Reactions to Liu Xiang and the nature of Chinese national pride

Guest post from Shanghai-based Xiaodi Zhang, product management executive at eBay and co-founder of HopStix, a new China travel review site for sharing about food and travel. Also posted on the HopStix blog as “He’s Not Superman After All.” She also left a super-insightful comment on my earlier post about the Online Evisceration of David Brooks and was inspired to write this post.

By now, everyone knows Liu Xiang, China’s favorite Olympian, pulled out of the Olympics. In noticeable pain, he limped off the field yesterday after a false start in the 110 meter qualifying round and ended his Olympic career in the most anti-climatic fashion. His departure left an entire nation in shock.

Woman Crying about Liu Xiang pullout

Even the CCTV journalist was in tears

The live broadcast from the stadium was interrupted when the CCTV journalist had to pause in mid-sentence, turn her head and compose herself. Mind you, this is not NBC and Bob Costas. This came from the most regulated network in the world, where journalists are trained to speak only what’s on the teleprompter. Her breakdown demonstrated just how emotional this moment represented to Chinese everywhere. Pictures of audience members and Olympic volunteers in tears have been flooding the internet, and people can’t stop debating about his sudden departure. Some people feel cheated and angry, but most people are overwhelmed with disappointment. When I saw my cousin last night, I asked her if she cried. She replied yes, and then started crying again, set off by my question.

Difference between Tyson Gay and Liu Xiang

With all due respect to Tyson Gay and his fans, but I have a feeling that no one shed a tear in the US when he didn’t make it to the 100 meter finals two days earlier. To Americans, Tyson Gay’s win or loss was ultimately his own. His performance did not represent glory or defeat for an entire nation.

In China, however, one athlete’s Achilles injury is felt by an entire nation. To understand why Chinese would respond this strongly, just go back to the moment when Liu Xiang won the gold medal four years ago.

Liu Xiang’s Athens medal was framed as a victory for the Chinese race

After the race, he proudly announced to the world that “It is a proud moment not only for China but for Asia and all people who share the same yellow skin color…. I think we Chinese can unleash a yellow tornado on the world.” (more Liu Xiang quotes here) Even to him, the medal was not merely a personal accomplishment. Rather, his gold medal was a national achievement, even one for an entire continent and an entire race.

The fact that Liu Xiang comes from China’s “me” generation, a product of the one-child policy, and grew up during a time of unparalleled prosperity, western influence and individualism, reflects how deeply entrenched the ideals of national pride and national unity are in China. For most Westerners, it might be hard to comprehend how a young, cocky hurdler can also be so nationalistic.

Where does this deep well of nationalism and pride come from? History.

Understanding it will require a brief detour to China’s history, but it will unlock the mystery of how a country of 1.3 billion people can stand united in face of foreign criticism (Olympic protests) and internal disaster (Sichuan earthquake).

China as we see it today at the Olympics has been deeply shaped by a collective sense of pride, shame and accomplishment rooted in its history. National pride comes from China’s rich history (inventing paper, gunpowder, movable type, AND the compass, which were all on display at the Opening Ceremony), shame at its failure to stop foreign oppression during the first half of the twentieth century, and accomplishment at how far the country has come during the second half.

When Mao Zedong came into power, he famously declared “Today, the Chinese people have finally stood up!” But Chinese knew that the country had not really stood up and would not be able to stand up for another forty years.

So, when China finally re-opened its doors to the world in 1978 and re-entered the world stage in the Olympics in 1984, the Olympic Games became a barometer for China’s growth. Each four years brought new gold medals, new glories, new hope, and renewed sense of national pride. China could finally “stand up”. But many athletes have come and gone before Liu Xiang.

Why has Liu Xiang meant so much to the Chinese?

The answer is clear. Liu Xiang did not medal in ping-pong or men’s gymnastics. Liu Xiang medaled in Track & Field, an arena that China never even hoped to be competitive in. By accomplishing what seemed to most as the impossible, Liu Xiang captured the national imagination and brought a new sense of hope and possibility to China. He represented “new” China, China’s future, China’s Olympics. The possibility that he could repeat the feat in China’s Olympics, on Chinese soil, became what everyone fervently anticipated in the Beijing Games.

After my cousin grabbed some tissues and sat back down on the couch, I asked her why it was so emotional for her. She sighed, “I was really looking forward to it. One minute, I heard the race was about to start, and then he pulled out so suddenly”. She also added, choking up some more, “we shouldn’t blame him. We knew it would be hard for him to win again, but we just wanted to see him run.”

Photo courtesy of bbs2008.163.com and ChinaSMACK. More photos of reactions at ChinaSMACK.

UPDATE 8/20 from Elliott:

China Digital Times shared Xiaodi’s account and also highlighted a New York Times article that talks about the commercial implications of Liu Xiang’s withdrawal. China Herald also asked the provocative question “What killed Liu Xiang’s Olympics ambitions?” Fons Tuinstra quotes his first coach as reported by the Telegraph:

I am saddened by Liu Xiang’s exit,” Mr Gu said at his office in Shanghai. “I think it is because of the intense training. If he had been more relaxed the injury might not have been so bad.
“I have experienced in the past the great pressure that government officials exert on the athletes as well as the coach, and that they demand a gold medal, otherwise it is meaningless. Liu Xiang is still a young boy and he has been put under a bit too much expectation.”

UPDATE 2 8/20 from Elliott:

Marketwatch Olympic Blog by Bill Bishop suggests that things may not be as they appear:

I watched his withdrawal live and felt very bad for him. He looked to be in real pain. But after talking to some of my Beijinger friends over the last 24 hours, I am half-convinced the more is more to this story. All my friends believe this was set up by the track team and its affiliated management company that helps manage (and takes a cut of) the business side of their athletes’ lives.

The conspiratorial thinking goes that Liu and the team knew he was not in good enough form to beat Cuba’s Dayron Robles, and so it was better to not race than to lose. Both are humiliating, though an injury is more sympathetic and face-saving than a loss, and, importantly, might maintain some of Liu’s attractiveness to marketers. Part of the “evidence” is that the team held a news conference within 30 minutes of the withdrawal, making it looked like it was prepared in advance.

UPDATE 8/21 from Elliott:

WSJ China Journal shares that sponsors are kicking into action to put the best spin on the situation:

In terms of advertisements, Nike was quick to respond with full page ads in domestic papers…The translation, from a version of the ad running in today’s English-language China Daily:

Love Competition
Love risking your pride
Love winning it back
Love giving it everything you’ve got
Love the glory
Love the pain
Love sport even when it breaks your heart

Liu Xiang Get Well Nike ad

Photo courtesy of Beijing News and Andrew Lih (fuzheado)

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