Chinese Subjectivities and the Beijing Olympics

Juliette Schwak

Chinese studies tend to be dominated by discussions of state oppression and propaganda. The 2008 Beijing Olympics were no exception, with foreign media notably reporting about the wrong-doings of the Chinese state in the rush to prepare Beijing for the Olympics.

Nevertheless, despite continuous global criticism of China, the Chinese population was extremely enthusiastic and supportive of the Olympic Games. In this fascinating book, Gladys Pak Lei Chong questions this discrepancy in a clear and entertaining narrative. She moves away from Chinese studies’ obsession with the state as a dominant and repressive body, and makes excellent use of Foucault’s idea of productive (rather than negative) power. In doing so, she explores the workings of governmentality in contemporary China, and questions the assumption that Chinese supporters of the Olympics were brain-washed by state propaganda and capitalist ideology, rather exploring ‘the processes under which individuals become self-directed subjects of their own having internalised norms/ideals in embracing the nation’s dream’ (p. 2).

She shows that the Chinese Communist Party uses diverse discursive means of governance that seek to produce self-directing subjects who adhere to the ideal Chinese identity for the 21st century. She explores the ways discourses of national humiliation (presenting China as ‘the sick man of Asia’ from the aftermath of the Opium War and the Nanking Treaty), but also ideas of pride, glory, shame and face were used strategically to govern subjectivities congruent with the image China wanted to show the world during the Olympics. One of the book’s major strengths lies in its acknowledgement of Foucault’s limits and an effort to provide solid empirical case studies to complement Foucault’s somewhat abstract and disputable account of resistance in power.

Chong focuses on different segments of the Chinese population and the ways their specific subjectivities were produced and contested before and during the Olympics. Firstly, she looks at athletes and the production of gendered Chinese subjects. Using the idea of biopolitics, she shows how power has moulded and produced gendered bodies in China. This chapter is particularly interesting in that it moves away from studies that focus on male domination, and rather explores the concomitant production of masculinity and Chineseness. The relationship with the West runs throughout her argument as the West provides the quintessential Otherness according to which Chinese bodies and gendered subjectivities are defined and redefined. The chapter is empirically rich, backed up with numerous photos illustrating her argument. It is a welcome contribution to scholarship inquiring into the relationships between mega sport events, athletes and the production of ideal citizenship and national subjectivities, such as Younghan Cho’s research[i] on the way representations of successful South Korean athletes were mobilised to promote a new form of citizenship during the IMF crisis.

Chong also looks at Olympic volunteers and the making of new model citizens. In an excellent articulation between Foucauldian analysis and empirical exploration, she rightly acknowledges the workings of power in the way promotional strategies and materials function as governing tactics to produce brand ambassadors and ideal citizens whose subjectivities comply with the positive message about China that the Olympics should convey to the world. Her case study focusing on Beijing’s taxi drivers’ experiences and narratives of a changing Beijing for the Olympics is particularly interesting. She explores the training programs that the drivers were required to undertake, and where they were reminded to be clean, polite, drive properly and learn how to converse in English. She discusses their narration of change and progress in the urban landscape of Beijing. Of particular interest is the exploration of the idea of suzhi (素质 quality) and claims that the Chinese lack suzhi, as opposed to Westerners. She shows how this discourse was mobilised by urban subjects to transform themselves in order to acquire values promoted by the state and considered essential to the production of a Chinese subjectivity that would overcome Western superiority. This discussion of suzhi complements with first-hand field accounts previous work[ii] on this concept that indeed deserves to be given more space in global governmentality studies.

Chong then explores the politics of place-making and subjectivity in the production of Beijing as an Olympic city. Finally, she focuses on the role of the media in the resinification process of Hong Kong subjects. By looking at the Olympic programmes broadcast by RTHK, Hong Kong’s only public service broadcaster, she shows how they contributed to or questioned the production of Hong Kong–Chinese subjectivity. Foucauldian power is emphasised throughout this study, which is a particularly welcome theoretical and empirical contribution to both media and governmentality studies.

The book concludes with a strong and convincing discussion of Foucault and China. She recognises Foucault’s blind spots in dealing with the non-West but shows how a Foucauldian method can be highly relevant to understand China and reassert the historical agency of Chinese subjects. Indeed, throughout the book, resistance is emphasised as to counter the repressive perspective that annihilates this agency. She convincingly shows how her interviewees were not merely passive subjects on which power was imposed but how they acted as vehicles of power and resistance. In the case of taxi drivers, she notably shows how marginality was used as a form of resistance by subjects who were self-proclaimed low-class, uneducated working men, which provided them with a position of externality from which they could reinterpret and contest discourses of power. This discussion puts the book back into the larger perspective of governmentality studies beyond the Western world and addresses fundamental epistemological questions with regards to methodological nationalism and universalism.

A relative weakness of the book is its perhaps too rapid account of soft power and promotional politics. Chong very briefly discusses soft power in the context of the Olympics, and this could have deserved more space in the overall argument, as promotional imperatives and the discursive figure of the foreign audience also work as productive governing strategies. The author could have elaborated more on what soft power means for China, and on the domestic/international nexus mobilised in contemporary Chinese governmentality.

Overall, the book opens up a series of questions that go well beyond the Olympic moment, and it makes a much-welcome contribution that will be of great interest for scholars and students of Chinese and Asian studies, media and communication studies, cultural studies and political science, and more generally anyone interested in questions of power, identity and governmentality in contemporary politics.

Weidner, Jason R. (2009) Governmentality, capitalism and subjectivity. Global Society 23(4): 387-411.

[i] Younghan Cho, The national crisis and de/constructing nationalism in South Korea during the IMF intervention, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 9(1), 2008: 82-95.
[ii] Andrew Kipnis, Suzhi a keyword approach, The China Quarterly 186, 2006: 295-313; Hairong Yan, Neoliberal governmentality and neohumanism: Organizing suzhi/value flow through labor recruitment networks, Cultural Anthropology 18, 2003: 493-523; Cheryl Yip, Quality control in China’s reform era: Investigating the suzhi discourse in women’s work (Master’s thesis in city planning, Massachussets Institute of Technology, 2008).