[17 August 2008]
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
Time to clear the air: That’s not smog hovering over Beijing, swallowing entire office buildings like a mighty python. It’s just “a funny mist,” says the city’s environmental chief, who insists that the Chinese government has eliminated air pollution in the capital. And he’s right: By moving its monitoring stations as far as 40 miles from the city center, Beijing’s air-quality reports read like Irving Berlin lyrics: Blue skies, smilin’ at me. Nothin’ but blue skies do I see ...
If Berlin ought to be the official balladeer of the Beijing Olympics, the official currency should be the $3 bill. That’s as in the phrase “phony as ...” From Spielbergian digitized fireworks to Milli Vanilli-esque lip syncing to let’s-pretend newscasts, these Olympics have been the biggest public exercise in media-inspired fakery since Orson Welles’ Martians terrorized New Jersey.
That cute-as-a-button little girl who sang during the Opening Ceremony? Actually, the voice belonged to another kid, whose big nose and crooked teeth were deemed unsuitable for the TV cameras. Those crowds of noisy fans in yellow T-shirts, banging inflatable batons? Government shills, “cheer squads” recruited to fill all the empty seats left by no-show tourists.
And the stunning display of opening-night fireworks that seemed to show a series of Godzilla-size footprints approaching Beijing? Computerized special effects inserted into the television broadcast. A reporter for The Oregonian in Portland, watching with a crowd in Tiananmen Square when the real fireworks went off, wrote that they saw only “two tiny flare-like blasts pop in the sky, followed by a lot of nothing.”
Literally nothing at the Olympics is too important or too trivial for the Chinese to counterfeit. On the high end is free speech. China’s totalitarian government swore it would permit protests and demonstrations during the Games, albeit only at three designated parks distant from Olympic venues. But apparently there’s been a sudden burst of public contentment just in time for the Olympics; the parks are deserted, and Chinese authorities can’t remember if they’ve issued any permits for demonstrations.
Then there’s the matter of those statues of mice with big black ears and white gloves, hoisting the Olympic torch. They sure look like the Rodent King of Orlando, which might raise some uncomfortable questions about international trademark infringement. But a Chinese government spokesman told the Japanese newspaper Daily Yomiuri that only a fool would fail to notice the differences between Mickey and the Beijing mice: “They have square holes in their ears. They are not copies.”
The dubious mice are part of a long-standing tradition of ripping off American intellectual property for commercial gain, a problem that’s by no means limited to China. Years ago, when I was a foreign correspondent, I listened in amazement to a Nicaraguan radio station that played not only a Miami station’s jingles - including its call letters and frequency, both incorrect - but also the patter of its disc jockeys. The mice aren’t even the most extreme example of Chinese piracy - that would surely be the Beijing fast-food chain MFC, where the Big-Macs-‘n’-Extra-Crispy menu reads like the illicit love child of Ronald McDonald and Colonel Sanders.
But much of the rest of the Olympic fakery reflects less venality than a willful contempt for reality, a belief that the world can be remade with airbrushes and Photoshop. The Chinese, from the beginning, saw the Olympics as an exercise in image control, to the point that they originally hired Steven Spielberg to help oversee the production.
Increasingly queasy about the thin line between showman and propagandist, Spielberg quit earlier this year. But he must have felt a certain professional admiration as he watched the opening-night fireworks. Chinese special-effects artists spent almost a year (and who knows how many millions of dollars) creating the 55-second sequence, even adding fake smog and camera-shake. They judged their work a masterpiece of deception. “Most of the audience thought it was filmed live, so that was ‘mission accomplished,’” effects chief Gao Xiaolong told The Beijing Times.
Gao was referring not to those thousands of people in Tiananmen Square who saw a couple of flares pop but to the hundreds of millions who watched on television around the world. Leni Riefenstahl, the German filmmaker and friend of Hitler, may have been the first to couple the Olympics and mass media for propaganda purposes, but the marriage was mostly barren until TV came along.
Somewhere close to a billion people may have been watching the Opening Ceremonies. And while journalists keep referring to the Olympics as “China’s coming-out party,” the Beijing regime may be even more interested in using the Games to legitimize and strengthen its internal grip. The largest single TV audience for the Olympics is in China itself, where by some estimates 840 million people were watching.
But presenting the Olympics as a chamber-of-commerce postcard to the rest of the world is also important to the Chinese - and they’ve certainly not been hindered much by NBC, eager to protect its $900 million investment in the Games.
Most of what passes for political and cultural analysis in NBC’s coverage has been provided by Joshua Cooper Ramo, whom the network incessantly bills as a former Time magazine correspondent and editor. That’s accurate but less interesting, or relevant, than his current job: running the Beijing office of Henry Kissinger’s consulting company, helping foreign corporations strike business deals with China. Small wonder that Ramo took no notice when the opening-night parade recounting China’s history passed completely over the Mao Zedong era and its 10 million or so corpses.
Such tactful omissions have been common in NBC’s coverage, from failing to tell viewers about the little girl’s lip-syncing to not mentioning that many events labeled “live” were actually only live when they were taped several hours earlier. And NBC mentioned the computerized tinkering with the fireworks only obliquely. Bob Costas said the fireworks were “almost like cinema in real time.” Hey, that’s almost like real news coverage.