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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

What the Games mean to the Chinese: Some Local Opinions

Last Friday evening, having secured two tables at a 600 RMB (about $80) minimum charge, I settled in with a group of friends, both foreign and local, to watch the Olympic Opening Ceremony. The whole city—nay, country was shut down as even the taxi drivers stopped on the riverside bar street to watch the theatre, projected on to outdoor screens.

“Just for one night, I will let myself be brainwashed by the propaganda,” Luxi, my tutor, who recently returned from a month backpacking in Laos, said jokingly.

Earlier in the week, when I asked my students to give an example illustrating the term “blanket marketing,” their response came immediately: “Olympics.” This entire year leading up to the event, throughout my travels in China, “Beijing 2008” has been utterly unavoidable. From storefronts to taxi radios, revolutionary monument gift shops and ethnic minority trinkets, the government’s messaging system has comprehensively penetrated every corner of the country.

At remote Qinghai Lake in China’s northwest, an area very much ethnically and culturally Tibetan, I was bemused to find a giant statue of Jingjing the panda, one of the five fuwu mascots, standing behind bronze statues of local women churning yak butter. In a Miao minority village in Guizhou, in the country’s southern interior close to Vietnam, old women in colorful costume shoved tacky trinkets of the five rings in front of me. North of Hong Kong in Guangzhou, I stumbled into a painting academy where the students’ work was being hung: all of their paintings of course, were Olympic-themed. And whilst riding a train back into Sichuan, the speakers play “Beijing Welcomes You,” the official theme song, in between C-pop ballads and hip-hop.

The Games have been described as many things by the media: as China’s “Coming Out Party,” as the setting for the resentful host nation to demonstrate its mettle by winning the highest medal count, as an example of the West’s toothless inability to stop continued oppression and mass human rights violations.

For many Chinese, the Games does indeed provide an opportunity to take pride in their collective accomplishment, in their overcoming the dramatic missteps of Mao’s past rule to now--so improbable a few decades ago--be considered a legitimate challenge to American hegemony. The Games are as much about earning the world’s respect—particularly that of the West—as it is a celebration of progress.

But others showed less concern. A guitarist friend named Xiao Di, who I’d been playing in a short-lived Beatles cover band with, could not have been more apathetic when I asked if he planned on watching the Games.

“I’m not interested in sports, so I have no reason to watch the Olympics. But if it were a band competition, then I’d definitely watch!”

Some of my local friends are eager to see China win the most gold medals. Whilst watching the U.S. roll over China in Sunday’s men’s basketball match, Aaron, an administrator at a local university, described it as a golden opportunity for China to display it’s ability before the world.

“It would be the first time that we beat America,” he noted.

Whilst changing money at a Bank of China branch—the only bank where changing currencies is authorized—I sat in the waiting area benches, where all eyes were fixed on the blurry television above us, watching the men’s synchronized diving. They watched the other competitor’s with mild interest, but everyone—even bank staff—stopped to cheer each time the Chinese pair (who ended up winning the gold) took to the boards. You could almost feel the weight of the nation’s eyes on these two young men, as they walked out to the edge, steeling themselves before they leapt.

Nobody feels the pressure, however more than Liu Xiang, who won the 110m hurdles gold in Athens and whom people are expecting to win again in Beijing. But my students said they feel more sympathy than expectation toward him.

“I’ll just feel sorry for him if he loses, because everyone expects him to win,” Jane said. “It’s not important if he doesn’t win.”

Her comments were a good example of the reasonableness and ambivalence of many ordinary Chinese in the face of the Olympics juggernaut—so promoted by states and companies here in China as outside. Where power politics and nationalism are the dominant roles that the Games tend to act out, there are many Chinese, like my student George, a troubleshooting engineer at Canon, who look beneath the hype, and view the Games simply as a chance to watch the greatest athletes in the world competing together.

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