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Cultural Evolution
S.L. Price
August 18, 2008
The brilliant opening ceremonies introduced the world to a proud, paradoxical new China: rich and poor, capitalist and socialist, open and repressive
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August 18, 2008

Cultural Evolution

The brilliant opening ceremonies introduced the world to a proud, paradoxical new China: rich and poor, capitalist and socialist, open and repressive

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THE MOMENT everything changed? Scholars may laugh at the idea that a mere sports event could mark the rise of a nation, but China insists—so for three weeks, why argue? Why not accept the opening of the 2008 Summer Olympics as the start of the Chinese Century? Forget all the numerological hocus-pocus, the calibrated countdown to 8 p.m. on the eighth day of the eighth month of the millennium's eighth year. Sweep forward three hours to 11—yes!—:08 p.m., when Yao Ming poked China's flag into the dense air of the National Stadium, and the people of the People's Republic saw their champions for the first time. At that instant, in hallways snaking throughout the Bird's Nest, workers deserted their posts and rushed to the nearest opening to get a look.

The 7'6" Yao strode forward, and the massive Chinese Olympic delegation, the largest at the Beijing Games, fell in 10 feet behind. China began its parade before the world, and billions of hairs rose on the backs of 1.3 billion necks. One workman, no more than a teenager, stared over a railing at the sight below, his moan of delight drowned out by a crowd of 91,000 shouting the ultimate Chinese translation of "faster, higher, stronger": Zhongguo jiayou! Literally, the phrase means Add oil, China! but on this night it meant Step on the gas, China!

So they kept on stepping, each athlete representing the distilled hopes of the nation's farmers, clerks, shopkeepers, housewives and increasingly cocky businessmen. A boy who saved two lives in the recent earthquake in Sichuan Province took Yao's hand. The irresistible pair (the big millionaire, the small hero) shimmered on the television sets of some 840 million viewers nationwide, including one in an apartment building near the stadium. Yin Daomo—a retired college professor who in 1966, amid the chaos of Mao's Cultural Revolution, was denounced by students, removed from his job and forced to wear a dunce cap—moved back and forth from the TV to the window. For 4 1/2 years he had watched the Bird's Nest, the latticed symbol of China's long, twisted march into the future, rise out of the dust. Now it was glowing.

"My dream of many, many years has come true," Yin said. "I'll be 74 next month, and this is better than any birthday present. This is the proudest moment for me personally and for China."

Like most Chinese, Yin didn't mind, or even seem to notice, the incongruities that make Beijing seem like the world's largest Potemkin village: the insistence by officials that thick air pollution is just fog, the barring of half the cars from city roadways, the sight of Chinese and Olympic flags fluttering in the stillness of the Bird's Nest as if blown by a typhoon. If it's not exactly the real Beijing, it's at least the image of a city to strive for—healthy, uncrowded, washed by a cleansing wind. To dwell on such manipulations is to miss the point. China has arrived.

We knew this day was coming, of course, the moment China was awarded the Games in 2001. Yet when the country finally made its opening statement in these Olympics, as its athletes marched out and waved and smiled in a structure that, after one glance, dares you to try to forget it, the emotional fireworks began to rival anything thrown up in the sky. Women fainted. A crowd instantly formed in a park to celebrate. The athletes kept coming. A woman behind a counter waved at the TV as if the figures inside it could see her. The flame was lit; a ticketless teen sitting outside the stadium burst into tears. It was a bad time for cynics, maybe the worst in history. You never saw so many faces so happy.

THREE HOURS earlier, a taxi driver named Li Dongsheng was taking a group from Beijing's Temple of Earth Park toward the city's trendy Chaoyang district and a Vegas-style shopping plaza presumptuously named The Place. "After the Olympics are over," Li asked the one Chinese face in the back, "what will Americans think of China?"

It's one of the vital questions of these games, at least to China and the U.S., but in the heady hours after Li dropped off his passengers, they found no easy answer. The Place stands in contrast to the historic hutong (alley) neighborhoods off Temple of Earth Park. In the mall a dozen massive flat-screen TVs blazed with images of the opening ceremonies at the Bird's Nest, where an enormous scroll was unrolling across the stadium infield, detailing ancient China's invention of ink, paper, gunpowder and the compass. There was no mention of how all four inventions play a part in these most modern Olympics: the compass guiding 204 countries into town; the gunpowder suggesting the Chinese weapons that fuel the crisis in Darfur and the explosions that, at that very moment, marked the Russian invasion of Georgia; the paper and ink standing for all the media clamor over what China means.

Already, perceptions were hardening. Two days before the Games, China reinforced its image of intolerance by revoking the visa of former U.S. speedskater Joey Cheek, an activist on behalf of refugees in Darfur, and the U.S. Olympic Committee cravenly pressured four of its cyclists to apologize to Chinese officials for donning breathing masks when they arrived at the Beijing airport. The International Olympic Committee, meanwhile, spent the walk-up to the Games asserting—despite reports to the contrary from independent monitors—that the air was safe for athletes to breathe. That cemented the impression that the Chinese government had succeeded in bullying just about everyone. A visitor couldn't help feeling whipsawed by the good news--bad news alternation, which mirrored the good China--bad China narrative of the last few years: China's life is better than it has ever been! China is cracking down on human rights more than ever! "For the majority of the Chinese people [these Olympics are] a deserved celebration [of] how far they've come as a nation," said Cheek. "But I very much despise some things their government does."

The afternoon after the opening ceremonies Todd Bachman, the father of former U.S. volleyball player Elisabeth Bachman and father-in-law of U.S. men's volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon, would die and his wife, Barbara, would be critically injured in a knife attack by a suicidal assailant at Beijing's Drum Tower (page 68). Whether the killer wanted to stain the Beijing Olympics may never be known, but his heinous act certainly knocked China off message. More than 100,000 police and soldiers had been detailed for these Games; if nothing else, China was supposed to run a secure and safe Olympics.

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