On November 10th, China's Ministry of Culture published for public comment a draft of its new Regulations for Commercial Public Performances. Normally such minutiae don't make headlines, but Article 29 of the regulations is notable for barring performers who pretend to sing or play an instrument to pre-recorded music. These new regulations seem to stem from the brouhaha that arose when it became known that Lin Miaoke, the little girl singing "Ode to the Motherland" at the 2008 Olympics opening ceremony, had been lip-synching to a recording of another girl, Yang Peiyi. Britain's Daily Telegraph reported that "the Ministry of Culture plans to name and shame performers caught lip-synching" and "those who are caught miming twice will have their performing licenses revoked."
This whole tempest in a teacup should never have boiled over. After all, The Sydney Symphony Orchestra recently admitted that they were miming their performance to a recording of the Melbourne Symphony at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Even Pavarotti lip-synched at the opening of the 2006 Winter Games. Obviously, miming to pre-recorded music should be a much bigger embarrassment for a world-class symphony orchestra or opera singer than a nine-year-old girl. Besides, she looked convincing enough. At least the correct song was played unlike the Ashlee Simpson debacle on Saturday Night Live. In fact, given the prevalence of lip-synching in pop music, one has to wonder if American pop stars from Madonna to Miley Cyrus might not fall afoul of the authorities next time they tour the People's Republic.
Despite totally overblown coverage in the western media and two weeks of jokes on The Daily Show and Colbert Report, the preposterous proportions of the pseudo-scandal were largely a homegrown phenomenon for China. Soon after the opening ceremony, the Chinese internet was abuzz with criticism of the decision to replace the talented, but allegedly bucktoothed Yang Peiyi, for the apparently more adorable Lin Miaoke. The fact that such a small detail precipitated such a sizeable furor illustrates what the Olympics meant for China.
With essentially no claim to democratic legitimacy and with little mileage left in its official socialist ideology, the Chinese state has staked its legitimacy on providing economic growth, stability and an ever increasing stature for China on the world stage. It was this last consideration that made it so important for the state to make the 2008 Olympics flawless. Any problem with the Olympics was an embarrassment to the Chinese state and called into question the ability of the regime to make China a respected world power. Lest anyone doubt how seriously the Chinese state takes such things, the decision to switch the performers was allegedly prompted by input from a member of China's Politburo, the Communist Party's highest organ.
While an outright ban on lip-synching might be a classically authoritarian overreaction to a fairly minor embarrassment, mandating the disclosure of lip-synching seems perfectly reasonable. After all, with thousands of fans signing petitions against Britney Spears' lip-synching and concert tickets selling for ten times the cost of a CD and coffee cups bearing warnings that the contents are hot, perhaps it is time for the fine print on tickets in the US to include: "Warning - this concert may include lip-synching and the fake-playing of instruments."