One needed only to have watched a small amount of NBC’s copious coverage of the 2008 Olympic Games to know the importance China places on maintaining face. As was often cited by commentators and news presenters, the Games provided the emerging superpower with its one opportunity to turn the tide of public sentiment its way. And so China had much riding on its 17 days in the world spotlight. If the notion of total control hadn’t been introduced before, it definitely became the core of the Beijing Olympic Games Organizing Committee’s (BOCOG) agenda after China’s controversial torch relay. The longest in Olympic history, the 85,128-mile, 130-day run was riddled with insult and loss of face, as pro-Tibet protesters came out in droves. Yet it wasn’t the country’s political problems that took center stage this August, as dissidents presumably had been shipped out months before. Instead, the Committee dedicated itself to ridding the event of even the smallest morsel of spontaneity.
On the evening of 8/8/08, along with hundreds of Beijing residents, I came out in the balmy evening to watch the opening ceremony on the large LED screens erected across the city. Taxi drivers gathered, beside their parked cabs, over commemorative cigarettes. Families equipped with blankets produced picnics of flasked tea and carefully wrapped baozis, or steamed buns, as their children played with other young spectators. But whatever honest excitement I felt that night quickly dissipated when the festivities began. The 29 footprint-shaped firework spectacle that shot along the city’s central axis, from Tiananmen Square to the Bird’s Nest, was received with loud applause, the crowd ignorant of the fact that the display had been prerecorded and digitally enhanced. A hush breezed across our gathering as Lin Miaoke, the nine-year-old beauty in a red dress and pigtails began to sing the anthem, “Hymn to the Motherland.” Unbeknownst to anyone there, or those across the world, the sweet sounds were actually coming from a taping of Yang Peiyi, seven, kept hidden for fear her buck teeth would shame a nation.
Beijing initially petitioned for the 2000 Olympics, but slimly lost to Sydney, implicitly because of its less-than-stellar recent human rights and environmental record. In 2001, China launched its second bid after voluntarily signing the UN’s Institutional Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 19 of the agreement stated, “Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference,” and “…the right to freedom of expression.” When He Zhenliang, then a member of the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) executive board, stood up at the 112th IOC Session in Moscow, he said, “By voting for Beijing, you will bring the Games for the first time in the history of Olympism to a country with one fifth of the world’s population and give to this billion people the opportunity to serve the Olympic Movement with creativity and devotion.” In contemporary China, state-sanctioned “creativity and devotion” are treated as freedom of expression.
With by far the largest Olympic team, at 639 athletes, China won a total of 100 medals, second only to the US, and the most number of golds (51) at the Games. Fans huddled into arenas hoping to cheer their countrymen to glory. After each dive performed, point won, and line crossed, the venue would erupt in mass excitement. It wasn’t enough for spectators to see their nation’s athletes simply compete—they had to win. As I flapped my Union Jack up and down, screaming for a mediocre British badminton team, a Chinese woman tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Your country would be very proud of you.” The emotion within those red and yellow charged stadiums conjured fuzzy images of the 1981 film, Chariots of Fire. This wasn’t just a sporting event; people were there to prove something, as if winning repudiated Western criticism.
“Winning is a powerful political statement,” noted Richard Giltinan, a managing director of the London-based iLUKA hospitality and corporate event agency. “And China is not the first country to use it.” Having worked on nine previous Olympics, providing management services to such high profile sponsors as Omega, McDonalds and Microsoft, Giltinan spent the last three years going back and forth from London to Beijing. I sat down with the youthful, silver-haired Australian over a pot of jasmine tea in one of Beijing’s five-star hotels a few weeks before the commencement. A member of the IOC Guiding Committee since 2000, Giltinan said, “This is a Games for China and designed to promote China first and foremost.”
The effort to mount a united front was visible throughout the capital. Posters that hung in subway stations read, “Where the world comes to share.” Street vendors sold red China and the white Olympic flags fastened together with colored rings. Yet I found that being surrounded by a sea of smiling Chinese fans, none of which had a contrary word to say about the Games, more than a bit unnerving. People’s pride became suspect—not because it wasn’t genuine, but because it was somehow artificially generated.
According to China Daily – Beijing’s leading newspaper—800,000 students were taught a four-step choreographed cheer, which had been adopted in schools, advertised on TV, and printed in free pamphlets. Volunteers dressed in light blue and white ombre polo shirts demonstrated the clap-twice-thumbs-up-air-fist-punch chant to passing pedestrians. Said to be the product of the Communist Party's Office of Spiritual Civilization Development and Guidance, the Ministry of Education, and BOCOG, the cheer was launched on China Central Television (CCTV). “We want to engage in activities to better promote civilized gestures in the stadiums,” said Guo Zhenxo, head of CCTV’s Center for Advertising and Economic Information. Spectators were banned from bringing personal banners into the stadiums, and reports circulated that the 380 Olympic hostesses—most often televised in their porcelain-inspired traditional dresses—were being trained in the art of smiling. A six-to-eight-teeth reveal being the model, many of the young women had to practice strengthening facial muscles with chopsticks lodged in their mouths.
What China did right in the buildup to the Olympics was quickly overshadowed by the lack of an alternative perspective. Newspapers pumped out headlines like, “Haze Doesn’t Mean Poor Air Quality” and “Event Helps Beijingers to Breathe Easier.” The papers were then filled with pages of one-sided rhetoric that made no mention of possible shortcomings. Early on, the Committee’s refusal to be forthright in its decision-making affected organizers and spectators alike. A record number of work and tourist visas were denied during the Games, and BOCOG introduced a crippling real-name ticketing policy—where the barcode on each ticket had to line up with the person who purchased it. “The reason we were given was security, full stop,” said Giltinan, who was only allowed to bring 50 to 60 percent of his key staff. “I don’t know any country that can implement the Games without experience from past Olympics—real, practical experience in ticketing, transport, venue management and pedestrian flows. Every city thinks that they can to do it, but they all need expertise from people who have done it before and have made mistakes. That way they’ll only make a million mistakes and not five million.” The real-name policy was eventually overturned, allowing tickets to be shared and distributed, but still the Olympic Green felt sparse and prime, premier events saw half-empty grandstands.
Plenty of decisions for the XXIX Olympiad have nonetheless been beneficial to the capital. Beijing will be the first host-city to produce an Olympic Games Impact (OGI) report. This collaboration between BOCOG and the IOC will monitor, measure, and disclose the long-term affects of hosting the Games. And as a result, Beijing has taken steps to ensure that the money spent will not go to waste. Many participating indoor stadiums were part of University complexes that will benefit from the renovations. “In most cities I’ve worked in, the afterlife of the venues are very poor,” said Giltinan. “The problem is that they end up spending billions and then they are not used to the extent of the money being pumped into them.” China was also the first host-country to deliver a Green Games. Over 10,000 hectares of afforested land was planted in the capital between 2001 and 2007. Other radical anti-pollution measures included the over-$15 million spent on relocating factories, the replacement of coal with electricity for residential heating, the expansion of the city’s subway network, and the removal of 300,000 high-emission vehicles from the roads. Beginning July 20, the use of private cars was limited. Similar to a policy used in Mexico City and deployed in Athens for the 2004 Games, only odd and even numbered license plates could travel on corresponding dates, meaning that just half of the city’s 3.29 million automobiles could drive on any given day. The changes were meant to improve the quality of life for residents and contribute to more “blue sky days” for the Olympics.
Still, despite China’s most conscientious efforts, it was hard to shake the feeling that nothing was outside the nation’s control. Even weather seemed in the realm of influence. With all of BOCOG’s financially backed promises to reduce pollution, no one knew whether the occasional clear day had anything to do with environmental policies or the silver iodine and dry ice that had been rocketed into the air as a quick fix to mitigate the resiliently hazy skies.
And that’s the saddest part of the Beijing Olympic experience: the inability to distinguish between what was genuine and what was contrived. Undoubtedly, the Chinese people are the country’s best ambassadors, and yet so many times they were robbed of being sincerely proud without the shadow of cover-up or under-aged gymnasts looming over them. No host-city would ever intentionally advertise its nation’s problems, but there’s something to be said about standing by one’s cultural idiosyncrasies, or better yet, its pledge to allow for the most basic human rights.
In a small Internet cafe outside the capital, I struck up a conversation with a Dutch tourist who was Googling Tibet. “Have you done this before?” he said as, slowly, articles about savage Tibetans victimizing local Han Chinese started to appear on the scratched computer screen. “Why did you do that?” the female owner rushed over to ask, a hint of fear and angst in her broken English. What she should have asked was why she was scared to do such things, but the majority of the population still seems a long way off from posing such questions to either themselves or their government. To be sure, the Politburo has done a satisfying job using the allure of personal wealth, a burgeoning middle class, and economic growth as distractions from the presence of Big Brother. But one wonders how such a marionette style of governing can continue as the global community continues to engage, and indeed rely, on the transparency of the Information Age.
“To the outside world the Beijing Olympics will be successful because it will have the face of success,” said Giltinan. “And what goes on underneath the surface doesn’t matter.”
Nicole Robson is a freelance writer based in the Lower East Side.