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Five China Myths to Watch and Listen for During the Olympics

We debunk five enduring myths about China, most of which linger because they are partly true while still being misleading, and some of which are kept alive by Chinese and foreign commentators alike.
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The theme sound being used to promote the Olympic Games, via everything from schoolyard sing-a-longs to a Jackie Chan video, is "We Are Ready," but are foreign audiences prepared to make sense of what will happen in Beijing in August?

Or perhaps it would be better to say, are they ready to sort the sense from the nonsense in the cacophony of commentary they will hear from broadcasters? One of us has already done two pieces that provide guides to spectators on prepping for the Games--a "twelve-step" extended reading plan for bibliophiles with time to kill and a five-week condensed approach for busy mouse-potatoes--but what we offer up here is different. It is a debunking of five enduring myths about China, most of which linger because they are partly true while still being misleading, and some of which are kept alive by Chinese and foreign commentators alike.

1. The (Not So) Great Wall

Despite decades of claims made in English language publications, including Ripley's Believe It Or Not, as well as history textbooks in China, you can't really see the Great Wall from the moon with the naked eye. The "Great Wall" was, moreover, built not all at once but rather cobbled together over the course of millennia, and it wasn't much of a symbol for the Chinese nation until the twentieth century. Construction began under Emperor Qin Shihuang (259-210 BCE), who appreciated the grand gesture (he also funded production of the army of Terracotta Warriors), but the smaller, disunified wall of Qin's time, and the great Han dynasty that followed it, would be unrecognizable to us today. In fact, it wasn't until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) that rulers began to pour serious funding into building a "Great Wall," and even that structure, which persists today, is not a single uninterrupted stretch of walls and watchtowers.

2. The 5,000 Years of Civilization Notion

The idea of a persistent entity called "China" overstates the continuity of the Middle Kingdom. Dynastic changes were more than just a shift of the names of rulers. Policies changed, certainly, but sometimes so did even the primary language used by rulers, Under the Qing, for instance, the early ruling Manchus produced government documents in both Manchurian and Chinese; historians have now shown that the content was not a one-to-one translation.

In the early twentieth century, politicians eager to hold together the former Qing Dynasty's holdings for the new Republic of China emphasized the unified culture and lengthy history of the Chinese nation, represented by the "Five Under One" flag used in the 1910s and 1920s, which featured five colored stripes, one for each of the races encompassed by the Chinese nation (Han Chinese, Manchu, Mongol, Uighurs, and Tibetans). The Communists have continued these policies, reiterating that China is a multiethnic country. China covers an area roughly the size of Europe, and its diversity--historically and in the present day--is just as great. It is time to move beyond the idea of China as homogenous and static.

3. What Did and Didn't Happen in 1989

Yes, there was a massacre in central Beijing, though the regime continues to deny it, but the notion that tanks mowed down students in Tiananmen Square (a common Western media shorthand for what took place in early June) is misleading: most of those killed weren't students, the main killing fields were near, not on the Square, and most of the deaths were caused by automatic weapon fire. In addition, some soldiers were killed by angry crowds--though these victims of early June 1989 violence (the only ones that the Chinese government claims deserve to be remembered as "martyrs") only made a very small percentage of the total dead.

4. China is a Land of "New Emperors"

There are two kinds of new-style emperors that you may hear a lot about during the Olympics. The first are China's current leaders, from President Hu Jintao on down. Just as there is a tendency these days among Mao Zedong biographers to emphasize the Chairman's similarity to his emperor predecessors, so too do some commentators want to play up the enormous distance between China's ruling technocrats and the common man, but the analogy is strained. Certainly there is distance between China's ruling elites and the migrant laborers streaming into the cities, but it is not that much greater than the distance between the Harvard, Yale and Stanford-educated policymakers who staff Washington and regular Americans. Moreover, none of China's current leaders (unlike the man who currently occupies the White House) is the son of a past power holder.

Dissidents within China who use imperial analogies (e.g., pointing to the perks enjoyed by "Princelings" whose parents belong to the upper echelons of the Party) do so to discredit autocratic and nepotistic actions by Chinese leaders. But the limits of the analogy are always worth remembering, especially at a time when China is increasingly run by technocrats as opposed to charismatic figures.

The second set of new-style emperors that Chinese and foreign media both like to write about is China's "little emperors," the oldest of whom have just begun to graduate from college, get married, and have only children of their own. The first generation of single children to result from China's one-child policy (which isn't a uniform one-child policy, by the way, as long as we're debunking popular China myths: there are some groups, including members of various ethnicities, who are routinely allowed to have second children without penalty), these kids do not seem to be spelling social doom for China, dire predictions aside. There are some issues that haven't yet fully manifested themselves, however. We've yet to see, for instance, how the massive male-to-female imbalance will play out as millions of mainly poor, rural men have difficulty finding wives, and what--perhaps more frighteningly--the effect of a rapidly aging population will have on the still unstable Chinese economy. But young Chinese do not appear to be much more selfish or self-centered than their forebears, and certainly are no more so than many of their overseas counterparts.

5. Orwell's Kingdom

There are unquestionably features of the Chinese political and media system that resonate with 1984, a book that has long provided a lens through which Westerners look at any country where a Communist Party holds power. But focusing on "Big Brother" and "Newspeak" elements can be misleading at a time when China's leader are more concerned with controlling actions than minds, and often employ strategies that resonate at least as much with those articulated in a very different dystopian novel, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

A recent poll at the Chinese social networking site Duoban about its users' "most beloved book" found that the highest rated was George Orwell's 1984. Ironic, you think? Not really. A place where 1984 is on the bookshelves (in Chinese translation) and Animal Farm is on the stage can hardly be called purely Orwellian. (Soviet bloc countries before 1989 were a better fit: admittedly, works like 1984 were popular there as well, within the intelligentsia, but were read only in underground translations, not ones available at bookstores.) As we noted in a previous post, China controls internet speech and activity, as well as silencing dissent, maintaining a massive prison system, and cracking down on movements and organizations that it views as a challenge to its authority (which range from Falun Gong to new-leftist efforts to reinstate the rural commune system).

But in the world of post-1979 economic reforms, the Chinese state has found that one of the most effective means of keeping its citizens happy is meeting their physical and material needs. Sure, the disastrous international torch run this spring was a PR nightmare for the government overseas, but the problem that was really keeping policymakers up nights was the massive domestic inflation on basic staple goods like pork, cooking oil, and rice. Pursuing economic policies that satisfy Chinese people's desire for basics as well as luxury goods has kept China relatively stable for almost twenty years. Controlling China's economic issues is vital to the CCP's future, though hot spot areas where politics and economics collide (anger at corrupt officials, for example, who are seen as abusing their political position to attain unfair material advantage) have long been and continue to be things to watch.