China’s Leaders Try to Impress and Reassure World
BEIJING — An ecstatic China finally got its Olympic moment on Friday night. And if the astonishing opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympic Games lavished grand tribute on Chinese civilization and sought to stir an ancient nation’s pride, there was also a message for an uncertain outside world: Do not worry. We mean no harm.
Usually, that message is delivered by the dour-faced leaders of the ruling Communist Party, who dutifully, if sometimes unconvincingly, regurgitate the phrase “harmonious society” coined by President Hu Jintao. But in the nimble cinematic hands of Zhang Yimou, the filmmaker who directed the opening ceremonies, the politics of harmony were conveyed in a visual extravaganza.
The opening ceremonies gave the Communist Party its most uninterrupted, unfiltered chance to reach a gargantuan global audience. At one point, thousands of large umbrellas were snapped open to reveal the smiling, multicultural faces of children of the global village. Benetton could not have done it better.
Any Olympic opening is a propaganda exercise, but Friday night’s blockbuster show demonstrated the broader public relations challenge facing the Communist Party as China becomes richer and more powerful. The party wants to inspire national pride within China, and bolster its own legitimacy in the process, even as leaders want to reassure the world that a rising China poses no danger.
That has not been an easy sales pitch during the tumultuous Olympics prelude, in which violent Tibetan protests and a devastating earthquake revealed the dark and light sides of Chinese nationalism.
But for one night, at least, the party succeeded wildly after a week dominated by news of polluted skies, sporadic protests and a sweeping security clampdown. Across Beijing, the public rejoiced. People painted red Chinese flags on their cheeks and shouted, “Go China!” long after the four-hour opening had concluded.
“For a lot of foreigners, the only image of China comes from old movies that make us look poor and pathetic,” said Ci Lei, 29, who watched the pageantry on a large-screen television at an upscale downtown bar. “Now look at us. We showed the world we can build new subways and beautiful modern buildings. The Olympics will redefine the way people see us.”
China has grown so rapidly that even people who live here often do not realize that the country that, seven years ago, won the right to stage the Games is no longer the same place. In 2001, China’s gross domestic product was $1.3 trillion; this year, it is estimated to reach $3.6 trillion.
The scale and speed of that growth often leaves the outside world awed, but also worried. China has the world’s largest authoritarian political system. Chinese society is prospering, even as it is cleaved by inequality and struggling with human rights abuses, corruption and severe pollution.
China is asserting its diplomatic muscle in Asia and Africa and pumping money into a military that by the Pentagon’s estimates now has greater resources than any except that of the United States. Yet foreign investment and open export markets have been crucial to China’s success, and it still seeks, even depends on, the support and respect of the United States and Europe.
These contradictions are one reason Mr. Hu has promoted the amorphous concept of a “harmonious society” as a rhetorical tent encompassing policies intended to soothe, if not necessarily resolve, a range of tensions.
Earlier on Friday, Mr. Hu hosted world leaders at a luncheon inside the Great Hall of the People. His table guests illustrated China’s evolving, sometimes conflicted role in world affairs.
At one seat was Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, with whom China sided in July to veto a United Nations resolution, backed strongly by the United States, that would have imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe, after most observers had concluded that Robert Mugabe stole the presidential election there.
President Bush shared the same table. So did the Japanese prime minister, Yasuo Fukuda, with whom China has been conducting a careful reconciliation intended to repair relations that were badly strained by nationalist fervor in both countries just a few years ago.
Perhaps no guest better illustrated China’s uncertain diplomatic balancing than President Nicolas Sarkozy of France.
Earlier this year Mr. Sarkozy threatened to boycott the opening ceremonies to protest China’s crackdown of the Tibetan protests in March. Chinese nationalists, cheered by the state-run media, promoted a boycott of the French retailer Carrefour and filled the Internet with anti-French postings. France and China then scrambled to contain the damage and reopen the door to Mr. Sarkozy’s visit.
“The historic moment we have long awaited is arriving,” Mr. Hu said in a speech at the luncheon. “The world has never needed mutual understanding, mutual toleration and mutual cooperation as much as it does today.”
China first bid for the Games 15 years ago, when party leaders were struggling to recover their legitimacy at home and abroad after they violently suppressed pro-democracy protesters in Beijing in 1989. They were rejected then, though by a narrow margin, and when China won the right to host the 2008 Games, the Olympics had become something of a national obsession.
Leaders spent an estimated $43 billion in building roads, stadiums, parks and subway lines in trying to transform Beijing into an Olympic city.
Plans to welcome the world — “Beijing welcomes you!” is one Olympic slogan — have suffered from polluted skies and the presence of a security force of more than 100,000 people summoned to guard against terrorist attacks.
Yet even amid such a huge police presence, the crowds that gathered near the Olympic Village on Friday afternoon were giddy and proud that China could show itself to the world. Yang Bin, a D.J., had traveled more than 500 miles to Beijing from the city of Chongqing.
“I came to Beijing last night to celebrate the Olympics, even though I don’t have a ticket,” Mr. Yang said. “China is never more glorious than today. The whole world is watching us.”
The opening ceremonies reportedly cost tens of millions of dollars and involved 15,000 performers inside the latticed shell of the city’s new National Stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest. No Olympic opening ceremonies are thought to have approached it in cost and scale.
The production was filled with signature Chinese touches: the elaborate choreography of dancers on a giant calligraphy scroll; the undulating rows of Chinese characters, with the character for “harmony” illuminated; and the use of masses of people, working in unison into a grand spectacle centered on traditional Chinese history, music, dance and art.
“This is a huge gathering for sports lovers, and I am one of them,” said the composer Tan Dun, whose score will be played during gold medal ceremonies. “This is a lot more than about China. If we think this is only China’s moment, it’s a big mistake. It’s the moment of the world.”
Mr. Zhang, the filmmaker, has said he wanted the opening ceremonies to be his gift to China. The climactic moment of the evening came during the dramatic ceremonies to light the Olympic flame. Li Ning, a Chinese gold-medal winner in gymnastics, was hoisted by thin cables to the stadium’s roof with the torch in his hand.
Then, as the cables slowly guided him around the inner rim of the roof, as if he were running, a digital scroll unfurled behind him with images of some of the thousands of other torch bearers who had carried the flame during its journey around the world this spring. The mesmerizing sight culminated with Mr. Li igniting a giant torch affixed to the roof.
China had called the torch relay a Journey of Harmony. But unharmonious protests erupted during the torch’s stops in London, Paris, San Francisco and elsewhere. Those images were absent from Mr. Zhang’s digital scroll. Filmmakers, of course, work from a script.
Just as men really cannot fly, art is not reality. As Friday night proved, art and artifice can inspire. One burden of staging one spectacular show is that people will want and expect an even more spectacular one in the future. And as China’s leaders celebrate, that is the challenge facing them.
The Beijing Olympics are now under way. They will end on Aug. 24. Then the world will exhale and look away from China and its search for harmony. But the Chinese people may want more. And then the real Games of China will begin again.
Andrew Jacobs and David Barboza contributed reporting. Huang Yuanxi and Jessie Jiang contributed research.