Hitler’s spin machine used the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games to show off his nation’s muscular ambition. We all know what happened next. In its opening ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China’s leaders seemed to say to the world: never mind what has come before, ours is a new nation based on China’s own unique achievements. They did not need to say that the $40 billion invested in the Games was a rounding error from the most rapid transfer of national wealth in history; from consumer nations to China’s national treasury.
I’ve never been a fan of televised extravaganzas. They always seem filler material for events or between commercials, seeking to persuade us to buy products we can’t live without. But I suspected that the $300 million opening ceremony would be a horse of a different color.
Along with the world-wide audience estimated at 4 billion, I wasn’t disappointed. The imagination, hard work, perspiration and technology applied to coordinating 20,000 performers was astounding, even through a television set half a world away. The Bird’s Nest Stadium, the site of the opening ceremony, has redefined space for public spectacles. No further explanation was needed, how far China has evolved than the world’s largest LCD screen unfurled on stadium floor or the continuous canopy encircling the external rim of the stadium, used as a projection screen cantilevered to the audience below.
As world leaders sweltered in ordinary bleacher seats, the duration of the event reminded me of performances when China’s nationalism was expressed to visitors through interminably long, low brow movie operas of the revolution. I recall one film, broadcast for my benefit as an early Westerner to visit Shanghai, in which the entire audience of invited bureaucrats slept with their eyes wide open.
The truest note in the NBC coverage of the $300 million extravaganza came when a commentator blurted out that the synchronized movement of 2008 drummers was “a little intimidating”. It started a day earlier, when reporters on the White House press plane were delayed more than 3 hours as Chinese customs officials made a symbolic pause to “decide” how to process the visitors who would report the Games to the world.
This morose reaction was the government’s way of responding to comments by President Bush–to a small and indifferent audience en route to China– deemed to be insulting and an inappropriate meddling in China’s internal affairs.
Watching the spectacular performance, I wondered if President Bush peering through binoculars had the same feeling as me: it put America’s televised spectaculars funded by corporate advertisers– like the Superbowl– to shame. The marketing budget of many Superbowl advertisers is based on a profit model that incorporates, one way or another, low cost imports from China.
Does President Bush ever reflect how the insecurities of Americans, in respect to the economy, war and debt, is so different from what he is experiencing in China, today? The Wall Street Journal reports: “Among a huge swath of Chinese, the Games have taken on a meaning both more benign and more complex. Amid today’s prosperity, opinion polls and individual conversations show a groundswell of unbridled optimism. In many ways, the Chinese have embraced the American Dream– the belief that tomorrow will be better than today.” (“For Chinese, Olympics cap a long march up”, August 8, 2008)
Unlike Hitler in 1936 who was in the process of imposing imperial ambitions on the outside world, China’s political elite (as opposed to the Chinese military leadership) is most concerned with managing its own internal stressors, including a significant percentage of citizens who live in poverty.
The Beijing Olympics in 2008 does not presage some new war: in a certain sense, the impulse to war has been blunted by the peaceful transactions of globalized trade; the victor’s ascendence is measured in reverse proportion to our hollowed out industries and scattered Rust Belts. To the masses in Asia, what our falling economic tide exposes is the first fraction of our standard of living.
This mad scrambling of the world order is irreversible because the United States has failed to reformulate energy policy in response to the massive competition for natural resources and commodities like oil, no longer available in sufficient volume to protect our economic security.
The most frightening part of our passivity is that the American consumer may soon become disposable to China’s decision makers. At some point, China’s internal growth will make our contributions to its treasury a lesser factor in its decisions about securing commodities. It may already be happening.
In the past 30 years, US consumers jump started the fastest growing economy in the world. China is governed today by a political elite that fully embraces Orwellian focus on security and control. Through this set of circumstances, the sight of President Bush waving on US competitors at the Olympics can be interpreted as either a brand new day based on resurgent, grand achievements or a forced smile at a dynamo he understands better now that his own time clock is running out.
ALAN FARAGO, who writes on the environment and politics from Coral Gables, Florida, and can be reached at email@example.com