The invasion of the robotic thugs

The attacks on the ‘horrible, ominous, retarded’ Chinese men guarding the Olympic flame are historical prejudice repeated as farce.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

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On Sunday, as the Olympic flame made its 31-mile journey from Wembley Stadium in north-west London to Greenwich in the east, more than 2,000 Metropolitan Police officers were on duty.

The London authorities spent a whopping £1million on security. An estimated 13 miles of metal barricades were erected in order to pen in the public. Officers used Britain’s stringent new anti-terror laws – which effectively bring an end to the right to protest and severely restrict freedom of speech and association – to arrest protesters, force people to remove ‘offensive’ T-shirts (what, in that snowy weather?), and confiscate ‘problematic’ placards, pamphlets and books. In some parts of London, mini-states of emergency were imposed for the day: long rows of cops blocked access to entire streets and rifled through the bags of anyone who wanted to pass.

Inside Downing Street, policemen wielded assault rifles; outside Downing Street, there were, in the words of one newspaper, ‘helicopter police, mounted police, motorcycle police, bicycling police, Ford Transit van police, standing police, wrestle-you-to-the-ground police in black Andy Pandy suits, and even jogging police’ (1). London Mayor Ken Livingstone’s office once infamously referred to New Year celebrations in London as a ‘public order problem’ – it seems someone in London decided the Olympic torch relay was akin to a public act of terrorism, and sent a standing army of newly-empowered super-cops to extinguish any signs of fun or enthusiasm.

British police pin a protester to
the floor, while the ‘Chinese
thugs’ look on.

And yet, what have British commentators and radical activists obsessively bleated about since the relay took place? The presence of 15 Chinese minders around the Olympic flame. These Chinese have been described as ‘vile’, ‘horrible’, ‘robotic’, ‘mysterious’, ‘retarded’ goons who tried to import their nation’s alien and tyrannical ways into England’s green and pleasant lands. Indeed, as the torch has moved from London to Paris to San Francisco, the age-old historical prejudice about a ‘Chinese invasion’ of the civilised West, bringing with it strange cultural habits and ‘sensual brutishness’, has been replayed as farce in the hysterical debate about the Chinese torch attendants (2).

The Chinese ‘flame protectors’ are security-service employees of the Beijing Olympic Organising Committee; they were reportedly handpicked to guard the torch because of their fitness and strength. They wore matching blue-and-white shellsuits, with the Beijing 2008 logo imprinted on them, baseball caps and black bumbags, which contained nothing more ominous than Zippo lighters so that the minders could re-ignite the torch if anyone managed to put it out (as protesters did, four times, in Paris).

Yet reading the press coverage, you could be forgiven for thinking that these Chinese boys-in-blue were not only accompanying the torch through the West but wickedly spreading Chinese values, too. They have been described as a ‘mysterious’ presence on Western shores. ‘Questions raised over mysterious men in blue’, said the UK Independent. ‘Who let in the Chinese?’, demanded The Times of London, perhaps to the tune of ‘Who let the dogs out?’, pointing out that these ‘mysterious men-in-blue… have provoked international outcry’. One columnist said the ‘most shocking aspect of the farcical progress of the Olympic torch through London and Paris was the presence and behaviour of the squad of Chinese goons’, these ‘mysterious’ tracksuited men (3). Did I mention that commentators considered the Chinese minders to be ‘mysterious’?

In truth, there is nothing mysterious about the presence of foreign security officials in the UK. There are loads of them, guarding foreign embassies and protecting visiting foreign dignitaries. Indeed, last year the London leg of the Tour de France was accompanied by 80 French police officers, actually wearing paramilitary-style police uniforms and riding motorbikes; Greek security officials followed and monitored the movement of the Olympic flame in the run-up to Athens 2004 (4). Yet no one asked ‘Who let the frogs in?’ or ‘Who are those mysterious Greeks?’

Perhaps it was not the fact that the Chinese flame-protectors were security-service men that rattled commentators and activists, but rather their allegedly strange, inscrutable, aloof and, well, typically Chinese behaviour. British Olympics official Lord Sebastian Coe was overheard describing them as ‘horrible’. ‘They did not speak English. They were thugs’, he spat. Former Blue Peter presenter Konnie Huq described them as ‘very robotic’. She was echoed by the head of the French Olympics Committee when the torch arrived in Paris; he, too, described the Chinese minders as ‘robots’ (5). This view of Easterners as unthinking automatons carrying out orders was widespread. The minders were ‘unsmiling’, said the UK Daily Telegraph; as the UK Guardian pointed out, some have referred to them as ‘flame retardants’, as in retards: that is, people of subnormal intelligence (6). Their steely-eyed, robotic, oh-so-Eastern attitudes were seen as a foreign imposition on British territory. ‘Some saw their black leather gloves, earpieces and single-minded determination to keep the flame burning as a visible demonstration of Chinese police state-type muscle in London’, said one newspaper (7).

These loaded denouncements of the mysterious Chinese provided newspapers that like to bait foreigners with a field day. ‘…HORRIBLE CHINESE THUGS…’ screamed the UK Daily Mail, reporting that the Chinese were ‘burly henchmen’ who ‘barged their way through the capital’ (8). One Daily Mail writer said ‘the goons [definition: a coarse or oafish person acting on behalf of others] were just following orders, having no doubt been told their organs will be harvested if they let protesters run off with the torch’ (9). What? Didn’t you know that the evil Chinese state steals people’s hearts, lungs and livers and sells them on the black market for a quick buck, and what’s more that it uses threats of such ‘organ harvesting’ as a way of keeping its people and it employees in line? God, you’re so behind the times… If you failed to read between the lines of the Mail’s coverage, the message was spelled out more clearly by one of the commenters in their moderated discussion threads; he said Britain had ‘capitulated’ to ‘the pro-Burmese, anti-Tibetan Marxist vermin of China’ (my italics).

This time, however, no liberals criticised the Mail for its exaggerated and excessive attacks on horrible, organ-stealing foreigners. That is because liberal thinkers, too, were busy obsessing over the 15 Chinese minders. Watching the Metropolitan Police’s widespread use of new anti-terror laws to police the public and quell protests during the torch relay in London on Sunday, Shami Chakrabarti of the British civil rights campaign group Liberty could only say: ‘Everyone appreciates the difficult duty of our police to hold the line between the Olympic ceremony and critics and supporters of the Chinese regime. But who were the ominous figures running in formation in light blue uniforms?’ (10) In short? ‘Our’ boys-in-blue did a good, upstanding job – ‘their’ boys-in-blue were ‘ominous’.

Similarly, Matt Whitticase of Free Tibet UK said ‘it beggars belief that personnel from the People’s Liberation Army were allowed on the streets of London at all, let alone that they were allowed to push Metropolitan Police around’ (11). This is a completely surreal situation: Whitticase is the head of an organisation whose members were put into headlocks, thrown to the ground, stripped of their T-shirts and placards and chucked into police vans (there were 37 arrests) exclusively by British police empowered by new and truly ominous British legislation – yet he only seems interested in fretting over the presence of a handful of Chinese men in tracksuits nearby.

Indeed, in the topsy-turvy world of an imagined Chinese invasion of London, newspaper editors seem to have lost their marbles: some have published photographs that clearly show snarling white-skinned British cops strangling protesters to the ground under headlines such as ‘Who ARE these Chinese thugs?’ (12) What Chinese thugs? The notion that Chinese officials protecting the flame were part of a bigger sly invasion of muscular Communism reached its nadir when Tony Arbour, a Conservative member of the Metropolitan Police Authority, said ‘the Chinese security men seemed to be managing events [in London]’ (which was patently not true) and then insisted: ‘Trafalgar Square is not Tiananmen Square.’ (13) This hysterical statement captured the dual fear and loathing behind the attacks on China’s robotic thugs: fear that a weak and ‘supine’ UK (as Free Tibet described Gordon Brown’s Britain) is being overrun by Chinese, and loathing of those unsmiling, retarded foreigners who have of course never done anything of note except massacre people in Tiananmen Square.

The reason the Chinese flame guards can be described as horrible, ominous, subnormal robots who were looking to carry out ‘a Tiananmen Square’ in central London – in spite of all the evidence that actually they were your average unarmed foreign security officials working in tandem with the British authorities – is because this discussion has been underpinned by new China-bashing prejudices rather than by factual evidence or political analysis. And the prejudice has spread, like a virus, from London to Paris to San Francisco to Australia.

An online columnist in America, running with the Daily Mail writer’s remark about Chinese organ-theft, lambasted the Bush administration for allowing these Chinese ‘monsters’ to come to San Francisco to guard the torch. ‘Why does San Francisco – and America – need the monsters who enforce China’s gruesome organ trade on its streets?’ he asked. He argued that the torch relay captured Chinese arrogance and stupidity: ‘Whether it was their deep and lethal hatred for democracy and the public assembly democracy requires, their incurable incomprehension of free people’s values, or their usual stupid and deadly combination of the two, [Chinese leaders] ensured that this morning San Francisco woke up to see the Olympic torch wedged between a Chinese functionary and the symbol of China’s real rulers: a secret policeman.’ (14)

In the blogosphere, the idea that the flame attendants are the vanguard of a Chinese invasion has been stated even more explicitly. ‘Chinese thugs take over England’, said one British blogger, asking why ‘Chinese agents’ were allowed to operate ‘above the law’ (they weren’t) (15). An American blogger, inspired by British media reports of a Chinese-thug takeover of the UK, said: ‘Maybe these thugs are used to beating Tibetans into submission… but their brutish antics should not be tolerated in a CIVILISED society.’ He advised protesters in San Francisco to bring mace, because it’s ‘amazing what a nice shot of mace will do to control a BRUTISH THUG’ (16). Another writer took the Chinese invasion idea to its logical conclusion, arguing that in London the boys-in-blue-tracksuits ‘did what the uniformed servants of every proud imperialist nation does – they started knocking about the locals, who hadn’t even bothered to learn the occupier’s language’ (17). That’s right: Britain has been colonised by strange, unknowable, violent Chinese.

Almost unbelievably, the issue of the Chinese torch-bearers has become a major international issue. In Britain opposition politicians such as David Davis and Nick Clegg have demanded to know ‘why the Chinese were let in’ to Britain; in Paris, actual police and city officials slated the flame attendants’ ‘constant prevarication and procrastination’ (18). And now, Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd has said the Chinese security officials will not be allowed to accompany the torch in Australia. Instead, this will be an ‘only Australians’ affair, Rudd declared (19). Well, the Australian authorities have always been very good at keeping out the Chinese – why should they stop now?

Rudd clearly relishes his role as the white police chief of the mostly ‘yellow’ Pacific. Last year he threatened to send the Australian Navy to chase away ‘evil’ Japanese whalers; now he has won international accolades for standing up to ‘evil’, er, Chinese blokes in tracksuits. ‘Rudd showed Gordon Brown how to treat the Chinese government’, declared a writer for the UK Daily Telegraph – that is, with contempt (20). Under the headline ‘Rudd won’t let Chinese invade’ (my italics), an Australian columnist congratulated the new PM for ‘banning the boys in blue’ from the streets of Oz, though he also wondered if Australians had been told the whole truth about the Australian government’s dealings with the Chinese (21). Of course we haven’t been told the whole story, said one commenter on his article – after all, not telling the truth is part of the ‘China Syndrome’ (22). That is, the Chinese lie. They steal organs, they have no feelings, they never smile, they are robots, they are retards, and they lie.

A 1907 cartoon showing the
spectre of the Chinese brute
bearing down on Australia.

How did concern about a tiny number of unarmed Chinese officials jogging through Western cities so quickly descend into expressions of poisonous prejudices in political circles, the media and across the World Wide Web? Because the Olympics have become an outlet for irrational China-bashing, uniting everyone from the trendy left to the deeply conservative right around the idea that China is evil, destructive and untrustworthy. There are historical precedents to this. Many in the West have long had nightmares about a ‘Chinese invasion’. When Chinese immigrants moved en masse to America in the late 1800s and early 1900s they were, in the words of one author, seen as ‘racial, social and physical pollutants’ who might cause ‘the demise of Western civilisation’ (23). Australia, too, where so many of the traditional prejudices about the ‘Yellow Peril’ originated, has long feared the arrival of ‘swarms’ of Chinese, as the anti-Chinese cartoon from 1907 published on the left illustrates. Indeed, Australian racists have for a long time described the Chinese as ‘brutes’. In 1886, the Australian magazine The Bulletin said Australians should resist ‘the Chinese invasion’ since, due to his ‘utter lack of ennobling purpose and elevating ideal’, the average Chinaman is ‘necessarily a sensual brute’ (24). Of course, many have done away with the overtly racial lingo, but in the discussion of the Chinese torch-bearers as invading, unfeeling brutes, with no higher purpose than the ‘single-minded determination’ to preserve the flame, one can hear historical echoes of the great Western fear of a Chinese infiltration.

The attacks on China’s boys-in-blue looks like history repeated as farce. In much of the coverage of the torch relay, commentators have talked about the ‘supine’ British government and the ‘cowardly’ Bush administration which are failing to stand up against the brutes from the East, while cheering the French protesters and the Australian government for taking the Chinese on. As in the past, the driving force behind this outbreak of China-bashing is a perception that the West is in political and social decline, and the East might take its opportunity to snuff out ‘our’ civilisation once and for all. That 15 men in tracksuits could give rise to such an hysterical, out-of-control, fin-de-siècle, prejudicial debate reveals so very much more about contemporary Western fear and irrationalism than it does about Chinese wickedness.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

(1) A flaming mess at Downing Street, The Times, 7 April 2008

(2) Olympic farce: Former Blue Peter presenter Konnie Huq lashes out at ‘robotic’ Chinese torch minders, Daily Mail, 7 April 2008

(3) Unmasked: Chinese guardians of Olympic torch, The Times, 9 April 2008

(4) Beijing Olympics: hopes swiftly extinguished by violence and farce, The Times, 7 April 2008

(5) Olympic farce: Former Blue Peter presenter Konnie Huq lashes out at ‘robotic’ Chinese torch minders, Daily Mail, 7 April 2008 and; French officials slam Chinese torch security, Reuters, 8 April 2008

(6) Ten burning questions about the Olympic torch, Guardian, 8 April 2008

(7) Ten burning questions about the Olympic torch, Guardian, 8 April 2008

(8) Olympic farce: Former Blue Peter presenter Konnie Huq lashes out at ‘robotic’ Chinese torch minders, Daily Mail, 7 April 2008

(9) From Nazis to Chinese “thugs” to…Morris dancers?, Benedict Brogan’s Blog, 8 April 2008

(10) Questions raised over mysterious ‘men in blue’, Independent, 8 April 2008

(11) Flame attendants revealed as Chinese ‘paramilitaries’, Independent, 9 April 2008

(12) Olympic flame protection party are ‘thugs’ from Chinese military,, 9 April 2008

(13) China’s thugs and fears over 2012 ‘gun guards’, Evening Standard, 8 April 2008

(14) SF Welcomes China’s Official Secret Police For Lighters On Steroids, Fire Dog Lake, 8 April 2008

(15) Chinese Thugs Take over England,, 8 April 2008

(16) Do torch protesters need stun guns to deal with Chinese BULLIES?, Political Dirt Bag, 8 April 2008

(17) SF Welcomes China’s Official Secret Police For Lighters On Steroids, Fire Dog Lake, 8 April 2008

(18) French officials slam Chinese torch security, Reuters, 8 April 2008

(19) Kevin Rudd showed Gordon Brown how to treat the Chinese government, Daily Telegraph, 8 April 2008

(20) Kevin Rudd showed Gordon Brown how to treat the Chinese government, Daily Telegraph, 8 April 2008

(21) Rudd won’t let Chinese invade, Herald Sun, 8 April 2008

(22) Rudd won’t let Chinese invade, Herald Sun, 8 April 2008

(23) Polluting minds, Guardian, 25 July 2007

(24) Chinese Invasion of Austrailia, The Bulletin, 1 September 1886

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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