Expecting Gold

Chinese newspaper Global Times confidently claimed on the verge of the opening of the Rio 2016 Olympics that Chinese would get 30 to 36 medals. It is now day 12 and China have 17 golds while Team GB have 19 golds.

Since 1984 when China made their Olympic debut they have amassed over 200 golds and have never finished below the UK in the medal rankings. They might still pip Team GB to second place but now it looks impossible to make the 30 gold mark. The humiliation of falling so short and possibly not even making second place is something Chinese media has been trying to manage.

One approach has been to recycle the common Olympic mantra that it is the taking part that matters; showing spirit. State media CCTV has run lengthy stories about r Ygor Coelho de Oliveira from Brazil and Ethiopian swimmer Robel Kiros Habte who have become crowd favourites despite being very much off medal winning form.

This approach might be in line with Olympic rhetoric but does not sit easily with the nationalistic fervour that the state has been fomenting for over a decade. This generation of Chinese have invested a lot in the notion of Chinese superiority in terms of sport, culture and economics. They cannot be so philosophical as to believe that the taking part is enough. They are baying for success, and when it is not forthcoming they turn to spite. On Twitter Chinese people have been blaming judges for poor decisions. They are even blaming Rio. How a city is responsible for China underperforming is unclear.

It is not just the poor medal count, it is also the fact that Great Britain with a population tiny compared to China is beating them that really hurts. Being beaten by a capitalist country who kept Hong Kong for over a century is hard to swallow for those used to seeing the continual triumph of the Chinese communist party, the continual upward swing of prosperity and economic might.

People in China need to un-brainwash themselves if that is possible. The achievements of Chinese athletes are theirs and theirs alone; it reflects their ability and prowess, not the might of a nation.

What the diminishing medal return demonstrates is the rocky transition China is undergoing from state sponsored sports training to private training. The same dip was experienced by Russia and in particular East Germany. While communism’s record for helping relieve poverty and inequality can be questioned, the ideology’s success in nurturing sport talent for propaganda purposes cannot be doubted.

The New Gateway to South East Asia

Over recent years there has been a softening of travel regulations in South East Asia. This has come at a similar time to a reversal on the former ban of travel overseas by citizens of the People’s Republic of China. There has been a drive on China’s part to form stronger economic ties with South East Asia. It is a region with strategic significance for China.

The first thing that should be noted is that China has a border with Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. The Chinese authorities have been very keen on securing their borders and reclaiming any land in dispute. They don’t have any land disputes with South East Asian countries.

Moreover, these countries unlike India don’t pose any real economic, cultural or ideological threat to China. Myanmar is controlled by the army with a window-dressing form of democracy. Thailand is currently under military rule and in an unofficial civil war for control with the establishment and army lined up against a populist party funded by the shady figure of Thaksin Shinawatra. Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos remain communist but no longer isolationist.

In short China feels at home in the political climate of South East Asia. No government in South East Asia is much interested in a liberal agenda and unlikely to complain about China as long as it keeps to its borders.

And so it has. Instead China has been making massive inroads to improve travel infrastructure in the region. In the south western province of Xishuangbanna there has been massive forest clearance and the creation of roads to Laos and Myanmar.

In parallel with this road building, China has been keen to invest in South East Asian countries and has been keen to partner up on train line improvements to get the flow of consumer goods from China into South East Asian markets and at the same time bring out the valuable natural resources in the region, primarily rare hardwoods and timber.

It will take a while before Cambodian trains and Vietnamese trains are properly connected to Thailand. However, these 3 countries have plenty of track and rolling stock. Myanmar also has rail assets. Laos less so but is not starting from scratch. The obvious goal is to have a large circular train circuit that goes from Bangkok to Siam Reap in Cambodia and then travels on to Ho Chi Minh City before heading north up the Vietnamese coast to Yunnan province in China. The railway would also have routes going East-West going from Vietnam into Laos and then into both Thailand and Myanmar.

There has already been an explosion of Chinese tourism in Thailand. There is no reason why this cannot be further expanded by rail links. Moreover, as Chinese tourists become braver it is likely that they will want to explore farther afield than simply Bangkok and Pattaya in Thailand. They will want to go to Angkor Wat, to Luang Prabang, to Mandalay, to Saigon, to the forests in the north and the islands in the south.

China doesn’t belong to the ASEAN grouping but it sees the 4.4 million square miles that this area represents as being a gold mine of natural resources and a great place to flex financial muscle and to gain strategic assets and debts. This is the area with which China is keen to connect.