Wednesday, April 9, 2008



By Philip J. Cunningham

Like the US, China is a continental power not fully cognizant of how impressive and intimidating she appears in the eyes of others. Given China's sudden growth spurt, global reach and budding supremacy, it is surprising to see how nervous and unsure of herself she is on the eve of the Olympics, widely dubbed a "coming out" party, as if China were a shy teenage girl.

And yet despite the strengths so obvious to others, there is something distinctly naïve, insecure and adolescent, if not specifically girlish, about China's behavior in recent months; at once showy and unsure of her beauty, at once prone to narcissistic grooming and feeling soiled inside, at once full of herself and devoid of self-confidence.

China's not an adolescent country by any standard historical reckoning, but the emerging civil society of ordinary Chinese citizens is young and tender. China's aspirations as a "normal" country in a world long-dominated by Western norms of trade, banking and diplomacy, including membership in WTO and other popular Western clubs, puts it well into its teens, but not much older than that.

China is clearly an up and coming power, a presence to be reckoned with, and yet its booming growth is not deep-rooted, coming, as it does, on the heels of decades of trauma and isolation, imposed on the people both from without and within. China, after a century and a half of dismemberment and humiliation, remains peculiarly vulnerable to a sense of being violated. If there's the soul of a teenage girl lurking in there, she's got some extremely powerful bodyguards, but the insecurity persists.

Bolstered by initial signs of acceptance and a tentative popularity despite the undue bullying that any new kid from a different school on the wrong side of the tracks in school might experience, China has made a tentative stepping out into international society. She has grudgingly earned respect from officials in the corridors of power in the West, but old prejudices linger and she is subject to being taunted, shunned and bullied on the street.

One reason the new kid on the block is both respected and resented to a far greater degree than others is performance against expectation; she excels in almost any endeavor she puts her mind to, shaking up the old order, undermining the status quo, racking up points for habitual losers and the downtrodden.

She's smart, gets reasonably high grades, does well in sports and is not at all bad-looking. She has her admirers and her detractors. To those who want things to go back to the way they were before she had the temerity to move into the advanced class, she's the problem.

She's got her weak spots; her easily wounded pride, her short temper, her brittle confidence, and her detractors sense this.

Like a shy, insecure girl with a traumatized past, unsure of her own beauty, nervous, emerging China doesn't take the prom for granted, but wants a prom night perfect down to every last detail, to show herself, if not the others, how far she's come, to give her something to hold on to, to cherish and remember forever.

And that's where the incessant taunting and bullying by boycotters --jealous detractors, opportunists and implacable foes-- gets outright scary.

Remember the bloody prom scene in Carrie? Stephen King's horror classic is disconcerting and haunting in a lingering way because of its solid psychological underpinnings about bullying gone awry. In the film version, Sissy Spacek embodies with unnerving skill the role of a shaky young woman emerging from trauma, facing the future with a nervous smile.

Carrie is trying hard to escape her past, willing to deny her own not inconsiderable powers in order to be accepted, wanting so bad to be like the others, to be liked, that she, who is capable of so much more, craves the most mundane of accomplishments, of going to the prom, of being included, only to be set up for a fall.

The humiliation that unfolds in what was to be her moment of glory is excruciating to watch.

And then she breaks down and things start to unravel. She can't stop herself, even though it pains her, even though she knows it is wrong.

Holier-than-thou human rightists who clearly find it easier to pick on China rather than tend to more egregious violations in their own backyard contribute to the enmity. Unthinking nationalists, rag-tag hooligans and agit-prop activists who are looking to spoil China's shared moment of glory by disrupting the Olympics, whether it be in the name of asserting Western values, Darfur, Dharmasala or just for the hell of it, may find the wrath of the Chinese people, once riled up, unruly and liable to spiral out of control.

And then what?

What good can the gratuitous and unthinking humiliation of a trauma-racked nation of 1.3 billion people possibly serve?

The antic cheerleading of demonstrations seen in recent weeks, when not outright rude or violent, has the one-sided nature of school spirit, being true to one’s school at the expense of others. In trying to bring attention to one set of problems without thinking through the consequences of attention-grabbing shocks, racist chants and media stunts, a whole new set of problems is set into motion.

Racially-tinged currents of rejection, betrayal and resentment are surging to the fore in a new, yet wholly unnecessary, confrontation between East and West.