Aug 132008

Like many of you, I had been anxiously and ambivalently awaiting the beginning of the Olympic summer games in Beijing. On the one hand, I love the exhibition of raw human potential at some of its most actualized. The games offer a rare chance to glimpse the efficacy of human choice and loyalty to values, as the world beholds athletes who have been training their entire lives to achieve almost unimaginable feats of strength, speed, and agility. That I find the Olympics inspirational is an understatement. I celebrate the Olympics for showing me the height of what’s possible and giving me the knowledge that it can be made actual. Despite my enthusiasm for the genuine value I find in the Olympic games, I had some considerable difficulty making sense of the extravagant opening ceremonies in Beijing this past weekend.

While watching the opening ceremonies, I found myself totally confused as to what I thought or felt about the spectacle that was unfolding before me. It was undoubtedly sensational, a grand event that dazzled the senses and left one’s head reeling in wonder as to how it was all being accomplished. I heard that China spent something equivalent to roughly $300,000,000 (doesn’t seeing all those zeros concretize the magnitude of the expense?) to produce the ceremony, and one can see that they got their money’s worth. In the run up to the games, it was not infrequent for commentators to argue that the 2008 Olympics is “China’s coming out party” and that the games would set the stage for China to gain recognition as a serious political and economic player. And indeed, this seemed to be largely the theme of the ceremony’s presentation. Much of the pomp and circumstance was directed at the end of both celebrating Chinese culture and emphasizing the idea that China wants to cooperate with the rest of the world.

The celebration of Chinese culture went something like this: once upon a time there were Chinese who invented gunpowder and fireworks, had huge drum circles, fashioned incredibly ornate dresses, made some incredible paper and printed on it, and who philosophized at roughly the Pre-Socratic level of scope and sophistication. (The pre-Socratics [Western philosophers before Socrates] were the first group of Western philosophers and their interests primarily revolved around how to explain the metaphysical phenomenon of change (and how things persist through change without changing their essence). They typically did so through claims about how opposites [light and dark; night and day; hot and cold; atoms and void] interact. All this is also distinctive of much Chinese philosophy, as I understand it.)

Were these not the basic features of Chinese cultural greatness that were presented to us in the ceremonies? Perhaps the Chinese also demonstrated that they could get really large groups to do things precisely by drilling them for months on end. But what these massive demonstrations of precise collective action were used to demonstrate were the cultural products of Chinese civilization. Truly, these are not small change in the grand scale of human achievements, and I appreciate these things in the same way that I appreciate their Western analogues. To the extent that these things were done well, they represented significant advances in the human condition.

Upon reflection, however, I viewed the ceremonies as essentially a ploy to use some of Chinese culture’s greatest offerings (in terms of its art, innovation, and philosophy) as a symbol for the greatness of the current Chinese regime. My reasons for believing that this is so largely because of a recent admission by certain Chinese officials about a memorable event during its supposedly glorious opening ceremonies.

Today the New York Times reports that there has been a bit of a recent scandal related to the opening ceremonies. The article reports that one of the most touching and memorable elements of the performance actually involved a bit of deception.

At one of the key moments in the ceremony, an adorable 9 year old Lin Miaoke stood center stage, replete with red dress and ‘cute-little-girl hair,’ and sang a song called “Ode to the Motherland.” (A video can be found on YouTube here. [Link Fixed]) Some time into her performance, the national flag of China enters in grand, Party-Approved fashion (the song is basically an ode to the flag, making it the perfect choice for a 9 year old girl to understand and communicate) and the whole world goes “Awww! Let’s all be friends with China.”

However, this event was not everything it seemed. The NYT reported that the voice we heard was not Miaoke’s, but instead that of another girl, Yang Peiyi. It was Yang Peiyi who had the vocal range and skill to sing the Ode to the estimated billion viewers of the opening ceremony. She had the voice of the girl who should sing the song,

But not her face. Photos posted online showed a happy girl with imperfect teeth, hardly an uncommon problem in China. “Everyone should understand this in this way,” Mr. Chen [general music designer of the opening ceremony] said. “This is in the national interest. It is the image of our national music, national culture, especially during the entrance of our national flag. This is an extremely important, extremely serious matter.”

As the Joker might ask, “Why so serious?” The article explains:

Miaoke’s song was considered critical because it coincided with the arrival of the national flag inside the massive National Stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest. In his radio interview, Mr. Chen said that a member of the ruling Communist Party’s powerful Politburo, whom he did not identify, attended one of the last rehearsals, along with numerous other officials, and demanded that Miaoke’s voice “must change.”

By Tuesday, the Chinese media had already pounced on the story, instigating a national conversation that government censors were trying to mute by stripping away many, but not all, of the public comments posted online. The outrage was especially heated over the cold calculation used to appraise the girls.

Let me summarize: China’s ruling party is censoring Internet traffic because it demanded that the general music designer of the opening ceremony fake a performance designed to glorify the Chinese nation. It was dissatisfied with this element of the ceremony, since at the end of the day they had to decide between a cute girl with insufficient vocal chops, and a less cute girl who had the voice to sing the song. Why choose? Why compromise Chinese national self-image (and thus cast doubt upon the Communist Party’s ability to govern an international event? THIS IS SERIOUS! Though they could not choose between Miaoke and Peiyi, they could rebuild them; they had the technology (thanks to Western innovations in audio and video processing software).

Why China faked the ceremony and why they oppressively censor online comments is essentially the same reason: the Chinese regime is nationalist. At root, the opening ceremonies were meant to be a nationalistic demonstration of a nation’s power on the world stage, showing how Chinese competence could produce a magnificent ceremony. That is, it was viewed by Party members (who had the power to shape the final form of the ceremony) as an expression of political prowess. It was China’s coming out party, and nothing could blemish its reputation – not even an orthodontic travesty or a flat note here or there. Any expression of weakness or failure is an indication of national failure, of China’s inability to succeed. The state, the people, the NATION must look good at any cost, even if it means engaging in deceptive behavior that manipulates children (who may or may not have known about the lip-synching at the time of the performance); even if it means selecting potential Olympic gymnasts at the age of three… even if it means placing stringent government controls on what can and cannot be said through electronic media.

Whenever I speak of Chinese collectivism, given their communist legacy in the 20th century, I often am met with a response like “Oh, China… sure they’re ruled by a communist party, but they’re not really communists. Look at all of their economic reform and liberalization!” This response seems to miss the mark altogether. The distinctive feature of communism was the view that individual interests could be curtailed for the sake of promoting class interest. Under Mao and his communist successors, collective interests took priority over individual rights and the liberties they secure. This view is precisely the same view held by the current Chinese regime, though they’re replaced “class interest” with “national interest.” The principle that one can see manifested everywhere throughout contemporary Chinese politics and public policy is the same collectivist principle invoked by the communists: that individuals exist to serve the state, that the interests of the state take priority over the interests of the individual.

It was indeed China’s coming out party, and the opening ceremony was supposed to communicate a message of friendship, cooperation, and human unity. It was supposed to show how China was willingness to engage in civilized participation with the rest of the world. It included a performance by 810 figures in Han-dynasty era clothing, who joined together to communicate the question “Isn’t it great to have friends coming from afar?” and sent “All men are brothers within the four seas.”

Despite the inclusion of elements like this, I couldn’t find myself convinced that the opening ceremonies should be viewed positively. Regardless of all the razzle-dazzle, what we witnessed was a calculated attempt by an oppressive government to justify itself through a mesmerizing performance on the world stage. It’s a variation on the old Roman “bread and circuses” theme, except, of course for the bread (think how many capital goods $300,000,000 could buy to increase worker productivity and thus help to alleviate the wide-spread poverty in China). The ceremonies were a debut ball for China as a nation, with all this implies for a country ruled by a nationalistic authoritarian regime; they were a thinly-veiled celebration of the state. In this respect, I found the 2008 opening ceremonies eerily similar in tone to the 1936 games in Berlin.

All this is to say, I found China’s ceremonial pleas for friendship and and cooperation to be disingenuous. To the extent that a person, culture or political system preaches collectivism, its hostility to individual human life makes it necessarily “unfriendly” (to say the least). A friend is someone who shares our values, and one cannot genuinely befriend anyone who advocates the destruction of individual liberty for the sake of the state. A friendly nation is one that does not oppress and censor its citizens. No amount of fireworks or electronic displays could change that.

To drive home this last point, (that spectacle is no substitute for achievement), I’d like to contrast China’s grand debut ball with another debut ball, the one given for Dagny Taggart in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. It, like the Chinese opening ceremonies, was an extravagant event of considerable cost, designed to celebrate Dagny’s entrance into adult society. The following passage sets the scene:

The ballroom of the Wayne-Falkland Hotel had been decorated under Mrs. Taggart’s [Dagny's mother's] direction; she had an artist’s taste, and the setting of that evening was her masterpiece.

“Dagny, there are things I would like you to learn to notice,” she said, “lights, colors, flowers, music. They are not as negligible as you might think.”

“I’ve never thought they’re negligible,” Dagny answered happily. For once, Mrs. Taggart felt a bond between them; Dagny was looking at her with a child’s grateful trust. “They’re the things that make life beautiful,” said Mrs. Taggart. “I want this evening to be very beautiful for you, Dagny. The first ball is the most romantic event of one’s life.”

Dagny’s enthusiasm for her debut ball wanes as the event drags on. By the end of the event, her initial excitement has turned into a dull complacency, the spark of the celebration now gone. She asks:

“Mother, do they think it’s exactly in reverse?” she asked.
“What?” asked Mrs. Taggart, bewildered.
“The things you were talking about. The lights and the flowers. Do they expect those things to make them romantic, not the other way around?”
“Darling, what do you mean?”
“There wasn’t a person there who enjoyed it,” she said, her voice lifeless, “or who thought or felt anything at all. They moved about, and they said the same dull things they say anywhere. I suppose they thought the lights would make it brilliant.

Dagny’s analysis seems totally applicable to the Chinese opening ceremonies. The ruling Communist Party seemed to believe that if it surrounded itself with a remarkable, perfect display, it could claim perfection for itself and thus enhance its legitimacy. That is, the Party believed that the lights would make them seem brilliant. But as the world knows, the Chinese government has little to celebrate.

I’ll spare you the familiar complaints about the government’s shortcomings and summarize my view as follows: It is only after the Chinese government abandons its authoritarian, collectivist ideology and adopts ideals of individualism, individual rights, and capitalism that we can recognize the People’s Republic of China as a true friend.

It is only then that they will have reason to celebrate in as grand a fashion as they did on 8.8.08.

[Edited 2:46 EST on 8.13.08 with new YouTube link]

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