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Beijing Olympic Essay

In the mass media and the blogosphere,both inside and outside China,commentators have been discussing the differences between the cultural segments of the Beijing and London ceremonies as representative of two opposed political systems.

The 2008 drummers who opened the Beijing ceremony had been parodied in an episode of the television cartoon South Park, in which the young lead character wakes up from a dream about the drummers shouting, “They’re gonna take over the world!”  As USA Today said of London’s ceremony, “if it seldom made you marvel, it also never forced you to consider the amount of state-organized repression required to get that many people to drum as one.”  Danny Boyle, choreographer of the London ceremony, told the NBC Today show, “Beijing was beyond compare, it was on a scale that is unimaginable almost anywhere else in the world.  So you go [raising his right hand], ‘Fine, all hail Beijing, that’s the peak.’  We’re very grateful to Beijing that it brought to an absolute climax the scale of these opening ceremonies.” 

Boyle described the London cultural segment as “pandemonium.” It was the chaos of democracy contrasted with the authoritarian order of Beijing.  His ceremony included suffragettes, protesting workers, the national healthcare system now under attack, and children.  Sports Illustrated reporter Alex Wolff wrote that Boylehad “outstripped the previous Olympic host city by flaunting what the Chinese actively suppressed” – that is, “He gave us a chance to celebrate protest and dissent.” 

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However, one very important point has been missed by Western observers concerned about what they perceive as a growing threat to their way of life: the Chinese leadership and populace do not generally perceive the Beijing ceremony as the beginning of the rise of their authoritarian system in the world.  Rather, it was the pinnacle of a system which they would like to leave behind.  When China returned to Olympic participation after a 32-year absence, they were exposed to a new kind of ceremony.  The Hollywood-style cultural segment in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics stimulated a public debate about whether socialist mass calisthenics were appropriate for China in the era of reform.  Choreographers began adding “artistic” elements to national opening ceremonies, but despite 25 years of debates, mass calisthenics still constitute the core of opening ceremonies. 

If parts of Boyle’s ceremony were a jab at the conservative right in Britain (a Conservative Party member of parliament provoked a controversy by tweeting that it was "The most leftie opening ceremony I have ever seen — more than Beijing, the capital of a communist state!”), then Zhang Yimou’s ceremony was a jab at the conservative left in China.  Six days after the ceremony, he provoked controversy inside China by observing to Southern Weekly that Westerners were incapable of mass calisthenics “because of human rights.”  He explained, “They have all kinds of institutions, unions. We do not have that, we work very hard,we can eat bitterness and endure hard labor. … I think other than North Korea, no other country in the world can do this.”  Since North Korea is regarded negatively inside China, this could only have been understood as something of an insult. 

It may be that the inimitable scale of the Beijing opening ceremonies will be a tipping point in the history of government-run spectacles and collective exercises in China, with all they imply. 

On the Chinese internet, perhaps the topic that recurred the most was money.  Significantly, on this point there was a high degree of consensus, even between the few extreme comments in either direction – whether nationalists derogating London, or critics of China.  Among the comments on a blog on Sinaby Olympic reporter Yang Ming, there was criticism of the money spent in Beijing: “The money that was spent was the money of the common people; did the common people agree to it before it was spent?”  Another observed that in London, “Missing was the Chinese-style waste, paying no attention to whether the country’s people live or die, nothing but grandeur and splendor – what damn use is that?”  There were defenders of Beijing, including the internet opinion leader, professor Zhang Yiwu, who argued that it was appropriate for China to use an impressive spectacle to host its first Olympic Games and mark its emergence as a great nation after a century of arduous struggle.  Hosting its third Olympic Games, London did not have this need. 

Expressing the general mood in China these days, I found no commentators, whether pro-Beijing or pro-London, arguing that China should continue its lavish Olympic spending.  Even the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee (BOCOG) had suddenly declared in 2004, three years into the preparatory work, that they would organize “frugal games.”  These days, the joke in Beijing is that people are engaging in “Olympics avoidance (biyun).” a pun that sounds the same as “pregnancy prevention.” Indicative of this trend, what many of the Chinese bloggers praised about the London ceremony was its “humanity”(renxing).  As one blogger on the above siteput it,“To emphasize hosting a frugal spectacle in the midst of a global economic recession, is the greatest humanity.”  

Coverage of the Beijing Olympics was estimated to reach 70% of the world’s population; London might reach even more.  The opening ceremonies are providing global citizens with a common talking point about political systems, and the internet is increasingly opening up a space for discussion across national borders. There is still not a lot of interchange between the Chinese-language and European-language blogospheres, but we have a start.  The result is a more sophisticated understanding of political systems and a surprising number of shared viewpoints about the obligations of governments to their people, how they should spend their money, and their future orientations. In today’s increasingly connected world, the Olympics may be bringing us closer than we think to a global consensus on keypolitical issues.

Susan Brownell is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.  She has been engaged in Chinese sports since she was a Chinese collegiate track and field champion in the 1980s, and is the author of Beijing’s Games: What the Olympics Mean to China. 

Narrative Overview

The People’s Republic of China (Chinese: Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo) is the largest of all Asian countries and has the largest population of any country in the world. Occupying nearly the entire East Asian landmass, it occupies approximately one-fourteenth of the land area of the Earth. Among the major countries of the world, China is surpassed in area by only Russia and Canada, and it is almost as large as the whole of Europe.

China has 33 administrative units directly under the central government; these consist of 22 provinces, 5 autonomous regions, 4 municipalities (Chongqing, Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin), and 2 special administrative regions (Hong Kong and Macau). The island province of Taiwan, which has been under separate administration since 1949, is discussed in the article Taiwan. Beijing (Peking), the capital of the People’s Republic, is also the cultural, economic, and communications centre of the country. Shanghai is the main industrial city; Hong Kong is the leading commercial centre and port.

Within China’s boundaries exists a highly diverse and complex country. Its topography encompasses the highest and one of the lowest places on Earth, and its relief varies from nearly impenetrable mountainous terrain to vast coastal lowlands. Its climate ranges from extremely dry, desertlike conditions in the northwest to tropical monsoon in the southeast, and China has the greatest contrast in temperature between its northern and southern borders of any country in the world.

The diversity of both China’s relief and its climate has resulted in one of the world’s widest arrays of ecological niches, and these niches have been filled by a vast number of plant and animal species. Indeed, practically all types of Northern Hemisphere plants, except those of the polar tundra, are found in China, and, despite the continuous inroads of humans over the millennia, China still is home to some of the world’s most exotic animals.

Probably the single most identifiable characteristic of China to the people of the rest of the world is the size of its population. Some one-fifth of humanity is of Chinese nationality. The great majority of the population is Chinese (Han), and thus China is often characterized as an ethnically homogeneous country, but few countries have as wide a variety of indigenous peoples as does China. Even among the Han there are cultural and linguistic differences between regions; for example, the only point of linguistic commonality between two individuals from different parts of China may be the written Chinese language. Because China’s population is so enormous, the population density of the country is also often thought to be uniformly high, but vast areas of China are either uninhabited or sparsely populated.

With more than 4,000 years of recorded history, China is one of the few existing countries that also flourished economically and culturally in the earliest stages of world civilization. Indeed, despite the political and social upheavals that frequently have ravaged the country, China is unique among nations in its longevity and resilience as a discrete politico-cultural unit. Much of China’s cultural development has been accomplished with relatively little outside influence, the introduction of Buddhism from India constituting a major exception. Even when the country was penetrated by such “barbarian” peoples as the Manchu, these groups soon became largely absorbed into the fabric of Han Chinese culture.

This relative isolation from the outside world made possible over the centuries the flowering and refinement of the Chinese culture, but it also left China ill prepared to cope with that world when, from the mid-19th century, it was confronted by technologically superior foreign nations. There followed a century of decline and decrepitude, as China found itself relatively helpless in the face of a foreign onslaught. The trauma of this external challenge became the catalyst for a revolution that began in the early 20th century against the old regime and culminated in the establishment of a communist government in 1949. This event reshaped global political geography, and China has since come to rank among the most influential countries in the world.

Central to China’s long-enduring identity as a unitary country is the province, or sheng (“secretariat”). The provinces are traceable in their current form to the Tang dynasty (618–907 ce). Over the centuries, provinces gained in importance as centres of political and economic authority and increasingly became the focus of regional identification and loyalty. Provincial power reached its peak in the first two decades of the 20th century, but, since the establishment of the People’s Republic, that power has been curtailed by a strong central leadership in Beijing. Nonetheless, while the Chinese state has remained unitary in form, the vast size and population of China’s provinces—which are comparable to large and midsize nations—dictate their continuing importance as a level of subnational administration.

Since the 1980s, China has been undergoing a radical and far-reaching economic transformation that has been spurred by a liberalized and much more open economic policy than in the first decades after 1949. As a result, China has become one of the world’s top industrial powers, and it has been engaged in a massive program to build and upgrade all aspects of its transportation system. In 2001, after Beijing had successfully won the bid to stage the 2008 Olympic Games, the pace of this construction work increased dramatically in and around the Beijing metropolis, as new sports venues, housing for athletes, hotels and office towers, and roads and subway lines were built. Six other cities were selected to host events during the Olympic Games: Hong Kong (equestrian events), Qingdao (yachting), and Qinhuangdao, Shanghai, Shenyang, and Tianjin (football [soccer]).