Fifteen years ago, Beijingoism was at its peak. In 2008, walking the streets of Beijing, or at Tiananmen Square or Forbidden Palace, one was stopped endlessly by Beijingers who wanted a photograph with this prominent-nosed visitor from India. Curiously, all of them, including toddlers aping a sibling or parents, flashed the victory sign with their fingers as they posed for photographs; this may have been a local quirk, but the gesture was an apt symbol of the pride that had swept the city — indeed, the nation — as it hosted the Olympic Games for the first time.
China put up the most amazing spectacle ever seen at any Olympics, but the mood in Hangzhou, the venue of the Asian Games, is reported to be sombre
Beijing 2008 demonstrated the new China’s confidence and assertiveness, for the national consciousness had long chafed over ‘hundred years of national humiliation’ at the hands of Japan and the western colonial powers right to the 1940s. It was a nation flexing its new economic and geopolitical muscles. Eleven years previously, it had regained control of Hong Kong, which the British had occupied for more than 150 years. The country had become the factory of the world, millions had been lifted out of poverty, and transfer of technology from the West had made it a superpower.
China put up the most amazing spectacle ever seen at any Olympics, spending over $40 billion on the party to mark its coming of age. It was so overwhelming that the organisers of the 2012 London Olympics sheepishly said they were not going to match it.
In parts of Beijing, one saw screens and walls behind which was hidden the ugly underbelly of the city — we do this in India, too! — and there were some reports of protests, but none of a mass groundswell of anger. Pride in the nation and hosting the Olympics was officially prescribed, not that people needed much encouragement to wear it on the sleeve.
The mood in Hangzhou, the venue of the Asian Games — the world’s second-biggest sports event, next only to the Olympics — is reported to be relatively sombre. Indeed, the state media has quoted people — some of them daring to speak words of mild dissent before TV cameras — as saying that the expenditure on the Asian Games is a waste; that the 30-plus billion dollars being spent on the event would have been utilised better in helping businesses that are in trouble, creating jobs for the young and raising the standard of life.
It’s inconceivable that in the more nationalistic times of the 2008 Olympics, voices of dissent would have been allowed to be aired through state-run media. It’s possible that the state is allowing a modicum of dissent to be vented, only to a certain degree, through its media outlets in order to paint a rosy picture about the state of freedom of expression in the country. Maybe last year’s protests across several cities against Covid lockdowns — following the death of at least 10 people in an apartment fire in Urumqi city — have demonstrated to the rulers that public rage can be managed without using extreme measures, and that it’s prudent to allow periodic venting of public anger rather than letting it reach the bursting point.
As for the Hangzhou Asian Games, it’s very likely that a wave of nationalistic fervour, with medals being won by the sackful, would speedily lift the public mood.
Sledging in parliament
Having covered several India-Pakistan matches across several sports, one has been witness to the worst shades of bigotry by the worst among fans of sport. Indian fans are not averse to having a beer or two — or 10! — during matches at venues in Australia or England or the USA. This can lead to rapid escalation in a war of words with Pakistan’s fans; at Gold Coast in 2018, when Pakistan scored a late goal to draw 2-2 in hockey against India, a young Indian fan, drunk out of his senses, lost it completely — as the Pakistani players did a round of the field to be cheered by their fans, the drunk fan shouted the filthiest abuses at them in Punjabi. He was dangerously drunk and unstoppable.
His behaviour was abominable, completely inexcusable — though it must be borne in mind that he was a young man, and very badly drunk, and emotionally bruised by the Pakistani team snatching victory from India’s grasp in the last few seconds of the game; then, in the eyes of some, a game against Pakistan is no less than war.
No such excuse can be offered for vile words uttered by BJP MP Ramesh Bidhuri, 62 years old, in the Lok Sabha during a debate on Chandrayaan-3. He seemed completely lucid as he spoke filthy words in the ‘temple of democracy’, while occupying the seat next to him, former Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan, 68 years old, grinned like a happy schoolboy. Why, some of the words Bidhuri spoke, even a drunk fan in a sports stadium would have been embarrassed about them.
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