Is China Getting Bad Press at the London Games?

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Aaron Schachter: As we heard earlier, China got some bad Olympic press today. Two Chinese athletes were among those disqualified for allegedly throwing badminton matches. Before that, a Chinese swimmer was in the spotlight for unproven doping allegations. Orville Schell is a long-time China observer and author. He directs the center on US-China relations at the Asia Center. Schell says many Chinese worry about how such controversies are covered by the Western media during the Olympics and how that could tarnish their nation's reputation.

Orville Schell: You know, I think in a certain sense the Western media is biased and I think in certain ways Westerners are also biased. But on the other hand I think China does bring a good deal of this down on its own head. They're still in that stage where it's very important that they manipulate their image to make sure that they come across sort of flawlessly and it sort of deprives people of being able to feel the same kind of gladness at their success.

Schachter: Do you think people don't want to see China win?

Schell: I think there is a kind of a, I mean if you compare it to, let's say, Sweden or Canada or even Australia, I don't think there are a lot of people who aren't Chinese who are rooting for the Chinese. So that's a very complicated psychology and, of course, it drives the Chinese crazy because they feel that the West in particular are denying Chinese the respect and the place in the world that they deserve.

Schachter: It seems to me the same could have been said about the US and the Soviet Union in Olympics, you know, during the Cold War, but part of that was just, you know, we needed a nemesis.

Schell: Yes, I think particularly in athletics it's always important to know who your real challenger is and there's no question about it. Of all the countries in the world, China is our main competitor. So this generates a huge amount of sort of emotion, but I think there are also much deeper reasons and they also have something to do with the way China strives so hard, and sometimes so ineffectively, to win soft power. Soft power is usually something that sort of radiates naturally from what a society does and is. The Chinese are constantly trying to sort of [??] it, to create it, to manipulate it as if . . .

Schachter: And they're spending a lot of money on it too, aren't they?

Schell: Huge amounts of money. And that's why it's often I think very easy for people in the West to assume that the Olympic Games are just another part of this massive sort of public-relations manipulation to make you think China is great again. I mean I think, you know, it's interesting the British opening of the Olympic Games was in many ways the absolute opposite, the yin to China's yang of the Beijing opening, because it was sort of so relaxed and in many ways disorderly and kind of cluttered, but humorous, self-mocking. There was a kind of a sense of, "Well, this is what you're going to get and it's OK." Whereas in China, one got the sense that if anything went wrong it would be tremendous loss of face and have huge consequences because it was so important that China do it well, do it right, and make a good impression.

Schachter: And finally, Orville Schell, do you think what's playing out now at the Olympics is indicative of the US-China diplomatic relationship?

Schell: I do think that the US-China sort of diplomatic relationship is sort of bathed in the same bath of sentiment and I think it's a pity because if China sort of is denied is rightful place it's going to make relations all the more difficult.

Schachter: Orville Schell, a long time China observer and author. He directs the center on US-China relations at the Asia Center. Orville, thank you so much.

Schell: A pleasure.