Reading the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony
1. A troupe of children, dressed in folk costumes from all the various provinces of China, crosses, hand in hand, across the vast crowded arena, holding a flag of the Public’s Republic stretched out between them. They pass through a troupe of soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army who take the flag from them, and in stiff jerky movements, hold the flag aloft and march on with it, in the high stepping goosestep beloved of the armies of totalitarian states everywhere. The meaning is clear. The PLA is given a highly visible role in the Olympics, as it is in Chinese national life. In the words of George Orwell: Military display is only possible in countries where the common people dare not laugh at the army. Not only do these soldiers and their goosestep stamp on the human face, but they also trample all over the terms under which the Olympics was awarded to China in the first place, and all over the now rather threadbare Olympic ideals.
2. The torch has done its round of the stadium and is passed to Li Ning (winner of 6 medals in the 1984 Olympics). The torch-bearing Olympian is suddenly and slowly hoisted aloft on a wire, to audible gasps from the crowd. He then proceeds to mime running around the roof of the stadium, still suspended from his wire, while projected onto the wall behind him, is an unfolding scroll with moving images of past triumphs and heartbreaks from previous Olympics. It looks as if the tiny man bearing his torch, racing round the roof of the vast stadium is unfurling this great scroll of past sporting achievement, illuminated in glowing colours against the night sky. The whole spectacle is fabulously beautiful, and marvellously symbolic, in an apolitical way, of Chinese culture: martial arts movies, the long tradition of scrolls and calligraphy. But is it as apolitical as it seems?
Li Ning is one of the first generation of Chinese entrepreneurs, permitted during the opening up of the economy by Deng Xiaoping in the mid 1980s. Li Ning is the founder and CEO of sportswear manufacturer and retailer, Li Ning Company, currently third in the Chinese market after Nike and Addidas. The company, whose logo looks remarkably like a flowing Chinese version of Nike’s check, opened a design office in Portland, Oregon in January 2008, and has hired a designer with previous experience of designing Nike and Converse products for their new product range, all of which have been interpreted by industry insiders as possible preliminaries for a move into Western markets. After this spectacular – and presumably free to the company- bit of Olympic publicity, shares in Li Ning Company rose 5% on the HK stock exchange. A symbol indeed of China’s new economic muscle, and the now very shopworn and shoddy Olympic ideals.