access, and preserve the City’s passporting arrangement, where banks are authorised to trade across an entire area without having to be incorporated separately in each country. Freedom of movement is not included in the red lines.

May, meanwhile, insists there will be no parliamentary scrutiny of the negotiating stance, or of the outcome. This position cannot stand, and overthrowing it provides a big, early target for Labour and the other opposition parties. They should use their constitutional influence – not only in Westminster but at Holyrood, Cardiff and the mayor-run cities, to bust open the Conservatives’ secrecy operation.

By declaring – formally, in a written pact – that they will refuse to ratify a Brexit deal based on World Trade Organisation tariffs, the progressive parties can destroy May’s negotiating position in Brussels overnight. Let the Conservative press accuse us of being “citizens of the world”, undermining the national interest. They will dig their own political grave even faster.

In parallel, Labour needs to lead – intellectually, morally and practically – the fight for a coherent, pro-globalist form of Brexit. In order for this to embody the spirit of the referendum, it would have to include some repatriation of sovereignty, as well as a significant, temporary retreat from freedom of movement. That means – and my colleagues on the left need to accept this – that the British people, in effect, will have changed Labour’s position on immigration from below, by plebiscite.

In response, Labour needs to design a proposal that permits and encourages high beneficial migration, discourages and mitigates the impact of low-wage migration and – forgotten in the rush to “tinder box” rhetoric by the Blairites – puts refugees at the front of the queue, not the back. At its heart must be the assurance, already given to three million EU-born workers, that they will not be used as any kind of bargaining chip and their position here is inviolable.

Finally Labour needs to get real about Scotland. The recent loss of the council by-election in Garscadden, with a 20 per cent swing to the SNP, signals that the party risks losing Glasgow City Council next year.

It is a problem beyond Corbyn’s control: his key supporters inside Scottish Labour are long-standing and principled left-wing opponents of nationalism. Which would be fine if tens of thousands of left-wing social democrats were not enthused by a new, radical cultural narrative of national identity. Corbyn’s natural allies – the thousands of leftists who took part in the Radical Independence Campaign – are trapped outside the party, sitting inside the Scottish Greens, Rise or the left of the SNP.

The interim solution is for Scottish Labour to adopt the position argued by its deputy leader, Alex Rowley: embrace “home rule” – a rejigged devo-max proposal – and support a second independence referendum. Then throw open the doors to radical left-wing supporters of independence. If, for that to happen, there has to be a change of leadership (replacing Kezia Dugdale), then it’s better to do it before losing your last bastion in local government.

The speed with which Labour’s challenge has evolved is a signal that this is no ordinary situation. To understand how dangerous it would be to cling to the old logic, you have only to extrapolate the current polls into an electoral ground war plan. Sticking to the old rules, Labour HQ should – right now – be planning a defensive campaign to avoid losing 60 seats to May. Instead, it can and must lay a plan to promote her administration’s chaotic demise. It should have the ambition to govern – either on its own, or with the support of the SNP at Westminster.

To achieve this, it must confront the ultimate demon: Labour must show willing to make an alliance with the globalist section of the elite. Tony Blair’s equivocation about a return to politics, the constant noise about a new centrist party, and signs of a Lib Dem revival in local by-elections are all straws in the wind. If significant sections of the middle class decide they cannot live with Tory xenophobia, the liberal centre will revive.

The best thing for Labour to do now is to claim as much of the high ground before that. It must become the party of progressive Brexit. The worst thing would be to start worrying about “losing the traditional working class”.

The “traditional working class” knows all too well how virulent Ukip xenophobia is: Labour and trade union members spend hours at the pub and in the workplace and on the doorstep arguing against it.

All over Britain, the labour movement is a line, drawn through working-class communities, which says that migrants are not to blame for poor housing, education, low pay and dislocated communities. For the first time in a generation Labour has a leader prepared to say who is to blame: the neoliberal elite and their addiction to privatisation, austerity and low wages.

It was the elite’s insouciance over the negative impacts of EU migration on the lowest-skilled, together with their determination to suppress class politics inside Labour, that helped get us into this mess. An alliance with some of them, to achieve soft Brexit, democratic scrutiny and to defeat xenophobic solutions, must be conditional.

We, the labour movement, will dig the British ruling class out of a self-made hole, just as we did in May 1940. The price is: no return to the philosophy of poverty and inequality; a strategic new deal, one that puts state ownership, redistribution and social justice at the heart of post-Brexit consensus.

That is the way forward. If Labour politicians can bring themselves to explain it clearly, cajole the party apparatus out of its epic sulk and make a brave new offer to Scotland – it can work. But time is important. We are up against a corrosive nationalist bigotry that now echoes direct from the front page of the Daily Mail to Downing Street. Every day it goes unchallenged it will seep deeper into Britain’s political pores.

Paul Mason is the author of “PostCapitalism: a Guide to Our Future” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, England’s revenge