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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

And now to China. It's no coincidence that Chairman Mao's first ever published essay was about sports. A strong nation, he wrote, needs strong people. China has long used sports to bolster its international position and unite its masses.

But controversies surrounding next month's Olympics have heightened a heady mixture of Chinese pride and nationalism. In the last installment of her series on the Chinese government's athletic program, NPR's Louisa Lim meets one of Beijing's weapons for harnessing its patriotic masses.

(Soundbite of cheerleading)

LOUISA LIM: This is cheerleading with Chinese characteristics. These are not leggy athletic girls with pompoms, but desk-bound, middle-aged government employees brandishing blow-up balloons.

Yet at least 300,000 of these will make up China's Olympic cheering squads. And one percent of those - 3,000 cheerleaders - have been trained by Zhang Jinling, a professional enthusiast with a fixed rictus grin of joy.

Ms. ZHANG JINLING (Cheerleading Trainer): (Chinese spoken)

LIM: We raise our arms and shout powerfully to encourage China and the Olympics, she explains.

She will give this cheering squad ten hours of instruction in how to shout the officially approved slogans. Go China, Go Olympics, seems to be the favorite. Zhang Jinling explains why China's fans should cheer with one voice.

Ms. ZHANG: (Through translator) Our cheering squads are more of a collective undertaking than NBA cheerleaders; they're more unified as a whole. Our squad is made up of workers and staff from different units, and they show the realization of our 100-year-long dream.

(Soundbite of cheerleading)

LIM: That dream: to host the Olympics. For this cheering squad, the Games signify China's arrival on the world stage as an equal. It's all the more symbolic given Beijing's official historical narrative, emphasizing a century and a half of humiliation at the hands of the West and Japan.

Xiong Xiaozhen from Beijing Sport University's Centre for Olympic Studies explains why the games matter.

Mr. XIONG XIAOZHEN (Beijing Sport University Centre for Olympic Studies): (Through translator) In modern times, China has been a backwards, weak country. We think that the Olympics is a way to cast off that sense of humiliation, to change China's international image as the sick man of Asia. That's the dream of the Chinese people.

Unidentified Woman: The passion has been ignited...

LIM: For this reason, the Olympic torch relay was supposed to be a global victory lap.

(Soundbite of protest)

LIM: Instead, it became a lightning rod for protests over Beijing's human rights record. This was a shock to many Chinese people, who'd expected international goodwill for China's achievements. The controversy heightened feelings of nationalism, nurtured on a potent mixture of extreme pride and extreme humiliation.

On the topic of sports nationalism, cheering squad member Yao Jiabin's conflicting emotions are typical.

Mr. YAO JIABIN (Cheering Squad Member): (Through translator) Chinese people are very friendly. We Chinese do not oppose any country, but we do have our own stance. And we're friendly towards people from every country, just as long as they don't oppose our stance.

LIM: One example of this, and a low point for sports in China, was the Asian Football Cup, which I attended in Beijing four years ago.

They just announced the national anthem of Japan and the crowd is booing.

This was just the start. The game happened at a time when Sino-Japanese ties were at a low point. And throughout the match, every time the Japanese team had possession of the ball, the Chinese spectators booed and whistled. Such displays of sports nationalism may yet happen at the Olympics, according to sports anthropologist Susan Brownell, the author of "Beijing's Games: What the Olympics Mean to China."

Ms. SUSAN BROWNELL (Author, "Beijing's Games: What the Olympics Mean to China"): I think we are likely to see some impolite, unsportsmanlike performance from some of the Chinese crowd, who will be displaying nationalistic feelings and supporting China and perhaps booing Japan or the U.S. or other countries. You know, it's not just due to Chinese nationalism; it's due to the unsophistication of the spectators who do not normally spectate at sports events.

(Soundbite of cheerleading)

LIM: And that's why Zhang Jinling has been enlisted. Beijing may just be hoping generic cheers like, higher, faster, stronger, will drown out any embarrassing lapses in sportsmanship, even if such conformist cheerleading invites comparison to China's mass campaigns of the past.

This is the biggest ever Olympic education campaign to teach Olympic knowledge and etiquette to the masses. Zhang Jinling reminds her class of their duty.

Ms. ZHANG: (Through translator) Our ordered movement, our loud and clear shouts, will definitely create a good atmosphere for all the athletes, so they'll be able to get new Olympic records on our yellow earth. That's our hope.

(Soundbite of singing)

LIM: And with that, she launches into an official Olympic song, complete with a baffling sequence of complicated hand gestures. Smile, Beijing, it exhorts. A smile shows Beijing's best tomorrow. That may be true, but such mass campaigns also serve as a reminder of how closely intertwined sports and Chinese nationalism are - and of how that worries Beijing.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.

AMOS: To hear other stories from our Sports in China series, go to NPR.org.

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