“Sports themselves are not political, but they have important political functions. The close connection between sports and national identity takes different forms in different countries at various stages of development, and in China it has special significance.
The phrase ‘a weak country has no sports’ has particularly painful associations for Chinese people [owing to China's nineteenth-century image as 'The sick man of Asia'-Translator.]. For sports to keep pace with the general progress of a nation is not only right and proper in itself but serves as an inspiration to the people; as inspiration it extends beyond the domain of sports to heighten national confidence, pride, and cohesion in a broader sense… [this is why] we shall continue to rely on the approach of centralized command.
It is one of our fine traditions, it sums up our efficient model, and it works to bring our people together and to get them moving. Our position on the ‘whole nation system’ is clear: we will retain it and we will continue to perfect it (LX*, p. 253).”
-Liu Peng, director of the State General Administration of Sports of China
The 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, in his essay The Communist Party’s ‘Olympic Gold Medal Syndrome’ within the newly released collection of works “No Enemies, No Hatred” gives a scathing review of how China’s centralized government system twists sports into a tool of propaganda and nationalism.
Many of the issues Xiaobo brings up regarding the staging of the Beijing Olympics of 2008 can be directly applied to the surfing events staged on Hainan Island. The most salient being the handpicking of staff, security personnel, and volunteers working the event. Xiaobo discusses how there is a multistage screening process that sorts the individuals that “envelop foreign reporters and tourists in comfort and amiability, offering them VIP treatment and charming smiles, reducing friction to a minimum (LX* p. 252).”
Additionally, Xiaobo discusses the media guidelines of “zero criticism” when speaking of itself and “only praise” in selecting material from foreign media and emphasizes that the massive shows that garner a wealth of praise from attendees and participants are paid for by “mandating that taxpayers foot the bill (LX* p.252, 250).”
There are four crises pointed out in this essay, with examples, that specifically speak to the consequences of China’s obsession with sports on a global level (LX* pp.249-253):
1. Sports in China is divided into two groups. This system “creates a heaven for elite athletes and a hell for ordinary athletes.”
2. The obsession with achieving at the highest levels comes at the cost of athletes paying “enormous prices in personal dignity and in normal human relations.”
3. Everything else is pushed out of the way when it comes to international sporting events. The planning, the building, the staffing… since it is of “national interest” all resources may be commandeered.
4. The worst of these is that the forces blocking reform are strengthened. When China’s central government can use an event to tout its modernity, its ability to accommodate, without incident, international events of prestige, and can use the praises of participants to broadcast its success, this serves “to delay the reform of a rotten system, and indeed [has] helped it to gain strength that might keep it going longer than it otherwise would.”
Rather than promoting the excellence of the performance of the athletes, rather than extolling human values or even the spirit of the sport, the events are used to promote a narrow nationalism that the central government uses to prop up its legitimacy and present a falsified face.
Xiaobo, throughout his collection of essays, offers striking, multi-faceted examples illustrating how China is invested in retaining the legitimacy of its authority, both internally and globally. Everything it does revolves around this. While the centralized government is not using the same means as past authoritarian regimes in the area through using its military might, they are using keen economic strategies (buying business and government allies within and outside its boundaries) and nurturing a sometimes violent sentiment of nationalism.
These strategies are receiving a push-back from the masses spurred by and made possibly through the internet. The reforms are from the bottom-up and carry the weight of grave consequences (accusations of subversion of power, prison for words, disappearing, beatings…). Yet people are still rising up, voicing dissent… just as people are rising up across the globe, and in the US itself, against the power elites in their own governments.
That the ASP, SIMA, and the ISA have decided in concert, to align themselves with the stated agenda of the Chinese government, may come as no surprise to some. The way in which Big Surfing functions is very much like that of China’s government system. This is a system Big Surfing understands intimately: control the media, control the citizens/athletes, the citizens’/athletes’ speech, disappear those citizens/athletes who object or dare to subvert the legitimacy of the party… and like China, the advent of the internet has played and continues to play a vital role in growing the voice of dissent calling for reform.
They certainly occupy opposite extremes of the authoritarian spectrum, with individuals within the system themselves, by greater and lesser degrees, being decent human beings or scoundrels. However, the intent of centralized regimes of this nature is unequivocally to retain the power and the stability of their governance. The organization of the system itself is fundamentally flawed.
It matters not how China or surf companies or the ASP or the ISA… began as, or how pure the intentions of those who created the first boardshort may have been, where they fall short is the ability to fundamentally change in order to better the environment for their constituents because this would mean taking a step back from the race for economic dominance. Instead, they become hell-bent on maintaining the status quo, perhaps indulging from time to time, in a little nostalgia to prop-up their sense of legitimacy and party allegiance (for China, this is the veneration of Confucius as sage or the recalling of the grand times of ruling emperors; for Big Surfing, this is dragging aged pros around on tour to commentate or coddling the male-surfer ego with hypersexualized images of female surfers-an effective means of making female surfers less minacious).
For those with no stomach for this type of comparison, it is at least important to ask just what type of authority is being employed by SIMA, the big five surf companies, the ASP (self-proclaimed “governing body of surfing”), and the mainstream surf media. Certainly they are connected, like branches of government. Certainly they control the image of their “Spectacle” (“The State”). Certainly they control the movements of those who wish to achieve (the citizens) what is still perceived as “The Best in The World.” They are certainly not a democracy or even a representative republic. The idea that every pro-surfer has a voice in the decision-making process at the uppermost levels is a fallacy. Most importantly, there is zero transparency in the decision-making process… because the surfers don’t matter when it comes to the direction of surfing. This is for the power elite, those whose jobs it is to think market strategy and profit margins.
Unlike China, if professional surfers themselves or surf spectators decided to band together, to pressure the system, either from within or outside the system, they would be able to alter the direction of professional surfing. The question is, of course, one of self-preservation. As long as professional surfers care more about themselves, their selfish interests, and their ability to move up the ranks, power will remain in the hands of the power elites. As long as you want what they are selling, you’ll do what they say.
The few high profile surfers, who are now choosing to walk away from the game are throwing a simple question out to their peers and younger generations: “Do you really need this? Do you really need to prove that you are ‘The Best’? And what does this even mean within this hyper-controlled, nepotistic environment?”
What would happen if pros and amateurs alike just stopped showing up to contests… refused to play the game? What if they all said “Nope, don’t want what you are selling.”
Unlike China, competitive surfers can walk away from their authoritarian regime and still have the freedom to surf. Surfers just need to wean themselves of the ridiculous notion that winning, a petite fame, and a modicum of notoriety should cost them their autonomy.
(*Liu Xiaobo, No Enemies, No Hatred 2012)
For more information on the move by Big Surfing into China, please see “Standing Her Ground”
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.