The Olympic opening ceremony in Beijing: political gamesFoto: Getty Images
A picture is worth a thousand words, but it rarely gives the whole story. These days, a wide range of images are coming out of Beijing. These include crowds of flashy dancers organizing themselves into enormous life-like figures, but also goose-stepping soldiers parading the Chinese flag through the Beijing National Stadium, dubbed the "Bird's Nest." We see images of the city smothered in a thick yellow-brown layer of smog, but the cameras never show that the sky can sometimes just be blue. Our televisions flash images of policemen marching in martial formations beneath the Olympic stadium, despite the fact that you'd be hard pressed to actually find them there these days. Apparently, these are images designed to match -- and shape -- opinions. In reality, they're all about clichés.
Ironically enough, the most spine-chilling images to come out of the 29th Olympic Games so far have been provided by Chinese state television itself. On Friday morning, the broadcaster transmitted images of foreign dignitaries arriving in front of the monumental Great Hall of the People on an eerily empty Tiananmen Square. The movements of an honor guard in front of the entrance's huge columns were filmed using a wide-angle lens, which made the images reminiscent of the Nazi propaganda films directed by Leni Riefenstahl. These images, at least, say that it was a mistake to award the Olympics to Beijing. They hearken back to Berlin in 1936. And they say that, once again, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is helping a dictatorship polish its reputation worldwide.
Even eight hours after the Olympics began playing on television screens across the globe, the ominous images failed to get much brighter. Instead of coming across as a joyful celebration of the world's youth, large portions of the opening ceremony seemed more like a monumental festival thrown by a country celebrating its shining self-image. The images were not those of a country opening up to the world, but rather dazzling symbols of age-old greatness and modern-day power. Organizers dug deep into the costume collection of a 4,000-year-old culture to create teeming cascades of closely coordinated actors, and even Chinas minorities were given airtime under the spotlights. But, behind all of this, skeptics could see a repeat performance of old-style communist ceremonial pomp -- only using 21st-century props.
Was it a mistake to award the games to China? Should a country that oppresses minorities, operates forced labor camps and suppresses freedom of speech be allowed to bask in the warm glow of the Olympic flame? Were the IOC's assurances that the country would open up -- the grand promise of betting on the emergence of a bit of democracy on the road to these Olympics -- nothing more than a devious ruse aimed at securing an appearance on the worlds greatest advertising platform? This seems to be the general consensus of many in the West, and there are definitely majorities in countries -- including Germany, the UK, Belgium, Greece, Italy and Spain -- that welcome the fact that their own political leaders have decided -- more or less as a public protest -- not to attend events in Beijing. But that still doesnt make them right.
A Matter of Cultural Interpretation
Whether deliberately or not, by hosting the Olympic Games, China has allowed more freedom in public than it has at any other point in its history. There are over 20,000 accredited foreign journalists in the country, thousands of athletes and officials, tens of thousands of tourists from Western democracies and a few daredevil protesters who have used the occasion to scale power poles and unfurl Free Tibet banners in the heart of the Chinese capital.
Athletes also protested last week, wrote open letters, communicated appeals from abroad to China. All over the world, experts are talking openly about these issues. On talk shows and in parliamentary debates worldwide, China is the hot topic, and some of this finds its way back to the country. Encounters between locals and visitors in Beijing will also have an effect. Chinese society is changing, and this process consists of many tiny adjustments, thousands of fragments that can coalesce to form a new mosaic.
Simple images fail to accurately portray this situation. This explains why so much of what we see appears to be so stereotypical. It also shows that, when faced with such a daunting array of contradictory material, the media has chosen to admit defeat. Western -- and German -- television frequently shows images of pagodas, despite the fact that there are hardly any left among the skyscrapers' shadows. When it comes down to it, China might not be terribly eager to open up to the rest of the world, but the reverse is also true: By constantly reproducing its favorite images of the country, both positive and negative, the world has also insulated itself from the real China.
Take, for example, the throng of sports reporters and special correspondents from around the world, many of whom are traveling to China for the first time. Being so new to the country, they tend to misinterpret their first impressions. This unfamiliarity has even led some German newspapers to report that Beijing has somehow been transformed into a city of fear during the games. At the Main Press Center on the Olympic Green, the rumor mill is working at full speed, and even the tiniest novelties are put to use in hectically typed headlines.
Is it really newsworthy that American bicycle racers wore respiratory masks when they arrived in Beijing? Is it important that a swimmer has circulated a nude photo of herself in Beijing to protest against the fur industry? And are the pole climbers sincerely interested in fighting for the Tibetan cause, or could they also be partially motivated by a desire for their own 15 minutes of fame, which has become so easy to win these days in Beijing?
Appearance and Reality
These days, Beijing seems a little strange. To improve the air quality, half the cars are not allowed on the streets, which has resulted in smoothly flowing traffic on the beltway instead of the customary gridlock. Volunteer workers are stationed at every corner and intersection, rushing forward to greet all foreigners and put their broken English to the test. They have been told to keep their eyes and ears open to spot terrorists trying to secretly infiltrate the city. Of course, its easy to write these harmless stewards off as government thugs -- as long as you never speak with them. But the fact is that these workers -- all 400,000 of them -- are proud. They want to be part of the Olympic family and part of the dream now coming true in China.
On the one hand, no one doubts that, in the months preceding the games, the Chinese security apparatus thoroughly scanned the entire city. Video cameras have been installed on every corner and the security level is high. These days, it's safe to say that any country would take similar precautions. On the other hand, the mood in Beijing has in fact been predominantly one of cheerfulness. People throw small Olympics parties brimming with local and national pride. Childrens choirs sing in neighborhood centers, and small red flags can be seen fluttering all over the city.
But if you're inclined to ask what might be wrong with this picture, one place to look might be Tiananmen Square. In a free country, there's no doubt that a place like this would be an Olympic venue, a place to hold colorful celebrations with people from around the world, a place crowded with large screens, beer stands and all kinds of booths. But, these days, the square is empty.
Different People, Different Chinas
As we reflect on the nature of today's China, it is important to draw a clear distinction between the state and society, which is gradually emancipating itself. It's an important distinction to make before addressing the issue of whether it was wrong to allow Beijing to host the Olympics. No one can deny that Chinas dynamic society has earned this honor over the past few decades. This cannot be said, however, about China's ruling elite, which has used the opening ceremonies for its own purposes, sending idealized images to broadcasters around the world -- but primarily feeding them into their own national media network.
Indeed, if Chinas athletes win the most medals, the party and the government will surely milk it for all its worth. The IOC has either underestimated these secondary effects or irresponsibly acquiesced to them. The IOC also presumably overestimated its soft power. Out of pure vanity -- and wrongly, as it turns out -- the masters of the games assumed that they had so much power over Chinas leadership that they could actually influence its behavior.
In countering such criticism, the committee points to the history books. IOC representatives did this repeatedly last week in Beijing as they tried to draw attention to the social changes that took place in Japan after the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and how the 1988 Seoul Olympics gave a boost to democracy in South Korea.
The question is, however: Can you really compare China with Japan and South Korea? One person who seems to think so is US President George W. Bush, who seems to be playing a wild new form of ping-pong politics. Only a week before Friday's opening ceremonies, Bush hosted five Chinese dissidents at the White House. On Wednesday, he severely took to task the human rights policies of the Chinese government. And then on Thursday, Bush boarded his jet to travel across the world to be present as the most important guest of honor at the opening ceremony. Does Bush lack principles? Or is that how things are done in the world of politics?
The German Position
For Germany, at least, the fact that not a single member of the German government -- neither a member of parliament nor German President Horst Köhler -- was sitting in the VIP lounge in the Birds Nest on Friday is not going to do anything to enhance its influence in China. Nor does it help that Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany's minister for both sports and the interior, and Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung are only planning to visit German athletes in China two weeks into the competition. Granted, Germany is remaining true to its principles. At the same time, though, it is unwilling to venture into uncharted waters by actively taking part in a difficult historical process.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel can be praised for her moral integrity, but diplomacy is still defined as the art of finding the right means to meet your goals. When it comes to China, Merkels tool of choice has been the club, and she most recently swung it in November when she put German-Chinese relations on ice for six months by receiving the Dalai Lama in the Chancellery. This prompted objections from her coalition partners, the left-leaning Social Democrats, and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was very frustrated by what he called Merkel's window dressing policies. For her part, however, Merkel interpreted this as only causing minor damage to domestic politics.
Indeed, Merkel wont achieve much more on China, nor is she even really trying. The chancellor has neither launched any initiatives nor actively supported any dissidents, as have Bush and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Nor has she spoken out clearly on Chinas human rights record, as both Bush and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown have. Under these circumstances, it should come as no surprise that Merkel did not openly boycotted the opening ceremony of the Olympics, which was no longer even an option. Instead, she somewhat meekly blamed previous engagements for not being able to attend. In reality, these engagements turned out to be visiting the Italian region of South Tyrol while on vacation Friday -- something else China's leader will never forgive her for.
Delivering on Promises
Back in Beijing, every movement counts, every sentence, every photo. What this means is that these are the first political games of the 21st century and that their historical significance will be greater than their athletic importance. In 1980, the war in Afghanistan led many Western countries to boycott the Moscow Olympics, and when the Eastern Bloc took its revenge in Los Angeles in 1984, China broke ranks with the communist boycotters. This summer, Beijing is only continuing this series of politically charged Olympics. It might not be about East versus West anymore, but it still has something to do with ideas.
That said, does it still have anything to do with sports? If you had had a chance to eavesdrop on German athletes over the last few weeks, you might very well have your doubts. Many of them have used the past months to reflect on possible forms of protest, to give interviews -- with varying degrees of profundity -- on Tibet and Darfur, and to self-righteously criticize their American counterparts for not even addressing such debates. Such activities may have earned them a few points on the popularity scale, but actually serving any cause seemed to be of only secondary importance. When the IOC finally issued a declaration listing all the things athletes were forbidden from doing, it quickly took the wind out of their sails. As things now stand, it doesnt look like we should expect any political activities from athletes over the next two weeks.
These Olympics are supposed to be green, "high-tech" games with a human face." The opening ceremony has already kept the "high-tech" promise, at least. With floating lights, perfectly choreographed fireworks, and breathtaking moments when the laws of gravity seemed suspended, China has proven that it has mastered all these high-tech special effects. It remains to be seen, however, how human and readily understandable this festival of sports will be for Western observers. It already became clear during the opening ceremonies that some things which move the Chinese to tears leave Europeans unmoved -- or even slightly alarmed.
MARKUS FELDENKIRCHEN, ULLRICH FICHTNER, LOTHAR GORRIS, MAIK GROSSEKATHÖFER, DETLEF HACKE, ANDREAS LORENZ