Monday, August 11, 2008

Is it Good Will or Orwell?

I've been watching the Olympics on television. It's absolutely beautiful in HD. I bought my TV shortly before the 2004 games and was astounded by how much it brought to the experience of watching the TV.

I caught the end of the Opening Ceremonies and was suitably impressed. Of course, I figured they'd be something: one of my favorite film directors, Zhang Yimou, was in charge of making it a spectacle. It wasn't a disappointment. The sheer number of people and the technology involved is really something. Coming from a history of wuxia films (Chinese martial arts/fantasy), the use of color and gymnastics seem like foregone conclusions. It was really amazing. Good luck in four years, London!

Did you ever see the Robert Altman film "Gosford Park"? It's set in an English manor house and one of the director's intentions is that there should be a servant in every scene. Even if the scene is only about the upper class residents talking, always in the background is a maid or underbutler. Once you know that, it's a kind of game to find the servant in each scene. There in the background is someone working hard, almost unobserved.

I got the same feeling from watching the fist events in floor volleyball. Every time they reached a technical timeout, the teams would leave the floor and six chinese with floor mops would dash to the sideline by the net, three on each side. They'd freeze as they fell in line, then with the artistry of the syncronized diving teams, they'd begin their routine. Every time they'd interrupt play, the sweepers would do the same thing. Letter perfect and visually pleasing.

In the beach tournament, there were more Chinese workers standing around off the court. Two behind each "bench". I never saw them do anything, but maybe they're go-fers or something. I'm not trying to make a joke about how many people there are in China. In effect, it's like the world's largest stage managing team. I suppose that's appropriate in the world's largest "play".

In a sense, China is leveraging its national advantage: people. They can afford to bring thousands of people to bear on anything. Tens of thousands of interpreters to accompany atheletes, trainers, reporters, and families. Tens of thousands of people trained on how to cheer for particular sports. Since China has shuttered hundreds of factories in the Beijing area to attempt to improve air quality, they've got a large force of ilde people. How better than to use them as professional cheering squads.

Still, this is China. They're still secretive. They still try to control perceptions of everything. When the American family was attacked at the Drum Tower, most evidence of the crime had been completely removed by the time the foreign media set up their cameras.

Not to mention the collectivism, so helpful in some ways, is detrimental to the individuals. Did you see Yao Ming in the basketball game against USA? He's in a lot of pain, mostly because he plays year round. When he stops NBA basketball in June, he goes back to China to play in their national leagues all summer long. He's had four operations on his feet and legs in the last five years. Big guys are fragile; the stress on the body hasn't caught up with the physics of large bodies.

But if Yao breaks, he's not easily replaceable, even with 1.3 billion people available. That's representative of where China finds itself. Exposure to the world means exposure to the different ideas of western culture, where the individual is the king. You still have sacrifices for the state (look at our military in Iraq), but personal choice plays a much bigger role. Reading articles about how Yao Ming has changed after spending most of his time in America is an interesting lesson in what happens to the personality of people who emerge from China.

Seeing the soldiers crisply marching the flag around the Olympic Stadium, I was reminded of an independant series about a man visiting North Korea. The emphasis on presentation and posture is very similar. North Korea is the weird flip-side of China. They're both technically communist states, but China is tinged with captialism, while North Korea is verging on a dictatorship.

The special on North Korea is frightening and disturbing, and it puts the Olympic presentation (and surrounding "negative" stories like the response to the violence in the Xinjiang region) into a regional perspective. If you have an hour or so, I recommend you wade through the 14 parts of the video (located HERE) to get the perspective of the video. I should mention the host is sometimes vulgar, but that's worth overlooking for the spectacle of the Arirang Festival. Seems familiar, doesn't it?


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