China's Relationship With Humiliation Improves For over 150 years, the Chinese have felt victimized and disrespected by foreign powers, says China scholar Orville Schell. With the Olympics, the country's leaders are hoping to regain honor as a great and powerful nation.
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China's Relationship With Humiliation Improves

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China's Relationship With Humiliation Improves

China's Relationship With Humiliation Improves

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This is Day to Day from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.


I'm Madeleine Brand. For China, the Olympics isn't just an opportunity to show off its athletic prowess. It's an opportunity to finally shake off its status as less than equal on the world stage.

CHADWICK: China is still living with what it sees as humiliating defeats suffered at the hands of the British and the Americans and the Japanese beginning about 150 years ago.

BRAND: Orville Schell is director of the Asia Society Center on U.S.-China Relations. He has written extensively about China, and he examined the impact of humiliation in China in an article he wrote for the latest New York Review of Books. And Orville Schell is here now. Welcome to the program.

Dr. ORVILLE SCHELL (Arthur Ross Director, Center on U.S.-China Relations, Asia Society): Glad to be here.

BRAND: Well, now, one thing that jumped out at me when I read your article was this notion that there is actually a National Humiliation Day in China. What is that? And why do they have it?

Dr. SCHELL: Well, it's interesting. I mean, obviously China has been through something of a rough patch over the last century and a half, you know, when the technologically superior West arrived with its gunboats and sort of nibbled away at China's edges and Japan occupied it, and China was pretty much defenseless to defend itself. So, that was humiliation enough. Then, the, you know, the Chinese Communist Party sort of latched on to that. It got to be something of a badge of honor to be quite oppressed by these foreign powers, to be victimized, in a certain sense, also to be humiliated. So, the party took this theme, as did many earlier intellectuals, and it became a very sort of deeply ingrained part of China's identity.

BRAND: So, kind of reveling and being the underdog and also using that status as a way to propel the people to do better, to achieve.

Dr. SCHELL: Yes. It was a way, I think, to prove that the first world had been beating up on them and had unjustly occupied them, which they had. And that China had suffered. And now it was China's turn to, in effect, rebel to world revolution.

BRAND: So, this idea of the Chinese being acutely aware of their humiliation at the hands of Western powers historically, how does it fuel their behavior today? And how does it fuel their presentation of the Olympics?

Dr. SCHELL: Well, I think the Olympics - they perceive the Olympics as that moment when they could sort of rebrand themselves, when they could become, figuratively speaking, complete the passage from victim to victor. And what made the whole Tibetan demonstrations so painful and so incredibly disruptive and evoke such enormous amounts of anger and indignation in China was that it threatened to intrude on this very carefully written script to which China had spent huge amounts of money and time, and here it was on the very precipice of that long-awaited moment, and then it seemed to be snatched away from them.

BRAND: Of course, every nation wants to win as many golds as possible at this Olympics, but would you argue that in China it is especially important not only because China is the host country, but because of this idea of vanquishing this national humiliation identity?

Dr. SCHELL: I don't think there is a country of consequence - another country in the world that cares as much, even as it pretends it doesn't care about how the outside, and particularly the developed world, sees it. You saw at the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics, it was completely over the top. I mean, no other country could have, would have come close to that, so that says something. It says that China really wanted the kind of respect that only that sort of extraordinarily well-planned and completely dazzling ceremony could evoke. This was a symbolic moment of all symbolic moments where they would win back the respect, the adoration, and the, you know, the acclaim of the world.

BRAND: Well, you know, once these Olympics are over and everyone goes home, and China is no longer on everyone's television sets in primetime, what happens if these expectations aren't met?

Dr. SCHELL: There is a big challenge still here in China's future if it wants to become a truly great power, and that is to gain this kind of moral authority which - because of its humanrights policies, because of its Leninist structures, because of its sort of no-fault involvement in the world, you know, Darfur, Burma, Zimbabwe, it doesn't have that kind of luster to it. And I might add, this is really the same challenge the U.S. confronts. It's re-finding its moral power, its soft power in the world.

BRAND: Orville Schell, director of the Asia Society Center on U.S.-China Relations. His article, ''China: Humiliation and the Olympics,'' is in the current issue of the New York Review of Books. Orville Schell, thank you very much for joining us.

Dr. SCHELL: My pleasure.

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