China’s Synchronized Anachronism

SINGAPORE – I cannot recall the opening ceremonies at the Athens or Sydney Olympics, maybe because I am a little ambivalent about sports in the first place. But the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympic Games did get my attention – and everyone else’s. Given all the hype, the least anyone could do was to tune in and watch.

So there I was in front of a TV, along with hundreds of millions of other curious people around the world. The verdict: China put on a fantastic show. And the reaction in Asia was especially gushing. But, while I may be in the small minority, I found the ceremony disturbing, to say the least.

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It wasn’t only the martial significance of the drummers who started the show. That’s too obvious. And besides, they smiled a lot (though I found that disturbing as well). And I didn’t even know yet about the lip-syncing by the little girl whose voice was actually that of another girl who “wasn’t cute enough,” or the manipulated fireworks displays in the televised production of the whole extravaganza. It was the number of drummers out there at the start – more than 2,000, all beating drums with their hands and florescent drumsticks in perfect unison – that chilled me.

Thousands more performers followed onto the field to enact one massive choreographed display after another. In all, 15,000 perfectly trained performers took part in the ceremonies. Over and over, the Chinese showed how a few simple movements, performed by thousands of synchronized performers, can result in one massive, awesome display.

No other country could have achieved the same dazzling effect with such a massive assemblage of manpower. But that’s less of a virtue than it might at first appear. One has to ask why it was so important to China to create such an over-the-top display. What insufficiency were the Chinese making up for?

Only an authoritarian communist regime could summon the level of mass conformity required in such a production. The only country that still comes close is North Korea, although it would have to struggle mightily to harness a fraction of the technological sophistication on display in Beijing last week.

What I found particularly disquieting about the opening ceremony in Beijing was the mass sublimation of individuality in the service of the state. The conformity to script and attention to stage direction by a cast of thousands, while awe inspiring, also represents a negation of the creativity of self-expression. Of course, there is choreographed order in Western dance and music as well. But there was something about the Chinese government’s ability to stage-manage so many thousands so precisely that set this show apart from anything undertaken even by Cecil B. DeMille or Las Vegas.

No one would suggest that Zhang Yimou, the Chinese filmmaker who directed the opening night gala, or the other choreographers and artists involved were simply out to score a point for communism. But, while the Chinese authorities wanted the Olympics to showcase a China that is industrializing, modern, and prosperous, it unwittingly put on a display that recalled the Mao-era mass parades in Tiananmen Square, albeit with much advanced technology and pyrotechnics.

It is not easy to think of such a display as being in line with modern norms. The Chinese economy may be more market-oriented today than ever before, but, because the Communist Party is still in charge, China remains out of sync with those parts of Asia and the rest of the world where communism has long since come to be viewed as an anachronistic oddity.