LETTER FROM CHINA
Chinese woman goes way off-message on the Olympics
By Howard W. French
Published: January 11, 2008
Copyright The International Herald Tribune
SHANGHAI: You could call it a highly unscripted moment, in a country whose government hates unscripted moments.
You could call it an affirmation of the classic old line about hell knowing no fury like a woman scorned.
Or you could call it the unofficial kickoff to China’s year of the Olympics.
In no case would you be wrong.
The matter in question arose last month when Hu Ziwei, a well-known Chinese television personality, burst onto the stage during a lavish ceremony where the state broadcaster, CCTV, was inaugurating its new Olympics sports channel.
There stood Hu’s husband, Zhang Bin, who is also a well-known sports anchor, and suddenly, the neatly dressed woman began speaking in a calm voice about her supposed discovery of his love affair with another woman.
From the outset it was clear that Hu was a surprise guest, and her message, too, was way off script. “Next year is an Olympics year, and people all over the world will be watching China,” she began calmly, her hands folded in front of her. Quickly, several men approached to try to get her off of the stage, but Hu held her ground, shaking off their attempts to grasp hold of her.
From the perspective of a government that obsesses over control of what is visible and what is not, what can be expressed publicly and recorded for posterity and what cannot, even in these first instants the makings of a nightmare were readily apparent. Voices could be heard offstage, “Please don’t take any pictures,” but it was already too late. Not only could one clearly hear the sound of snapshots being clicked off, but also within hours video footage was spreading on the Internet via Chinese Web sites, which the government attempted to block, and via YouTube, which it could not.
Hu continued, citing the words of an unnamed French diplomat, saying: “Until China is able to start exporting its values, it won’t be able to become a great power. For us to appear so prim and proper, yet Zhang Bin can’t even be brought to face his own – he won’t even face his hurt wife. I think China, as a – to succeed as a great power – don’t any of you have a conscience at all?” The men in suits approached yet again attempting to remove her, but the diminutive lady was having none of it. “You let me go,” she exclaimed, pulling herself free. “We’re so far from being a great country.”
On the surface, claims like hers that her conjugal betrayal had anything to do with the celebration of China’s upcoming Games may seem farfetched, even if Hu’s husband was the deputy of state television’s sports news department and she had recently hosted an Olympics-related program on Beijing TV.
But many Chinese received Hu’s words as far more than the hysterical ranting of woman wronged, unleashing a torrent of caustic commentary about a subject that Chinese have been endlessly told they are unanimously delighted about: the hosting of the Olympics.
The Games, which begin in August, are already inescapable in China. Everywhere one looks one finds the official logo, as sponsors of every stripe attempt to cash in on the event. The news is filled with countdowns (there are 209 days remaining), and snippets about milestones passed and great hurdles overcome.
To a certain extent, all of this is perfectly normal, but there is undeniably a dimension of political manipulation to the hoopla, a gigantic, carefully staged exercise in groupthink, that makes China’s hosting of Olympics quite unlike previous versions of the Games, say in Athens or Atlanta.
On the one hand, China is attempting to manage how the world sees it, sparing no expense to turn Beijing into a breathtaking showcase, and winning no points for subtlety as it sweats to conjure images of itself as modern, prosperous, powerful (but peaceful!) and forward-looking.
Even this part of the equation is not so unusual. Others, like Tokyo in 1964 and Seoul in 1988, have trod this ground before. But China is trying to manipulate how its own people think and feel about the Games, urging them to be excited, to be proud, of course, but also to be unquestioning and unanimous in support. Chinese who have dared criticize the Games have already been arrested and would-be protesters strongly cautioned.
It’s as if a stern music teacher had drilled all of her pupils for months, dressed them perfectly and told them to hold their breath in readiness for the start of the big recital, raising her rod to warn them “and remember, let there be no unscripted moments.” Hu’s off-key crashing of the launching of the new Olympics channel resonated like the sound an adolescent prankster armed with a whoopee cushion. From the perspective of the authorities in Beijing, the best thing one could say about it was its early timing. There are still months to recover.
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LETTER FROM CHINA