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Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Posted March 3, 2009 | 12:30 PM (EST)

The International Impact of China's Olympic Moment


Predictions relating to China are notoriously error-prone--just think of all the times when the imminent demise of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been announced and then failed to materialize--but here's a safe one. Five months from this Sunday, when Chinese officials mark the first anniversary of 08/08/08 (the date when the world's eyes were trained on the Bird's Nest stadium gala that opened the Olympics), many commentators in the PRC and other places will be musing on the meaning of the Beijing Games.

This would have happened in any case, but Zhang Yimou (who directed last year's Opening Ceremony and will be choreographing the PRC's 60th birthday part in October) is doing something to make doubly sure that the commentaries flow. As fond of sequels as any Hollywood director, he'll be back at the Bird's Nest on 08/08/09 putting on a lavish version of "Turnadot," the same Puccini opera that he once staged at the Forbidden City.

But instead of waiting for another six months to pass and the first arias to be sung in the Bird's Nest Stadium (where the surreal soundtrack on my visit as a tourist last November was nothing but soft-rock Carpenters' tunes), I'm getting a jump on things by marking the half-year anniversary of the Games (it's been just over six months since the August 24 Closing Ceremonies) with this preliminary effort to consign the 2008 Olympics to history. I'll stress two things that stand out about its international aspects six months on. (For those interested in its important domestic impact, see the longer version of this essay that appeared earlier this week at the invaluable--to professional historians and also simply the historically-minded--History News Network website.)

My first point is that the Games should be seen as a part of an ongoing, ambitious, and so far partially successful re-branding effort on the part of the CCP. China's leaders had varied goals vis-à-vis the Games, including many that were purely designed to play to constituencies within the PRC, but clearly they hoped to convince the world that the country they rule: a) can pull off thoroughly modern events (hence the high-tech stadiums); b) does not pose a threat to the international order (hence the "One World, One Dream" slogan); and c) is a place ethnic Chinese living elsewhere should feel free to identify with--however they felt about Mao (hence the use of a quote from the "Analects" of Confucius but nothing from the Chairman's "Little Red Book" during the Opening Ceremony).

Why consider this drive only partially successful? Well, the Games definitely left many television viewers around the world convinced that Beijing can put on a thoroughly modern show, but not necessarily sure this is a comforting development. The lines of drummers drumming on 08/08/08, for instance, had their worrying side to many viewers--as illustrated, satirically, in an October episode of the cartoon show "South Park" (now a popular download) that incorporates images from the Opening Ceremonies into a character's nightmares about an impending Chinese invasion of the United States.

The Olympics certainly did help encourage overseas Chinese to identify with the country, due partly to the nods toward "traditional" imagery on 08/08/08. It is important, though, to place this into a long-term perspective that began well before the start and is lasting beyond the conclusion of the Games. At least as important as anything in Zhang Yimou's show has been Beijing's establishment of "Confucius Institutes" in different parts of the world, and Hu Jintao's oft-repeated claim that promoting social "harmony" is the new watchword of a Party that under Mao emphasized the importance of class struggle.

The second thing that stands out six months on is that commentators paid too little attention last year to one illuminating historical analogy: that between the Beijing Games and the Tokyo Games of 1964. Similarities between China and Japan's first Olympics were occasionally mentioned last year, but much more was said about other analogies for Beijing 2008, especially Seoul 1988 (the favored point of reference of those who thought it good China was hosting the Games) and Berlin 1936 (the favored point of reference of those who thought it was bad for such an authoritarian country to have gotten the nod from the International Olympic Committee).

The Seoul and Berlin analogies had some explanatory value, but in retrospect neither seems nearly as apt as Tokyo 1964--especially since there are no indications that China's now moving toward either political liberalization a la South Korea (there's actually been a post-Olympic tightening of political controls) or military expansion under a charismatic leader a la Nazi Germany (keeping control at home seems enough of a challenge at present, especially with the global economic downturn). Like Japan in the 1960s, on the other hand, the PRC is rising in global economic importance, lacks a clearly articulated and consistent official ideology, and has leaders eager to convince the world to focus on their country's current aspirations and abilities and forget a dark period in its recent past (hence no allusions to the Great Leap Forward or Cultural Revolution in the upbeat Opening Ceremonies).

There's also a nice parallel between Japan and China relating to symbols of modernity: the Tokyo Games are associated with the first bullet trains, the Beijing ones with a state-of-the-art airport. And an even nicer one regarding each country's efforts to use a second mega-event to carry forward the rebranding drive showcased at its first Summer Games. Just as 1970 Osaka Expo (Japan's first World's Fair) followed on the heels of the Tokyo Games, the 2010 Shanghai Expo (China's first World's Fair) is coming soon (something that, as with the Beijing Games before it, though generally without the same level of excitement or outrage, some are looking forward to and others viewing with great skepticism). And lest anyone miss the connection between the Beijing and Shanghai mega-events, the latter has its own countdown clocks and its own rosy slogan ("Better City, Better Life"), and it is being billed as an "Economic Olympics" that, like the athletic one of six months ago, will show off the sleek new look of a thoroughly modern metropolis.

An expanded version of this piece first appeared on the History News Network on 3/2/2009