August 4, 2008
Profiling China on eve of Olympics
By leslie king
China’s human rights record, its attitude toward personal freedoms, its pollution, gridlock and infrastructure — all these and more have been front and center as that nation prepares for the XXIX Olympiad Aug. 8–24 in Beijing.
As the games approach, the alumni interest group Alumnae and Women of Emory gathered at the Miller-Ward Alumni House July 24 for a roundtable discussion of the host country.
An overview by Dan Morris ’69C of the fascinating, controversial nation drew on his foreign service experience in Beijing, Taiwan and other Asian nations including Indonesia.
“One thing I’ve learned,” Morris said, is that “many people make pretense to be China experts. But it is a vast subject on a very complex culture.”
“China is going to impact all of our lives,” he asserted.
Morris was a history major and his historian’s viewpoint brought out the national characteristics that have made modern China and are influences today as China takes the national stage next week. These characteristics, he noted, also figured in events and speculations as China has prepared for the games, including the torch and Tibet.
“One world, one dream” is the theme for the Beijing Olympics and China, Morris said, has had a history of striving for unity among its people since the first emperor united large portions of the country.
“The ethnic population is pretty homogenous,” he said, over 95 percent are ethnically the same. “This homogeneity exerts a cultural affinity and brings it together.”
“There are lots of minorities” but he noted that most are not in significant numbers. Tibet, of course, “is one significant minority that hasn’t assimilated” into the overarching culture, Morris said. And there is a Muslim minority in the northwest of the country. There is also Inner Mongolia, which is a province of China, he added.
Though there are lots of spoken languages in China, there are two primary languages, he said, Mandarin and Cantonese. Mandarin is the main and official language, spoken largely in the north. Cantonese is spoken in the south and in Hong Kong but Mandarin is being more widely heard in these areas.
“More and more Mandarin is becoming accepted. The Chinese government wants the country united and they are pushing for a common language,” Morris said.
Morris spoke of two dominating threads that run through Chinese history: “eating bitterness” and the “mandate of heaven.”
“China historically has lots of disasters — earthquakes, floods, famines,” he said.
“Leaders in China pay attention to natural disasters. It reflects on them in the minds of the people.”
When natural disasters occur, the people may begin to think: “Is this a message from heaven? Have the rulers lost the mandate of heaven?” That’s the “right” to rule as long as the rulers have that mandate. The “mandate of heaven” concept is longstanding in China’s long history.
Morris contrasted China’s population to that of the U.S. The slightly smaller nation has 1.3 billion people compared to the U.S.’s 300 million. “The population issue is just daunting,” he said. “The thing that amazed me is when traveling around China, there are cities of over 5 million people you’ve never heard of, even if you’ve studied and know the country.”