August 16, 2008

Plus ça change: lessons from the Beijing Olympics

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We are now more than halfway through the Beijing Olympics, and news about the Opening Ceremony continue to trickle in. All of this confirmed my belief that things in China haven't really progressed/evolved all that much after all...

I must admit I was pretty awe-struck by the artistic show for the first hour, under the direction of famed director Zhang Yimou (張藝謀). Zhang is one of my favorite directors, although his more recent works have demonstrated a clear shift away from his early style. He has been accused of focusing less on the story and concentrating only on the aesthetic aspects, but this is fine by me as I love the cinematography and some of the special FX of his recent works. The visual element is very important to me.


Well, the show was pretty. The giant scroll/screen was really something. And the sight of dancers gracefully "painting" on the scroll with "ink" really impressed me. Showcasing the four great inventions of the Chinese civilization was also a good way to allow the world to see the contribution made by the Chinese people.

But...somewhere along the line things went a little wrong. At the very beginning, when the TV was showing the footage of the 29 giant "footsteps" traveling across Beijing, I noticed something strange. The images I saw looked like CGI and didn't look like any live footage I had ever seen. The lighting was all wrong and it looks like it was processed. When the live broadcast cut to the view from inside the Bird's Nest, the contrast was all the more evident.

Of course, we now know that the first part of the footage was "faked" - it wasn't live at all! It was indeed computer enhanced. After this was uncovered, the organizers defended their actions by stating that due to the unpredictable weather and the difficulty of positioning helicopters to shoot live footage, they decided to come up with the best solution so that the image people saw would be "perfect." Hmmm...

Then, in the middle of the ceremony, we saw a group of children present the Chinese national flag, dressed in the native costumes of 56 ethnic groups found within China. As the procession went on, we also saw a pretty little girl in a red dress singing a song in a beautiful voice. As the camera focused on the little girl, I couldn't help but notice that she was offbeat...her lips didn't quite match the words I was hearing. As I was already intoxicated by this point (see The best suckling pig ever), I didn't give it another thought.

By now this segment has caused two separate "sensations": none of the children came from ethnic minorities - they were all Han Chinese - even though the program introduced them as minorities. And the little girl in the red dress was lip-synching to a recording made by the real singer, who was deemed to be not up to the visual standards of the officials. In other words, she just wasn't pretty enough for TV. The organizers, of course, again have their justifications. It's quite normal for people of one ethnicity to dress up in the costumes of another, they say, especially in a performance. That may be true, but then perhaps the program shouldn't state that they are minority children. That's a blatantly false statement.

As for the little girl, well...the Chinese officials wanted the whole world to see a pretty face, while at the same time hear the perfect voice. So by doing what they did, they were able to deliver the best of both worlds. Unfortunately, the rest of the world didn't buy this argument, and neither do I. William Pesek called it "China's Milli Vanilli moment" in his Bloomberg column, making reference to the disgraced pop duo who lost their Grammy Award after it was discovered that they lip synched everything.

This particular action by the Chinese officials have now further tainted the Opening Ceremonies, turning it into a big joke. When audiences pay good money to go to a live concert, they want the real thing. If they find out that the artist on stage was lip syching, you can bet that they would be extremely upset and even demand their money back. Why would the live audience inside th Bird's Nest that night - and audiences around the world who paid via the TV broadcast rights - feel any different? And can you imagine people's reaction (not to mention the artist's own feelings) if the organizer told Sarah Brightman that they preferred a prettier singer, so can she please just sing in the background while someone else stood on top of the globe and lip-synched to "You and Me"?

Oh, and it was also revealed that Beijing didn't want TV cameras and audiences to see empty seats at some of the less popular events, so they got "volunteers" to fill up those empty seats so that the world can see how popular the Beijing Olympics is. All this points to one message - that China is all about what's superficial, that presenting the best image possible is all that matters to the powers that be. This, coincidentally, fits in quite well with what we have seen from Zhang Yimou in the last few years - and is exactly what he is being critized for.

I have heard people complain about the "racist" West nitpicking the little flaws of the Opening Ceremony, a statement echoed by Wang Wei, the Executive Vice President and Secretary General of the Beijing Olympics Organizing Committee. Mr. Wang called the accusing press "meticulous" - the exact quote in Chinese is "我認為你太吹毛求疵了".  I completely, respectfully disagree.

The whole world knows that the Olympics has always been regarded by the Chinese central government as its "coming out party." A chance to show the world the might of the Chinese people, and all the things that China can achieve. The fact that China threw an estimated USD 44 billion into staging the Olympics and building new hardware is a testament to how important this is to them. The whole world is watching, and China cannot afford to let the world see any flaws in the big show. But when you make such a big deal about something in public, you can't really complain about people putting everything under a microscope, because you invited the whole world to come and see it for themselves!

And the name of the game continues to be hardware, which really is what China has had to show for over the last 10 years. We know China now has lots of dough, and is certainly not short of people or labor. So just throw resources at something and build some impressive hardware to show people how great you are. Forget the software - it doesn't matter and you can't see it on TV anyway. Forget reality and what's underneath - coz all we need is the best image and face. We have the Bird's Nest, we have the Water Cube. We have a new airport terminal. What else do you want?! We just want the big picture, and sweep everything else under the carpet and forget about it. With this mentality, it's no wonder that the Olympics turned out the way it did.

Oh by the way, reports have surfaced recently that two of the Chinese girls on the women's gymnastics team are underage. This is of course denied by the officials, but honestly, when I saw them on TV I cannot image that they have reached puberty...


Anonymous said...


Peech said...

I didn't care enough about the opening ceremonies in 2000 or 2004, so I did not watch them.

However, regardless of whether similar things were done before by others, it does not mean that China is right in doing what it did.


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