Much has been made of how important these Beijing Olympics are for China—not for their economy (which hardly needs a boost) or for their patriotic morale, but for their PR on the world stage. Quite simply, the Chinese have an image problem, and they’re fiercely committed to spinning themselves in a better light.
But spin is increasingly easy to detect, and China—God bless her—is not doing a very good job of rebranding itself as a country of freedom-loving citizens of a democratic world. Rather, China comes across as a top-down, control-obsessed behemoth willing to do whatever it takes to present its ideal image to the world. Take a few of the examples from the opening week of the Olympic games:
- Opening ceremony deceptions: First came the news that some of the more elaborate fireworks we saw on TV were merely CGI effects, then came the juicier scandal that the cute pigtailed girl in the red dress who serenaded the worldwide audience was lipsyncing “Ode to the Motherland” because the actual singing girl (performing from somewhere off stage) was deemed too ugly (crooked teeth!) to be the “face of China.”
- Mysteriously teensy Chinese gymnasts: Suspicions abound about the ages of two of team China’s most talented female gymnasts, He Kexin and Jiang Yuyuan. Various recent press reports have placed the ages of the diminutive stars as low as 13 or 14, but the Chinese government has since submitted passports that “prove” their ages to be 16, making them eligible competitors. We can’t say for sure, but the obvious conclusion from this is that the government was more than willing to “adjust” the official ages of these young athletes whose participation in the gymnastics competition was integral to that ever-important gold medal.
- Suppression of protests: Don’t the Chinese know that the best thing they could do for themselves would be to allow very public protests to occur? An Olympic games is just not right without them. Everyone knows about the Chinese abuses of human rights, the Tibet debacle, etc. Thus, we all know that there should be throngs of protesters at these games. That there are not very many (at least visible to the outside observer) shows that China is up to its freedom-suppressing old tricks. Numerous reports have demonstrated that China will stop at nothing to keep news coverage of protests or dissenters from reaching the outside world.
Alas, the Chinese are not the smoothest operators when it comes to slyly manufacturing a skewed image of themselves. We can make fun of them for this, and be outraged, but the truth is they are not much different than any of us. Anyone with a Facebook page, blog, or Flickr account cannot really critique China for their heavy-handed image maintenance. We live in a day and age where the image or presentation of reality is more important than the reality itself (thank you Baudrillard), and China is just the largest and perhaps most clumsy offender.
All of this makes me reflect on reason #187 why The Dark Knight is the most relevant film of the decade thus far. It is all about this “truth distortion” spin zone—the civil importance of telling the public only so much truth and lying about certain things “for their sake.” Problem is, when you can see through these intricate PR spin maneuvers (as we can with China’s Olympics), the result is that we trust the spinner even less. Hopefully Batman will be a better spin doctor than Beijing is.