First off, I want to say that from an artistic, creative standpoint the Opening Ceremonies exceeded my expectations. Director Zhang Yimou deserves heaping praise for the 2008 drummers, the synchronized, dancing printing blocks, the human calligraphy on the LCD screen, and lighting of the Olympic flame.
But despite the beauty of the spectacle, the conscious decision to create a narrative that rewrites both Chinese history and reality and presents a sugar-sweet sunshine portrait to the world is alarming -- but the fact that the NBC commentators unquestioningly went along with it is downright appalling. Here are two glaring examples.
The first major red flag that this was going to be a propaganda exercise of massive portions was when the government paraded a group of Han Chinese children through the Bird's Nest dressed in the garb of the nation's 54 minority groups -- as a effort to "celebrate" the diversity of China. How inclusive! Except for the fact that the government either exoticizes these groups for tourist purposes while they remain poor, second-class citizens, or create conscious programs to aggressively assimilate these groups out of existence, particularly in politically hostile regions like Tibet and Xinjiang. An equivalent in America would be if the government got a group of white kids from Manhattan together and dressed them up as members of Native American tribes and paraded them around as example of how respectful we are towards the "native peoples."
Any comment from the commentators? Nope. Is this ignorance or intentional? And which is worse?
But the most outrageous double omission came as the ceremonies moved to "modern Chinese history." I was very curious to see how they were going to pull this off. I debated with my family how they were going to mention Mao. Mao is by far most famous, influential and important figure in modern Chinese history, and his picture still hangs prominently in Tiananmen Square. Whenever I'd ask people their opinions of him in my travels in China, they would reply, "he was a great man who made some mistakes." OK! So as NBC cuts back in hurriedly from commercial, the China "expert" Josh Cooper Ramo informs us that the program has now reached 1978, as China opens itself up to the world. Um. Wait one second. Did we miss 1949 to 1978 during the commercial break? I don't think so. It was an understandably calculated move for Zhang to make no reference to Mao -- why spoil the debutante ball with references to a leader who was responsible for tens of millions of deaths? Fine, I get they don't want to retell the stories of things like the Great Leap Forward, or the Cultural Revolution, where for ten years teenagers wreaked havoc, society shut down and millions were sent to work in the countryside. Leaving out these historical realties when telling this history of modern China is certainly a deliberate PR move, but what is unforgivable is that no one, not even Ramo the China "expert," said a damn thing about it. He made one fleeting reference to a costume change where Zhang had decided against dark suits that looked Mao-like, but that was it.
Throughout the segment on ancient Chinese history, Ramo had no trouble explaining the Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist references. He elaborated that China wanted the performance to be didactic in teaching the world about the rich cultural traditions and "replacing old images of China with new ones." Of course they do. That is what propaganda is. Your job, Mr. Ramo, is to provide accurate, informative commentary to explain and counteract this. However, to let China's abridged version of history slide under the radar without any comment is troubling because it means one of the following things.
-- Ramo is an idiot.
-- He, Matt Lauer, and Bob Costas didn't want to say anything remotely negative about the opening ceremonies.
Are they self-censoring? With China detaining the White House press plane, police surveillance everywhere and blocked internet sites, were they worried that these kinds of criticisms of the event while it was airing would provoke ire from the government? Were they actively told that they shouldn't mention this omission of Mao and tow the party line on the "inclusion" of minorities? Or were their comments edited out? Whatever the answer is, it doesn't say anything good about NBC's ability to provide fair coverage of what is far more than a sporting event. Everyone knows this is a geo-political extravaganza.
My colleague David Flumenbaum has pointed out that we've been totally duped by promises that there will be a free press covering the games, and it's unacceptable for NBC to be, or appear to be, in the Communist Party's pocket. This is about more than routine criticism about commentators being trite. There is a lot more at stake right now, and we must vigilantly demand that Olympic coverage is never compromised.