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Our China syndrome

The claims against swimmer Ye Shiwen reflect irrational suspicion of her country

11 August 2012

6:00 AM

11 August 2012

6:00 AM

The prominent story of London 2012 has been that of a country which was once an underachiever in the Olympic games but which, through sheer hard work on the part of its athletes, has hauled itself to the top of the medals tables, producing in the process one of the most dramatic world records in Olympic history.

I refer, of course, to the People’s Republic of China. At the time of writing, China has just won its 32nd gold medal, putting it firmly at the top of the medals table. Unlike in 2008, it has done so without home advantage. This from a country which, bar a single, medal-less swimmer in 1952, did not even send a team to the Olympics until 1984. But of course this is not a story you will have picked up from the BBC or the press. Rarely can a sporting performance have been met with such resentment as that of 16-year-old Ye Shiwen in the 400 metres women’s medley. She had hardly wiped the drops from her goggles before the US swimming coach John Leonard was making coded accusations of drug use, with words such as ‘unbelievable’ and ‘disturbing’. Her offence, it seems, was to have swum a length of the pool faster than an all-American winner of the men’s event, Ryan Lochte.

Admittedly, the Chinese do have a track record in doping, but then it’s not as if Britain and America have always been clean. The BBC was only too happy to join in the China-bashing, with Clare Balding asking her interviewee: ‘How many questions will there be over somebody who has swum so much faster than she has ever swum before?’ When Ye Shiwen went on to win a second gold medal, she gained nothing of the adulation enjoyed for Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte or our own plodding swimmers as they failed to win a race. Then, two days later, the whole issue went quiet. What had happened? Ye Shiwen had passed the routine drugs test to which all medal winners at the Olympics have been subjected. She wasn’t a drugs cheat after all, but the news was rather lightly reported.

Deprived of the opportunity to accuse her of doping, the nation’s Sinophobes changed tack. Maybe she wasn’t on drugs, but she was the product of a ‘brutal training regime’ during which she had made ‘sobbing phone calls’ home to her mother. Then came the extraordinary accusation that she might have been genetically modified. It is bad enough when these little yellow people come over here and steal the medals that are rightfully ours; but if we’re equating them with Frankenstein foods then this really is getting serious.


BBC’s Newsnight devoted its main story to the fantasy that athletes might be having their genes modified to improve their performance — interspersed with clips of Ye Shiwen winning her medals. After 15 minutes of this, the scientists invited on the programme to discuss the issue admitted that there was no evidence it was actually possible to manipulate an athlete’s genes in this way. Funny enough, none of Michael Phelps’s or Usain Bolt’s performances have provoked such wild speculation, nor has the question of their having cheated even been raised. As for the brave boys and girls of Team GB, if some Twitterer dared to make the accusation about one of them using drugs or the services of Dr Frankenstein, I suspect they would receive a visit from the local constabulary within the hour.

If a search of its news website is anything to go by the BBC does not seem to have used the word ‘cheat’ once in discussing the apparent admission by Philip Hindes, one of our saintly cycling team, that he fell off his bike deliberately in order to gain a restart. (He later said he was joking.) But the Chinese are different: you don’t need any evidence at all in order to chuck accusations of cheating at them. Sinophobia is the one form of racism which remains socially acceptable. As everyone knows, while the rest of the world gives us cultural diversity, China just nicks our ideas and sells them back to us at half the price, thanks to those hordes of coolies who are made to work 18 hours a day and are apt to disappear if they complain.

China has an appalling human rights record and does admittedly apply the death penalty even more enthusiastically than does the US, but some of the sinister practices attributed to it are no more than what goes on in every western country. How many times have you heard about the evil Chinese regime ‘bulldozing’ people’s homes to make way for Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium? That somewhat overlooks the fact that the building of the stadium in Stratford, too, required property to be compulsorily purchased and tenants forcibly relocated — and that the same happens everywhere in order that public projects can be built.

The controversy over Ye Shiwen has become a proxy for the fuss over the Chinese economy. Ever since the economic crisis took hold five years ago, many in the West have attempted to construct a narrative in which it is all China’s fault. It has become standard practice for US presidential hopefuls — including Barack Obama in 2008 — to accuse China of suppressing the real value of the yuan. It is a line that has eagerly been taken up by Mitt Romney, who has repeatedly said on the campaign trail that he will, on the first day of his presidency, declare China a currency manipulator and use that as an excuse to place tariffs on Chinese imports.

There is nothing manipulative, of course, about printing money to keep your currency down — a practice which the US, like Britain, has followed since 2009. What, exactly, is China’s economic crime other than to have spent years buying US treasuries, enabling the US government to carry on spending money without raising taxes? To add to that is another grievous charge: to have sold us goods at such low prices that it has ruined our manufacturing industries. How dastardly of the Chinese to sell us goods at prices we want to pay. There is nothing manipulative about China’s rapid growth: it is just an age-old story of a low-cost economy enjoying the boost of low labour rates.

Four years ago, Beijing was mocked for the megalomania of its Olympic opening ceremony, accused of spending a fortune on a vanity project as its poor went forgotten, trying to use a visual spectacle to blind the world to the reality of life in the country, and splashing a fortune to train its elite athletes. If they are faults, they are ones of which London 2012 has become equally guilty. For once, we are the ones who seem to be nicking China’s big idea.


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