Monday, August 11, 2008

A message from China: "Beat this, buster"

That Olympic Games opening ceremony … was that a tour de force, or what?

It was a powerful statement that China – a country which for much of its history has been insular and complacent, lagging far behind a rampant West (no Renaissance, no Enlightenment, no Industrial Revolution, no democracy) – has almost caught up and now demands to take its place on the world stage. “Beat this, buster,” one billion Chinese seemed to be saying.

It was a public relations feat of epic proportions. Only China, with its enormous manpower and, perhaps more significantly, the state’s untrammelled power to mobilise people at will, could have accomplished it. These Games will be unlike any others in recent history, if for no other reason than that the Chinese government has a unique power to stage-manage events, even to the extent of filling stands with compliant spectators. (I could be wrong, but the enthusiasm of the uniformed crowd watching some of the rowing heats, and waving their brightly coloured sausage-things in unison, didn’t look entirely spontaneous.)

Another thing that struck me about the opening ceremony was that it was quintessentially Asian – a celebration of the perfection that can be achieved by vast numbers of people working in sublimely co-ordinated harmony. Seen in that light, it could be interpreted as a statement about the formidable power of collectivism as against the heroic individualism we prefer to celebrate in the West. Was this a pointer, in microcosm, to a future clash of cultures?

But even as we marvelled (and who couldn’t have?) at the exquisitely orchestrated pageantry, the spectacular marriage of technology, art and mass regimentation, there was a darker undertone for those of a mind to see it.

In The Dominion Post this morning, a letter writer drew the inevitable analogy with the Berlin Olympics of 1938, which the Nazis used to sanitise the international image of a regime that was simultaneously planning world domination and the extermination of an entire culture.

Maybe that comparison is unduly pessimistic, but it still pays to remind ourselves, at the same as we’re gasping in admiration at Chinese ingenuity, that the same Beijing government that uses cute-looking children to reinforce emotionally appealing statements about us all being united in “one world” and “one family” also gives encouragement and support to butchers and monsters in places like Darfur and Zimbabwe, to say nothing of the repression it imposes on its own citizens.

On a more banal note, it’s gratifying to see I wasn’t the only person appalled by the leaden commentary – and that’s being polite – that accompanied TVNZ’s coverage of the opening ceremony.

Keith Quinn and John McBeth may be respected sports broadcasters, but on this occasion they would have been far more eloquent had they simply shut up. Their clumsy attempts to do justice to the extraordinary spectacle unfolding before them served only to demonstrate how far out of their natural oeuvre they were. You could almost sense their relief when the teams started marching into the stadium, thus giving them an opportunity to scramble onto more familiar ground – all that prosaic stuff about who was leading which team, how many Games they’d attended and what medals they were in contention for.

It’s often struck me that for a country supposedly obsessed with sport, we are poorly served by our sports broadcasters. At best they are journeymen – knowledgeable enough, and likeable, but quite incapable of reaching beyond the traditional jock-strap audience, or of communicating the magic and sublimity of sport at its finest.

The dullest of them all is the somnolent Murray Deaker, whose popularity can only be explained by the low expectations of his listeners.


Steve Withers said...

The opening ceremony certainly looked like an amazing spectacle....the few pieces I've seen of it.

I've been following China's public pronouncements for some time now. They aren't carried in our local media, for the most part, so we don't have much insight generally into how they see the world.

For example, they read the tea leaves on the Bush Administration before Bush even took office. They explicitly referenced the neo-con policies - based on the poeple involved and their public pronouncements through groups like the PNAC - and reacted to them. Russia did likewise. So while we in the West were being told that this neo-con stuff was all conspiracy theory nonsense, China and Russia signed a treaty forming an alliance explicitly to counter it. It's the reason why China announced a space program to land a man on the Moon and go to Mars.....forcing Bush to announce the same thing a few months later.

In many ways we STILL have not caught up with the clear-eyed view the Chinese government has of the West in general and the US in particular.

As for Darfur, China is forced to look for oil in places other countries in the American club can eschew. China does not want it's energy access to be at the mercy of the Americans or anyone again, we see the law of unintended consequences operating. If the shoe were on the other foot and China controlled the oil access, it would the US dealing with Sudan as it has dealt with many other murderous dictators in the past. I don't think we can mount to many high horses in these matters.

If we really want to help the people in Darfur, we'd create a global energy regime that was neutral and ensured equitable access to whatever was available.....and not allow one power or bloc to have defacto hegemony over such a critical resource.

My brother has done two "tours" in Darfur with Medicins du Monde and has some interesting stories to tell about who does what there. That's about resources, too.

Karl du Fresne said...

My sincere thanks to readers of my blog (all three of you) who were too polite to point out that I inadvertently referred to the 1938 Berlin Olympics when, of course, they took place in 1936. Why is there never a subeditor around when you want one?