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China’s way of hiding shame

Posted by Author on August 14, 2008

Jane Macartney in Beijing, The Times Online, UK, August 13, 2008-

An old Chinese saying goes: “A man has face, a tree has bark.” Face – honour and prestige – is a visceral issue in China. Without it one is undeserving of respect.

After a seven-year build up anything less than a flawless Olympics would represent a loss of face for the emerging superpower at a moment when the eyes of the world are on it.

Was it really necessary to withdraw a seven-year-old with the voice of an angel but with crooked teeth so that a little girl with a prettier face could mime her words? And how much did it matter if the world’s television screens showed empty seats?

To the organisers of the Olympics – and to their bosses in the Communist Party Politburo – these are questions of crucial importance. Chen Qigang, musical director of the opening ceremony, saw no need for shame when explaining the change of singer.

He said: “We have a responsibility to face the whole country and to be open with this explanation. It is a question of national interest. It is a question of the image of our national music, our national culture.”

China wanted the world to see that the tiny singer in her bright red dress, standing alone on stage to represent the nation, was as adorable as could be. That was seen as a way to win international prestige and to protect face before an audience of hundreds of millions at home.

And that sums up, too, the decision to bring in cheering volunteers to fill up empty seats in stadiums where tickets have been sold but the spectators, for some reason, have failed to turn up. It is representative of the authoritarian state that is China, where the “masses” can be deployed when necessary. And they will do so uncomplainingly for the good of the nation.

China is hardly alone in wanting to put on a good show. When Tony Blair arrived to take up his job at No 10 in May 1997 he was cheered by hundreds of flag-waving Labour activists brought in for the occasion. President Bush always appears before hand-picked crowds.

Few Chinese have been outraged by the revelation that the television images of the fireworks at the start of the Olympics opening ceremony were digitally created. After all, the show went on – even if they didn’t actually see it. And many Beijing residents are now living in a Potemkin city where any unsightly building has been shielded from the eyes of the world by hastily erected grey brick walls or by arrays of bright Olympic posters. China sees a fake city not as a sign of shame, but of hiding its shame. The same applies to false spectators.

– Original: The Times Online, UK

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