Leader of the free world caught in Olympic cultural miscommunication?

(This is about cultural communication – actually, miscommunication – not politics.)

As most of you know, President Bush, unlike Prime Minister Harper, decided not to snub the Opening Ceremonies. And he’s combined his presence in China as a guest of the State with that of outspoken public critic, going out of his way to try and put public pressure on China’s rulers (his church visit, for example). He discussed his actions in China in an NBC interview that has since been removed from YouTube, but you can watch it here or read the transcript here.

Unfortunately, one apparently popular Chinese way to interpret this kind of behaviour – happily attending the Games while being publicly critical – is exactly the message the President does not want to send.

Western media is starting to notice this interpretation, and this Guardian piece sums is up:

Combining his criticism with a visit to China sends precisely the wrong message to the Chinese people. As they see it, even though Bush hates China – why else would he say such hurtful things? – China is so powerful that he must nevertheless come to the Olympics to honour China’s leadership and people.

I was kind of appalled when I first came across this perspective at Fool’s Mountain, a site dedicated to publishing Chinese views in English. Here it is in the words of an overseas Mainlander:

The cheers and applauses each nation received, especially the loud-mouthed boycotters, from the Chinese audience during the March of the Nations, carried interesting messages. What was the Chinese cheering for when team France, team Germany and team USA marched in (wink, wink, wink)?

I started to feel grateful; maybe China owes the world a “thank you”. Then I had a second thought. The congregation of the world’s Celebrities of Political Power DESPITE the strong forces holding them back demonstrates China’ Soft Power, not the world’s charity or fondness for the Chinese.

Power is the capacity to induce compliance, to make others do your biding. The ability to induce compliance in your competitors, detractors, or even better, your enemies, to make them bend backwards to accommodate your needs, demonstrates your power. Their protest is an index of your power; the louder the protest, the more clearly you know you are prevailing and frustrating them. The violent protests that disrupted the Olympic Torch Relay throughout the Caucasian World (Europe, Australia and North America) never induced “humiliation” in me, nor did the “Genocide Olympics” t-shirts and banners. Instead, they stirred a feeling of invigoration…

Then the Western protest led me to a third thought. The concept of “soft power” is baloney. China did not attract the political celebrities to the Opening Ceremony with its culture, value or ideas. There is no such a thing as “soft power”. The only power recognized in this world comes from Money and Guns… The Olympics are indeed China’s “coming out party”. It celebrates China’s beginning to master the combined power of Money and Guns. The eighty some heads of states bore witness to this achievement at the National Stadium in Beijing on the evening of 08, 08, 2008, with profuse sweating and pungent body odor.

I’m pretty confident that most of the Western athletes and tourists don’t see it this way. And one major caveat: the writer I’ve quoted here grew up in Beijing but now lives and works as a professor in an American university. His perspective is not necessarily that of the average noodle-seller on the street corner. Also, people are finally starting to give more attention to the discrepancy between online Chinese opinion and the opinion of China’s “regular Zhous” (fyi – “zhou” is pronouced “Joe”… little pun there). Not to mention the variety of opinion produced by generational, regional, and economic differences in China.

(Reminder: I don’t want to read anyone’s personal assessment of George Bush in the comments. This is about cross-cultural communication in China.)

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