A mind-blowing display of manufactured destiny

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 August, 2008, 12:00am

Historians have failed to pinpoint the exact moment when the United Status achieved superpower status, nor have they managed to find a precise event that signalled its assumption of global supremacy; the reason being that there was no such single event. However the Chinese government appears to believe that it is possible to manufacture a defining moment to mark China's arrival at the centre of the world stage. That moment was supposed to be the dramatic opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics combined with the triumphal hosting of the Games as a whole.

It is in the nature of authoritarian governments to think in this way; they instinctively fear spontaneous developments and believe that history can and should be managed rather than allowed to evolve.

It is unsurprising therefore that the hosting of a major world event has become the focus of a massive exercise in historical management. This is why China poured an unprecedented amount of money into its moment in the Olympic sun and this is why the Beijing Games controversially invite comparisons with the German Nazi party's attempts to use the Berlin Olympic Games as a way of stamping the supremacy of the new fascist order on world consciousness.

Understandably this comparison is vehemently denied and has been exaggerated by some China sceptics but the parallels are uncomfortable and will not be eased by denial. The Chinese government itself has problems in resolving its conflicting claims of what the Games are about.

On the one hand it insists that this is purely a sporting event with absolutely no political implications while on the other hand every sinew is strained to deny the plausibility of this claim. Zhang Yimou's brilliant staging of the opening ceremony provided the most telling riposte to this claim of political neutrality because it was explicitly political in demonstrating China's role in the world, admittedly leaning heavily on the distant past but very much with an eye to the future.

In order to ensure what only a one-party state can regard as perfection during this lavishly staged event there was no hesitation in deploying artifice to achieve. Even the applause was stage-managed by a host of strategically deployed cheer leaders and it now turns out that one of the emotional high points was, to put it bluntly, a fake. The angelic nine-year-old Lin Miaoke , portrayed as singing, was in fact doing nothing more than miming; the real singer was the immensely gifted but less photogenic Yang Peiyi .

The explanation by Chen Qigang , the general music designer of the opening ceremony, for the switch lies at the heart of the desperate quest for perfection and the demands of politics that overwhelmed all other considerations. 'This is in the national interest,' he said. 'It is the image of our national music, national culture.'

China's quest for perfection is understandable but it is less easy to stomach a decision taken at the very heart of the national leadership to perpetrate a fraud. A frightening disregard for truth and a heavy-handed management of everything to do with the Games have been the hallmark of this event. It began with the ruthless destruction of neighbourhoods in Beijing to make way for the Olympics, continued with the breaking of specific promises about freedom of speech that would be allowed while the Games were taking place and is seen more or less every day with new revelations about how news is being censored, how epics like the fireworks display were misleadingly manufactured for the television cameras, and so on.

Is this listing of problems mere carping? Ask Ji Sizun, a legal rights activist from Fujian province who was arrested this week after applying to demonstrate in one of Beijing's officially designated protest zones. His situation is real enough as is the success of the Games, but what have the hosts really succeeded in telling us about the new China?

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur