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China's Ode to Legerdemain


I have a small confession to make.

I slept through much of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.

I could blame my flagging interest on jet lag, since I had just arrived in the United States from China, where I had lived for the last five years, and there would be an element of truth in that. Or I could emphasize the feelings that these mass exercises induced in me as they stretched on.

Yes, there was an irresistible twinge of admiration for the production effort that went into such a gigantic spectacle, just as I have felt real respect for China's national reconstruction effort that I've watched firsthand. Ultimately, as I watched other night, though, I felt a mild sensation of repugnance accompanied by a creeping sense of boredom.

To be truthful, there were moments of sheepishness over the next couple of days, as messages poured in from friends, including some from ordinarily skeptical Chinese, about what an awesome, even life changing experience the opening ceremony had been.

Explaining the boredom, though, is a snap.

Leni Riefenstahl has never been remembered so well as in recent weeks, as one commentator after another (myself included, in my former column in the International Herald Tribune) has compared Beijing 2008 to Berlin 1936, and invoked the name of Hitler's filmmaker to try to come to terms with such an ambitious marshaling of imagery in the direct and obvious service of propaganda that we have witnessed by the Olympics' Chinese hosts.

Paeans to the grandeur of the state and the manipulation of history in an unsubtle celebration of racial identity and doctrinaire solidarity seem terribly old hat. The effacement of the individual and the glorification of a sacred, but never clearly defined national cause are of a piece with nasty ideologies of bygone eras.

Beijing's favorite director of politically correct cinema blockbusters, Zhang Yimou, directed the Beijing spectacle using every high-tech trick he could muster, but the event's intellectual lineage goes back to the bygone tenors of the Hollywood epic, masters of the mass, anonymous screen extra, like Cecil B. DeMille and William Wyler.

Fortunately nowadays, most of the world is suspicious of the all-powerful state that brooks no contradiction from the individual. For all the talk of the ceremonies' tightly choreographed "one-from-many" message being an expression of a uniquely Asian social paradigm, Beijing and its Mini Me ally, North Korea are in fact the only true believers in the values trumpeted on opening night.

My confession continues. I was wrong to be so blasé as to fall asleep. Beijing communicated to the world in an unmediated fashion on 8/8/08, and it delivered a deeply revealing message and one that is properly worrisome: behold us in awe and pay tribute to our greatness, fall in line and ask no meddlesome questions.

The repugnant side of the Games has been there all along, but during the buildup was somehow kept mostly out of view. That is until the cynicism, dishonesty and power worship that lies at the heart of the Chinese state's program was laid bare through an embarrassing revelation: the little pixie who enchanted the world on opening night, singing Ode to Motherland, just as the flag bearing Chinese team entered the stage wasn't in fact the little girl who sang the anthem.

Chinese television viewers were further mislead, during the ceremonies' long discursion about the grandeur of the country's supposed 5,000 years of history by a fireworks display that was not the fireworks display that those in attendance at the National Stadium, the 'Bird's Nest' actually saw.

The state's worry that anything but a carefully handpicked crowd might lead to spontaneous protests or some other mortifying embarrassment led it to ratchet up security to the point that ordinary people feel it's not worth attending. So when the stands have been too empty, the government has trucked in ersatz fans, including many of its own eugenically selected youthful volunteers.

The occasion of the Olympics was too important to leave anything to chance, or indeed to leave any room for reality. Embellishing the face of China, and thereby enhancing the prestige of its rulers, required something better, a painstakingly idealized hyper-real, and whether that required trickery or deception, so be it.

There are indications that even ordinary Chinese people are tired of such games, complaining in large numbers online about the government's manipulative handling of the Opening Ceremony.
The official answer to such complaints came from Chen Qigang, a Politburo member whose interview Beijing Radio was quoted in The New York Times. "Everyone should understand this in this way," Chen urged. "This is in the national interest. It is the image of our national music, national culture, especially during the entrance of our national flag. This is an extremely important, extremely serious matter."

One might add that such overriding emphasis on flag and anthem and face-driven notions of national interest, as decided entirely behind closed doors by something called a politburo is extremely old fashioned.

The corollary to this episode, of course, has the government's response to skeptical minded foreigners, journalists or otherwise, who come to the festivities armed with all sorts of questions about the nature of the Chinese system, the restrictions on liberties, the use and purpose of Chinese power. "Aw shucks," the system has seemed to answer. "These are just games, meant to be enjoyed by the Chinese people, and for the people of the world. Don't sully their purity with politics. Don't spoil our wonderful party with talk about rights or ideals."

For remaining doubters, the veil lifted on the stage management of the opening ceremonies should clarify things. These games are and always have been about something most serious: China's global resurgence. The Chinese people themselves have few outlets for a national conversation about what their country's rise means for themselves and for the world. The government won't tolerate it.

That makes it all the more imperative that the rest of mankind to come to grips intelligently with this country's remarkable rise, and not to be put off by anodyne slogans like the ephemeral erstwhile favorite "peaceful rise," or by the equally airy, and content-free current ones, like "harmonious society," and "scientific development," or indeed by the razzle-dazzle of the games themselves.