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What's Gold Got To Do With It: China's Post-Olympic Identity

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While the U.S. continues to usher in an era of economic sturm und drang, China faces its own transitional crisis: the age of post-Olympic discovery.

After all, while it's true that to the victor goes the spoils (51 gold medals is 51 gold medals is 51 gold medals), it's also true that nobody remembers pyrrhic victories (by globalization standards, 51 gold medals ranks a distant third to human rights infringements, and putting drinkable milk on grocery store shelves).

But as is usually the case with China, symbols transcend results. Winning more golds than anyone else is exactly the kind of paradoxical achievement that enables New China to keep marching to the beat of its own hollow drum -- trumpeting one-note nationalism while still keeping the high hat and the snare of individual athletic prowess intact. The proof is in the pudding, and for everyone else at the table (read: other international powerhouses), humble pie was served.

It's no wonder, then, that Chinese authorities and their appointed media shills have been working overtime to keep the sports-as-life-metaphors in an extra air-tight Ziploc. At the state-owned television channel where I work -- an enigma wrapped in a microscosm of middle-class China wrapped in a riddle -- employees now face the burden of inflated expectations, both individually and collectively. Shortly after the Olympics ended, I received an email from one of my superiors, asking me to help translate a typically garbled piece of Confucianism into English. Only, this time, there was a nifty Olympic tie-in: "Having faced the challenge of the Olympics, did you perform to the utmost of your abilities?

You don't have to be well-versed in Chinglish to read between the lines -- the athletes did their job, now what about you? The build-up to the Olympics was fraught with devil-may-care smirks and a nearly congenial sort of fatalism. With the whole world watching, waiting to poke holes in the paper tiger, disaster seemed imminent, and blind nationalism mere moments away from its comeuppance. So when the opposite happened, when 51 became the new rallying cry, when track megastar Liu Xiang's shattered ankle became just an afterthought, when the enduring image of men's basketball became Yao Ming fist-pumping his way through a rout at the hands of the Americans, hope didn't just float, it made a beeline to the finish.

The new jingle for Post-Olympics China, then, has become pushing the limits -- or reining in common sense, depending on whom you ask. Life at the television station is an exercise in cognitive dissonance. Since the Olympics, old programming protocol has been dropped like old, bad habits, which, needless to say, merely makes way for new, bad habits. Weeklies have become dailies overnight, and time slots are being shuffled about like a game of cards where the entire deck is wild -- all without the slightest explanation or hesitation. Never mind that by all early indications, ratings across the board have suffered. Or that we haven't added anyone new to the payroll since July (which means everyone is working twice as hard, only to get half as far). From top to bottom, the age-old mantra "know your place" gets passed down, but with a twist: buy enough of what we're selling, and maybe someday we'll let you be shareholders too.

You see, when you're an employee of China Inc., it always feels like you're a day late and a dollar short, working toward an arbitrary payoff decided by arbitrary, fickle powers-that-be.

Every now and then, though, a clear directive does manage to make its way down from the ivory tower. Enter the 2010 World Expo, when all eyes will be back on China. In contrast to the Olympics -- which from the start, was wracked with questions about accountability, about the ROI of overinvestment, about playing by the hard, fast rules of a new world order -- the Expo affords China the opportunity to play to its greatest, most indisputable strength: grow, baby, grow. Taller, better, faster, stronger makes for a "better city, better life" (the Expo's official motto), even if expectations of China's middle class are being forcibly raised to match the height of its skyscrapers.

No architect, though, can possibly measure up to the social, ideological, or cultural dimensions of his planning. Nevertheless, build it and they will come, right? Unless, that is, what you're building is actually a bridge to nowhere.

Like most things in China, Chi's blog is currently under construction (but coming soon!). In the meantime, he can be reached at ctung82@gmail.com.