With his commentary piece in the Financial Times Deutschland (Sterile Games in Peking) Claus Hecking wraps up all the repeated instances of fakery that have been brought to light already at this year’s Beijing Olympics – and they are only about half over! – into a thought-provoking synthesis: together, he maintains, they add up to a profound and very revealing cultural misunderstanding.
If you’ve been paying attention at all, you know what “fakery” I’m talking about here – and I don’t necessary mean paying attention to this weblog, although I did already cover a few what you could call epiphenomena of this apparently easy resort by the Chinese Olympic authorities to deception. The “rent-a-crowds” they have resorted to, trying to hide the embarrassing surplus of empty seats at almost all events; the computer-graphics-enhanced Beijing fireworks at the opening ceremony; and the lip-synching darling little Chinese girl at that same opening ceremony. (“Just like happened with Milli Vanilli,” Hecking throws in when discussing this – and you just knew that was coming. I was there in Germany in at the turn of the 1980s-1990s when the Milli Vanilli tale collapsed, and can assure you that since they were way bigger there than they were in the States, the sense of public outrage at their lip-synching was accordingly much more acute among Germans.)
An important clue about what is really going here is contained in the bewildered response to Western distaste over the lip-synching that Hecking records by Chen Qigang (presumably a Chinese official): “But that was a matter of national interest! The child before the cameras must appear flawless.” “Thus far,” he writes, “Olympia 2008 has been an enormous cultural misunderstanding. The West and the IOC had hoped for a joyous People’s Festival [Fest der Völker] symbolized by China’s opening [i.e. to the world]. The Communist Party rulers wanted to publicize their Kingdom as a new, imperturbable World Power.” Accordingly, everything must proceed strictly according to plan; no deviation, and certainly no error, is permitted, and if it turns out that rely wants to defy that plan, then that reality has to be manipulated.
Just Where Does the Unreality Stop?
One result from that is that we can’t be sure just where – if anywhere – such reality-distortion would register as “too far” in the minds of the Chinese officials running this thing. Undoubtedly this image of China as a World Power is also greatly enhanced when its athletes walk away with the lion’s share of the victors’ medals, particularly the gold – so how can we believe that these authorities, in their pursuit of that, would stop short of condoning doping (where they obviously have great latitude to control enforcement, as the tournament’s hosts), of fielding female gymnasts who in reality are too young to be allowed to compete (Update: Consider this.), of planting biased judges in events whose scoring is judged, or of similar unfair measures? (And that quite apart from the well-known Chinese Olympic athlete development regime, in which promising youngsters are taken from their families at an early age for a state-sponsored youth full of intensive training aimed at enabling them to win gold.)
Beyond that, however, Hecking claims that this all-controlling mentality has produced Olympic Games that “somehow artificially, bloodlessly, and sterilely work on us TV-viewers. As grey as the skies over Peking.” And that is reflected in the “public viewing zones” in Beijing, which apparently are locales where giant TV screens are set up to enable crowds to watch the Olympics collectively. The crowds are staying away: foreigners are not around in the first place to flock to them because of the restrictive visa-regime the Chinese government saw fit to introduce prior to the Games, while native Chinese naturally prefer to stay home to watch on television over confronting the many flavors of policemen that they are sure to encounter at these viewing zones, there to ensure that no sort of public demonstration, about anything, should break out. (After all, there are three places in the city specifically designated for that – as I have covered here – if you’re willing to apply five days in advance, list names and addresses of everyone who will participate, and, basically, be arrested.) Hecking makes the astute point that we might have foreseen all of this in the Olympic torch relay of last Spring as it tried to make its way through various European countries and soon degenerated into a undercover-policemen-protected farce.
Is the Writer On-the-Scene?
Reading a column like this, you have to ask yourself: “Is Claus Hecking actually in Beijing these days to see these things for himself?” The article offers no answer. He writes of the effect of these Olympics (“artificial, bloodless, and sterile”) on German TV viewers, but he does also write about the failure of those “public viewing zones” in Beijing – perhaps he has just received second-hand accounts about those latter from sources there. I particularly would like to know this because of the contrast between his viewpoint and that of someone who definitely is in Beijing, namely James Fallows of the Atlantic (writing of course in English), whose assessment of the Games so far has been rather more cheerful, if not 100% so. Note, though, that Fallows is also aware of “the imposed order and absence of protests” and calls it all “creepy, to say the least.”