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Cultural Evolution

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

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

The 7'6" Yaostrode forward, and the massive Chinese Olympic delegation, the largest at theBeijing 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, nomore than a teenager, stared over a railing at the sight below, his moan ofdelight drowned out by a crowd of 91,000 shouting the ultimate Chinesetranslation 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 onstepping, each athlete representing the distilled hopes of the nation'sfarmers, clerks, shopkeepers, housewives and increasingly cocky businessmen. Aboy who saved two lives in the recent earthquake in Sichuan Province took Yao'shand. The irresistible pair (the big millionaire, the small hero) shimmered onthe television sets of some 840 million viewers nationwide, including one in anapartment building near the stadium. Yin Daomo—a retired college professor whoin 1966, amid the chaos of Mao's Cultural Revolution, was denounced bystudents, removed from his job and forced to wear a dunce cap—moved back andforth from the TV to the window. For 4 1/2 years he had watched the Bird'sNest, the latticed symbol of China's long, twisted march into the future, riseout of the dust. Now it was glowing.

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

Like mostChinese, Yin didn't mind, or even seem to notice, the incongruities that makeBeijing seem like the world's largest Potemkin village: the insistence byofficials that thick air pollution is just fog, the barring of half the carsfrom city roadways, the sight of Chinese and Olympic flags fluttering in thestillness of the Bird's Nest as if blown by a typhoon. If it's not exactly thereal 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 tomiss the point. China has arrived.

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

THREE HOURSearlier, a taxi driver named Li Dongsheng was taking a group from Beijing'sTemple of Earth Park toward the city's trendy Chaoyang district and aVegas-style shopping plaza presumptuously named The Place. "After theOlympics are over," Li asked the one Chinese face in the back, "whatwill Americans think of China?"

It's one of thevital questions of these games, at least to China and the U.S., but in theheady hours after Li dropped off his passengers, they found no easy answer. ThePlace stands in contrast to the historic hutong (alley) neighborhoods offTemple of Earth Park. In the mall a dozen massive flat-screen TVs blazed withimages of the opening ceremonies at the Bird's Nest, where an enormous scrollwas unrolling across the stadium infield, detailing ancient China's inventionof ink, paper, gunpowder and the compass. There was no mention of how all fourinventions play a part in these most modern Olympics: the compass guiding 204countries into town; the gunpowder suggesting the Chinese weapons that fuel thecrisis in Darfur and the explosions that, at that very moment, marked theRussian invasion of Georgia; the paper and ink standing for all the mediaclamor over what China means.

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

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

Of course, such acrime could happen in New York City or Cleveland (and does more often than inBeijing) but at the Olympics, facts often run a poor second to perception.Twelve years later Atlanta is still recovering from that backpack bomb. Theknifings were expected to put police on high alert and harden an attitudetoward protesters that had seemed to be softening. Indeed, some activistsdemanding freedom for Tibet were treated so gingerly during the Games' firstdays that for minutes at a time you could imagine that China actually allowsdissent.

This was nofluke: Officially, anyway, the Olympics made China's Communist Party nearlyinvisible. The history lesson at the opening ceremonies jumped from trading onthe Silk Road to modern times without mentioning war, famine, decades oftension over Taiwan, or the brutal rule of a man named Mao. Aside from onequick Young Pioneers salute by a multiethnic collection of children—and thepresence on the dais of Communist Party general secretary Hu Jintao—you wouldnot have known that China had ever been ruled by an intransigent andred-starred cadre. These Games are being trumpeted inside China as a patriotic,not a political, triumph. "In all my years in China, I don't think therehas been a more important interaction with the outside world than the OlympicGames," said Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relationsat the Asia Society in New York City. "They view this as their coming-outparty, christening, bar mitzvah—you name it. And the leadership understandsthat the Chinese people, too, even those who don't like Marxism-Leninism,desperately yearn to have their country be great and respected."

It didn't hurtthat China encouraged residents throughout Beijing to a dizzying level ofhospitality. Athletes from the U.S., Iraq and North Korea were cheered withgusto as they made their walk around the Bird's Nest. But it meant much morethat China, for the first time, publicly acknowledged Taiwan's delegation byits own preferred name, Zhonghua Taipei (Zhonghua means ethnic Chinese), andthe stadium—as well as four girls watching a TV screen at The Place—applauded."As long as they're called part of the Chinese people, we'll cheer forthem," said Claire, a 19-year-old volunteer at the Olympic softball venuewho, like many young Chinese, has taken an English name.

Nearby, a womannamed Vivian Hu was working the Fresh Fusion smoothie stand, opened just threedays earlier. It's Hu's 12th location in China. She left the nation's capitalin 1993 to study in Vancouver and now lives in both Sacramento and Beijing,trying to navigate this brave new world of Chinese capitalism. "Everythingis gone," she says of the courtyard neighborhood she grew up in. "Beingback in Beijing is still a little culture shock for me."

The city isdifferent, wildly so, from the one put in the vanguard of change by DengXiaoping just 30 years ago. Above Hu's head, the largest LED screen in Asiaspanned the corridor of the mall. The ceremonies played out on smaller screensarrayed on the walls, but even on its biggest night the Olympics couldn'tcompete with China's big picture: an endlessly scrolling ad touting the virtuesof Coca-Cola.

AT 10:15 LASTSATURDAY morning 73-year-old Yin Daomo walked easily up the many steps to theBeijing Shooting Range Hall, barely sweating in the 95° heat. The first goldmedal of the 2008 Olympics was about to be won, and a Chinese woman wasfavored. "I have hope," Yin said. "It'll be better if wewin."

That wasn'talways the Chinese expectation. When the People's Republic of China made itsfirst Summer Olympics appearance, at the Los Angeles Games in 1984, it had nohope of competing with the U.S. in the medal count. Even in 2004, when LiuXiang won the 110-meter hurdles in Athens, he looked stunned. This year?China's vaunted seven-year Project 119 has transformed the country into asporting power, and even the U.S. is running scared (POINT AFTER, page 90)."With the sports infrastructure, the facilities, the coaches who are beingdeveloped here, and the young people who will be inspired by these Games, wethink this will be a formidable system that we'll have to contend with for avery, very long time," USOC chief Jim Scherr said in Beijing. "Andpolitical or economic shifts won't affect this system the way that dislocationin the late '80s affected the Soviet Union's. This system is here tostay."

That doesn'tsurprise Yin. He's had faith in the Chinese authorities, he said, since he wasallowed to regain his teaching post after months of "self-criticism";he even went on to become dean of his university's petrology department.China's rush to embrace market economics? "Too fast a few years ago,"Yin said. "We were changing too fast, and there were a lot ofnegatives." The experts tinkered, self-criticized, adjusted. "I feelit's going at the right pace now," said Yin.

The same could besaid about the sports program, built as it is to displace the U.S. as theOlympics' dominant power—perhaps as soon as these Games. A Chinese liquorcompany took the very capitalistic step of promising the national shooting teama $1.4 million prize if any of its athletes won the first gold medal at theseGames, and Du Li, the defending Olympic champion in the 10-meter air rifle, hadfirst crack. Chinese reporters had dogged her training for weeks. Afterfinishing second in the qualifying round, Du sprayed enough shots to fall to afifth-place finish. For a few moments after, as she smiled through three TVinterviews, Du nearly had everyone convinced that she hadn't felt the weight ofan entire nation's expectations. Then someone handed her a cellphone with herfirst coach on the other end. When Du heard his voice, she broke down in tearsand rushed out of the room.

But every hero isreplaceable. Less than an hour later, at the weightlifting venue, Chen Xiexia,the women's 48-kg favorite, appeared for her final lift in an imperial-yellowrobe, looking for all the world like the heavyweight champ. The crowd of 6,000roared at the sight of her, and Chen roared back nonsense, words she'd inventedto give herself strength. She snapped the 117-kg bar easily to her chest,jerked it overhead, held it. Then she flung the weight down, knowing she hadwon. Later, Chen grinned and sang along with the national anthem, but there wasnothing giddy in her manner. She didn't cry. What about the honor of winningChina's first medal at its own Olympics, of being the answer to the questionthat for months had obsessed the nation? "I don't think I was under greatpressure," Chen said. "The first gold won is gold, the last gold won isalso gold. It's not especially significant to me."

And that's whenChina arrived for the second time at these Olympics: when its new firstchampion wasn't impressed by being first. It won't be long now, world. SoonChina will expect to win everything.

It was a bad time for cynics. You never saw so manyfaces SO HAPPY.

Beijing is different now. The Games made Communismnearly INVISIBLE.


Photograph by Simon Bruty

STARRY-EYED As Yao carried the flag around the Bird's Nest, even residents of Beijing's poorest districts felt a surge of pride.



[See caption above]



NO WORRIES Chen denied she had felt any pressure to win China's first gold medal of the Games.



MARKET RULES At a mall called The Place, residents of China's capital get a taste of Las Vegas--style shopping.