Friday, August 8, 2008

Notes: the opening ceremonies and Bush

I think it’s fair to say the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony took live special effects to a whole new level. The giant unfolding scroll, the Olympic rings that lifted off the ground: the government certainly spared no expense. The ceremonies can hardly be said to be purely “Chinese”—the organizers must have culled technical talent from around the world, under the skilled directorship of Zhang Yimou, a very international auteur. But the impressive level of organization and the strong desire to put on an amazing show were the driving forces behind the spectacle.

As for the content, it seemed to be pretty much the same stuff that big shows at important Chinese events always have, except more so. There was the glorification of Chinese culture (paper, writing, kung fu) and painfully blatant attempts to legitimize the Party (the minorities, in their costumes, carrying the CCP flag and handing it to soldiers). There was the huge number of performers doing random things as if they were filled with meaning, like beating on drums while moving their heads in a certain way, as if this stuff was somehow traditional. And there was the cringe-worthy presence of cutesy kids, singing songs and walking with Yao Ming.

At any rate, the best part of Olympic opening ceremonies is always the long march (no pun intended) of the athletes. To me, it’s one of the most moving representations of our nation-state system: each contingent, in equal standing with all the others, marching behind its flag. The looks on the athletes’ faces make it obvious how ecstatic and proud they are. It’s one of the first images that come to my mind when I imagine diversity without hostility.

President Bush was in the bleachers, looking relaxed and maybe slightly bored. He’s received a lot of flak for his decision not to boycott the ceremony, as well as for his sometimes inconsistent attempts to address human rights and other issues (especially his number one standby, freedom of religion, which of course mainly means less control over Christians). From the New York Times:

Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, who is closely monitoring China’s handling of the Games, said that the president’s speech [at the opening of the new US embassy on Friday] underscored “this administration’s peculiar combination of cowardice and ineptitude in raising these issues directly and effectively with the Chinese leadership.”

She noted that Mr. Bush opted to criticize China while in Thailand, not in China, and that while he met five well-known Chinese dissidents in exile at the White House, he had not publicly spoken out about current political prisoners.

“His administration will receive myriad suggestions about how to improve rights in China but not act on any of them,” she said in an e-mail message. “They will, on the rare occasions they feel compelled to, offer some predictable platitudes about religious freedom being good for China, and they will turn around within a day and subordinate those interests to trade or security imperatives.”

Bush is walking a tricky line. In the US, there tend to be two main political camps when it comes to China: one advocating greater engagement, and one advocating a tough stance. The latter is a mixed bunch, who all have their own agendas. Neoconservatives are concerned with power balances and tend to get hung up on China’s status as a “communist” country. Then there are those who, like Sophie Richardson above, are predominantly concerned with human rights.

It should be clear that taking a consistently hostile stance towards China would be disastrous. You don’t have to know a lot about Chinese nationalism to realize that such a stance would whip up fervent anti-Americanism and boost legitimacy for the Party. On the other hand, staying quiet on issues of human rights is also not an option for a country that seeks to change its image to that of a moral power (a difficult feat, but we’re working on it). Given these complications, I generally think Bush’s treatment of the situation was mature and well thought out. Long ago he pointed out that boycotting the ceremony would be seen in China as a direct affront to the Chinese people. At the same time, in his speeches he made some important points that got to the heart of the Chinese government’s recalcitrance: that China’s leaders should not fear free expression, and that it would, in fact, make the country stronger. His visit included criticism of China’s human rights problems at every step: prior to leaving the US he met with several well-known Chinese dissidents, and he made his points at every speech about China (which drew ire from the Chinese government). His presence at the ceremony unavoidably gave legitimacy to the Party, but he tried to mitigate that effect as best he could by making his reservations clear.

Anyway, enough editorializing. The surge of madness that was the opening ceremony has ended, and it’s retreated to sort of simmering exhilaration, one that won’t end until the closing ceremony. Enjoy the games.

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