Beneath Olympic glitter, a 20th-century mindset

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
By Howard W. French
July 24, 2008
SHANGHAI: The opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing in a few days will turn Shakespeare on his head. Suddenly from the whole world being a stage, China will own the entire stage – and the whole world will be its rapt audience.
Such a big moment and grand opportunity is exactly what China has labored toward for so many years: More than a chance to tweak its “brand,” from the inception this occasion has been seen as a chance to make a gigantic statement to the Chinese people and to the world that says, “Behold, for we have arrived.”
Modern Olympic Games have long been about making statements, and, more indirectly, they have always said interesting things about the hosts’ self-regard. In this case, few will escape the impression of an overweening monumentalism in the way that China’s grand old imperial capital has been rebuilt for the occasion, with huge sums lavished on buildings that have been clearly designed with awe in mind.
Monuments, though, function on several levels, one of which is to ask questions. And the bigger the plinth or pyramid, the bigger and the more irresistible the urge toward puzzlement.
As the authorities here would have it, the Beijing festivities are a celebration of an unprecedented success story: the resurrection of the world’s largest country and one of its older cultures, and the placement of China on a breathtakingly fast track of wealth accumulation and economic advancement – all of this, of course, under the leadership of the Communist Party.
That’s plenty to chew on, and it doesn’t hurt that, as far as it goes, this story line mostly conforms to reality. Things don’t really become interesting, though, until one starts thinking in terms of what’s worked well and what hasn’t in China, and asking why.
For all of the rumble and vroom of the Chinese economy and all of the glitter mustered on behalf of the Games, people who think with care will be hit with the unmistakable impression that China is fundamentally a rather old-fashioned place, fast pushing forward by most of the standard yardsticks used to measure global powers and yet, paradoxically, still far from any cutting edge. One might even argue that the country remains woefully behind in terms of addressing its people’s real needs.
What, you ask? This is a country that has just built the world’s biggest airport in record time; a place laying down new roads and highways at a pace matched by the speed with which it is throwing up skyscrapers. And by the way, just this week, didn’t a new poll by Pew find that the people, or at least urban residents, are overwhelmingly happy with the direction of their country?
This is all true, and indeed even impressive, but this frantic activity merely raises a bigger question – and it’s one in which the Chinese people have not been invited to participate: What’s it all about?
Six decades ago, with Mao’s Marxist revolution, China set out to create a New Man who would thrive in a country where class distinctions had been eliminated. The dictatorship of the proletariat by a vanguard party, applying arcane but scientifically sound dialectical reasoning, would ensure that the country remained on a path of progress and triumphed over its capitalist rivals.
Marxism is above all a materialist ideology, and as the faith in this creed has all but vanished from the society, the materialism has remained, propelled in equal part by Chinese enterprise and thrift.
What are we left with? Since the time of Deng Xiaoping, the answer is a people who have been freed to pursue wealth but encouraged not to meddle with bigger questions about their place in their own society – or about their society’s place in the world.
The state, meanwhile, has taken an utterly conventional approach to nation-building, racing in headlong pursuit of utterly 20th-century goals – retracing old steps like creating a smokestack economy or sending men to the moon, for example – even as the new and very different demands of the 21st century, from a revolution in the use of energy and respect for the environment to a redefinition of human development, make themselves ever more pressing.
Channeling Nietzsche, who believed that Christianity was a disaster from which Western civilization was still recovering, Kerry Brown, the author of “Struggling Giant: China in the 21st Century,” said that China’s industrialization “is a disaster we will never recover from.”
Ironically, there is no better symbol of this before-the-flood mindset than the Olympics themselves. From the athletes who are its tools to the big new buildings, Beijing has conceived the entire project as a paean to the old-fashioned state, and although other comparisons to Nazism are not warranted, the parallels with Berlin’s 1936 Games are, replete with propaganda efforts that eclipse those of Leni Riefenstahl and company.
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One thought on “Beneath Olympic glitter, a 20th-century mindset”

  1. Amen. It is difficult not to be impressed by the sheer scale and audacity of the great Chinese urban transformation, but it is refreshing to see opinions such as yours which delve deeper than the now-standard and tiresome “China is the future” hyperbole.
    I, for one, remain completely puzzled as to how the “La Defence meets Los Angeles” form of contemporary Beijing remains a potent symbol of the future for so many- it is perhaps more appropriate to declare Beijing the last great city of the 20th century than any sort of model for the 21st.
    All the snazzy new mega-projects (designed, perhaps fittingly, by European architects liberated from all constraint and accountability) might be interesting from a pure design perspective, but they say next to nothing about how China is going to deal with the monumental challenges to come.

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