The Beijing Games Six Months On

News Abroad

Mr. Wasserstrom is a Professor of History at UC Irvine whose recent books include, as author, Global Shanghai, 1850-2010: A History in Fragments (Routledge) and, as co-editor, China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance (Rowman & Littlefield), which comes out in March and deals at length with the Beijing Games.

Predictions relating to China are notoriously dangerous to make.  Still, here’s a safe one: come August 8, the one-year anniversary of the Beijing Games, lots of commentaries will appear that ask questions like these:

What did the Games mean for China?

Did they alter the country’s global image?

Should London even try to compete with the glitz and grandeur of venues like the Bird’s Nest and spectacles such as Zhang Yimou’s 08/08/08 extravaganza?

These questions would have been asked no matter what, but there’s a special reason we’ll hear them next summer.  On 08/08/09, at the Bird’s Nest, Zhang Yimou will stage a lavish version of “Turnado,” the Puccini opera he’s put on before, most famously across the capital at the Forbidden City.

Rather than wait for the August arias, I want to beat the retrospectives rush by marking the half-year anniversary of the end of the Games (the Closing Ceremonies took place last August 24) with a preliminary stab at consigning the Olympics to history.  Here are five things that stand out 6 months on:

1) The Games already seem part of a bygone era.

So much has happened since that it is hard to believe sometimes that it was just six months ago that the world’s attention was riveted on Beijing.  We’ve seen Lehman Brother’s fail, stock markets tumble, Obama elected, Mumbai attacked.  There’s been a tainted milk crisis in China, a tainted peanut butter scandal in the U.S., and clashes between police and protesters in Iceland and Thailand.   And above all, growth rates have plummeted, unemployment rates soared, stimulus plans debated and implemented.  The Opening Ceremonies of last August, which began with nods to Confucius and other symbols of the distant past, now can feel like ancient history.

2) And yet, in other ways, the Games stubbornly refuse to recede from view.

In China, conversely, it can feel in some settings as though the Olympics haven’t really ended.  The cutesy mascots known as Fuwa remain on display in a Bird’s Nest that has become a major tourist draw.  Many nearby buildings with less dramatic ties to the Games still boast banners touting their Olympic roles (or at least did when I was there in November).  And in Shanghai (where only a few soccer matches took place last August, there’s been a concerted effort to make the 2008 magic last through 2010.  That’s when the city gets its own mega-event, a World Expo, which will be China’s first World’s Fair but is mostly being touted not under that catchy title but as an “Economic Olympics” instead.  The Expo to come is also being promoted through uses of mascots, emblems, countdown clocks, and educational materials that bring to mind the pre-08/08/08 lead-up to the Beijing Games.

In other parts of the world, though memories of the Games certainly aren’t as fresh as in China, popular culture has been keeping them alive in some curious ways.  Sega’s “Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games,” created for Nintendo’s Wii game system and replete with eye-catching images of the Bird’s Nest, for example, has sold well in Europe, North America, and Japan.  Exactly two months after the Opening Ceremonies, the cult cartoon “South Park” aired “The China Problem” (now a popular download from the web), an episode in which iconic images from 08/08/08 (like lines of drummers drumming) figure centrally in a character’s nightmares of a Chinese invasion.  And U.S. promos for the latest edition of the “Amazing Race” reality television show are featuring shots of the Bird’s Nest where the Great Wall or Forbidden City would previously have appeared.

3) The Games were an ambitious, partly successful, international rebranding effort.

The Chinese government had varied international goals vis-à-vis the Games.   Three key ones were to present the PRC as the following things: modern, not to be feared, and a place that ethnic Chinese living in different countries can identify with—however they once felt about Mao or now feel about the Chairman’s successors.

The Games and subsequent global commentary point to the need for a mixed assessment of this three-pronged effort.  The venues and spectacles definitely left many viewers around the world with a powerful sense that Beijing definitely can do modern.  The event was less successful at creating a sense that this is not a source of concern—as it was not only “South Park” characters who found nightmarish some parts of the “One World, One Dream” Olympics, and many things happened before and during the Games (acts of censorship and repression, for example) that reinforced negative ideas about the PRC as a highly controlled, oppressive state.

As for encouraging overseas Chinese to identify with the country, the Games probably had some positive impact.  This was due in part to the nod toward “traditional” imagery (though it is easy to think of reasons Chinese women, inside and outside of the PRC, would be hesitant about warming to a revival of Confucianism, given its patriarchal past tendencies).  But it is important to think of this side of the rebranding drive in a long-term way: the process began before the Games, via efforts such as Beijing’s establishment of “Confucius Institutes” in different parts of the world, and was evidenced more by support for the torch run than by anything that happened last August.

4) The Olympics were also part of a domestic rebranding drive.

The Chinese government was even more concerned with using the event to burnish its reputation at home.  Here, a different sort of reputational effort is underway.  In this undertaking, the until-recently-officially-despised but now-again-celebrated Confucius figures as well.  The goal is to encourage the populace to see the Communist Party as returning China to world power status, overseeing economic growth which has already benefitted some and will eventually benefit all citizens, and has leaders who care about ordinary people (a la Confucian ideals).

The Olympics helped with the first part of this goal, through bringing so many world leaders to the Bird’s Nest and so forth.  As for the other parts, the situation is much more mixed.  Just as there were things that took place during the Olympics that breathed new life into enduring negative foreign ideas about China’s political system, many events that occurred around the time of the Games that inadvertently reinforced domestic images of the country’s leaders as out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people (such as those displaced to make room for Olympic venues), corrupt, and unwilling to come clean quickly when they make mistakes.

In the end, how the regime weathers the current economic storms will matter more than anything Olympic-related in determining whether the Communist Party pulls off its latest effort at domestic repositioning.  Most dangerous for it will be if a widespread feeling develops that those who have not already benefited from high growth rates, rather than still waiting their turn, will never get the chance to do so.

5) Of all the historical analogies in play around 08/08/08, the Tokyo 1964 one is best.

During the lead-up to the Chinese Games, it sometimes seemed that there was someone, somewhere ready to compare the Beijing Games to each previous Olympiad.  Those hopeful about the impact of the Olympics liked to refer to Seoul 1988, arguing that just as South Korea had democratized around the time of its Games, China would do the same.  Critics, meanwhile, brought up the specter of Berlin 1936.  When there was talk of possible boycotts, this inspired analogies with Moscow 1980 and L.A. 1984.  The notion that a dramatic protest would take place in the Bird’s Nest brought Mexico 1968 to mind.  And so on.

Many of these points of reference had some explanatory value, but in retrospect the analogy that stands out most is Tokyo.  This is because Japan in 1964, like China in 2008, was a country rising rapidly in global economic importance, with political leaders eager to convince the world to focus more on their country’s current aspirations and abilities than on a dark period in its relatively recent past.  And there is a neat parallel between the most enduring symbol of the Tokyo Olympics, the Bullet Train, and hypermodern Beijing structures linked to 2008, including the capital’s state-of-the-art new airport.

A final parallel, which underscores the need to think of the Chinese Olympic effort as not really having ended, has to do with what Japan did to follow up and extend the impact of Tokyo 1964.  In 1970, it hosted the Osaka World Expo, the first World’s Fair held in Asia—completing a two-step relay of just the sort that China will conclude when the countdown clocks for the Shanghai World’s Fair hit zero on May Day of 2010. 

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More Comments:

Jeff Wasserstrom - 3/3/2009

Thanks for catching my mistake, Charlene--a reminder of the importance of dotting every "i" and crossing (or, in this case, simply putting in) every "t."

Charlene Parker - 3/2/2009

Is the Puccini opera perhaps going to be "Turandot"? Or did I miss one he wrote about NASCAR ("Turnado")