China: linguistic hygiene for the Olympics

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Wed Aug 22 14:04:15 UTC 2007

August 22, 2007
Op-Ed Contributor

In Beijing, Orwell Goes to the Olympics


IN China, language has long been a test of political orthodoxy. In Mao
Zedong's era, to confuse evil "bourgeois" with virtuous "proletarian"
was to face a prison cell. Write the Chinese character for a leader's
name at a wrong angle and you were a class enemy. Now, as Beijing
begins the final year of its preparations for the 2008 Olympic Games,
a mistake with an English word is taboo. Some lapses are harmless.
"Don't Bother" as a privacy request on a hotel door, for example, or
"Chop the Strange Fish" on a restaurant menu. Others could lead to
minor trouble. "Please take advantage of the chambermaids," says a
resort brochure.

The penalty for "Chinglish" is usually humiliation, not incarceration.
Still, citizens are asked to snitch, Mao-era style, on people who
shame China with their shaky English. An outfit called the Beijing
Speaks Foreign Languages Program issues prefabricated foreign phrases
to workers who cannot converse in any foreign tongue. The Olympics
have become one more tool in the authoritarian state's box of tricks.

Yes, curbing Chinglish — along with current efforts to eliminate
spitting, littering and pushing to enter a bus or train — shows the
better side of authoritarianism. Clean streets are agreeable, and
Beijing's may now be better than New York's. The city's Spiritual
Civilization Office has begun a monthly "Learn to Queue Day," surely
welcome to all who have been victims of the scramble to board a
Chinese bus. It reminds one that China could have a government far
worse than it has now.

Yet behind the attack on Chinglish lies an Orwellian impulse to remake
the truth. Banished from Beijing for the Olympics will be not only
fractured English, but disabled people, Falun Gong practitioners,
dark-skinned villagers newly arrived in the city, AIDS activists and
other "troublemakers" who smudge the canvas of socialist harmony.

This summer, around the time of the 18th anniversary of the Tiananmen
Square protests, the government honed house arrest as a device to
smoothly eliminate dissidents. Hu Jia and Zeng Jinyan, a young couple
who often speak up for rights granted in China's Constitution, and who
were already veterans of hundreds of days of house arrest, were again
locked up just minutes before they were to fly to Europe to show their
documentary film "Prisoner of Freedom City," which depicts the gap
between fact and fiction in the political life of Beijing.

Fictions will abound for the month of August 2008. On all fronts the
party-state will pull the rabbit of harmony from the hat of cacophony
— "What do you mean by dissidents?" Scientists have been told to
produce a quota of "blue days" with a clear sky, perpetuating a
Chinese Communist tradition of defying natural as well as human
barriers to its self-appointed destiny. Mao vowed to plant rice in the
dry north of China as well as the lush south, to prove the power of
socialism. "We shall make the sun and moon change places," he cried.
None of this occurred.

Likewise, in 2001, arguing before the world to get the Olympic Games,
the vice president of Beijing's bid committee said, "By allowing
Beijing to host the Games, you will help the development of human
rights." Yet the opposite danger looms: Games preparation has spurred

Every day, government censors send news organizations a list of
forbidden topics and guidelines for covering acceptable ones. The
price for ignoring the list: dismissal of an editor or closure of the
publication. Last spring, government supervisors even instructed the
TV producers of "Happy Boys Voice," a Chinese version of "American
Idol," to eliminate "weirdness, vulgarity and low taste." No wonder
Dai Qing, a journalist who was imprisoned after Tiananmen in 1989,
says the only thing she believes in China's press is the weather

Truth and power are both headquartered in the Communist party-state.
"Truth" (socialism sparkles, people adore the party) is not only
enforced by the party-state but created by it. Stamp out Chinglish;
ban "unhealthy thinking"; just keep the picture pretty — or else.

Some Americans overlook Beijing's manipulations because our culture
and politics go their separate ways. The upheavals of the 1960s pulled
American culture to the left, yet Richard Nixon took the White House
in 1968. Today, university faculties are on the left in many states
where Republicans dominate politics. Americans display an invigorating
inconsistency that is beyond the imagination of the Chinese, both
Communists and dissidents.

Alas, few Americans visiting Beijing next August will realize that the
drinking water from the faucets of their five-star hotels is
unavailable to 99 percent of the city's residents. In fact, this
city's water is not safe to drink; the water for the athletes and
tourists will be piped in from neighboring Hebei Province.

Next year's Olympics are far more important for China than the Los
Angeles Games of 1984 were for the United States or Sydney's 2000
Games were for Australia. A regime may be at stake. With Marxism
largely evaporated and Leninism fraying at the edges, the Chinese
Communist Party's fate hinges on 10 percent annual economic growth and
visions of national glory.

For years, the party hopes, it will be able to flaunt photographs of
Tibetan farmers cheering at a Chinese gold medal in table tennis,
videos of Muslims in Xinjiang Province fainting with joy as the
women's high jump goes to China by half an inch over Japan, and
documentaries in which Beijing taxi drivers speak in perfect English
to tourists from New York.

The Games will likely be well run and successful, and that should not
disappoint Westerners. Politicizing the Olympics in any fashion is
shortsighted. Boycotting Beijing's 2008 show over Darfur would not
usher in a humane Chinese foreign policy toward Africa. Disrupting it
because of China's Orwellian fictions would not free the political

The Chinese state, for better and for worse, knows exactly what it's
doing, in Africa and at home. Still, a brilliant Olympic Games will be
no more of a clue to the future of Chinese Communist rule than the
spectacular 1936 Berlin Games were a sign of Nazism's longevity.
Correct language, like a gold medal, is desirable in itself. But
neither guarantees glory for a state that pursues them for political
ends (ask the Soviet Union). Sport should just be sport. The
democracies should insist on that and leave political manipulation to
the dictatorships.

Ross Terrill, an associate in research at Harvard's Fairbank Center,
is the author of "The New Chinese Empire: And What it Means for the
United States."
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