Friday, August 08, 2008

On the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremonies: A Contrast in Self Image

The opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, was set for a most propitious time in Chinese numerology (8-8-08). See Olympic Number Symbolism: Eights Across the Boards, Britannica Blog August 8, 2008. It was certainly beautiful and impressive. See Beijing Games Opening Ceremonies, Sports Illustrated, Aug. 8, 2008. It was meant to serve as a gracious welcome to China's guests, a lovely sound and light show, an evidence of the wealth of the country, its technological proficiency, and the beauty and talent of its people, and its capacity to join the first rank of the family of nations. And, indeed, the West was appropriately impressed with this spectacle populated by a cast of thousands hosted by Ho Jintao. See Bejing's Opening Ceremony Begins Time, Aug. 8, 2008. "The games, said IOC President Jacques Rogge, "are a chance for the rest of the world to discover what China really is."" Id.

And that, to some extent, was the point of the show itself. The American commercial network commentators and their local area experts) were waxing poetic about the program, its cultural and political symbolism. There was much made, for example, of the way in which the program emphasized the paternalistic character of the state--and the connection between the People's Liberation Army and that relationship (for example in the portion of the program in which the delegation of children handed the Chinese flag to a military contingent). There was much made of the historical portion of the program for the themes of harmony, openness to foreigners, and the centrality of China in the context of world economic, political, technological, philosophical, and social development. Even more was made of the precision of the cast of thousands involved in the production, and its technical excesses. There was fear as well as admiration--precisely, one would guess, what the Chinese state apparatus would have been working toward. The message was meant to be clear--the Chinese are back and ready to assume their rightful place at the front of the family of nations. They mean to be leaders in he production of cultural, political economic, technological and social objects for the rest of the world to consume. The Chinese are not merely the world's factor--but their leader as well.

But the opening ceremonies are meant to work, as well, if not better, on a deeper level--one which only incidentally affects the West for the moment, but which may have implications for global legal and political policy. That performance was meant to cement an ideology of China for both internal and external consumption--the production of a certain slant of history as a cultural and factual artifact constructed as carefully as any piece of precision technological equipment. That construction, reflected in its law, economy, society and culture is both simple and difficult for Westerners--"All under Heaven." Thus all of the elements--the children all dressed in a variety of national and tribal costumes, emphasizing the multinational and multi-ethnic basis of the Chinese state, the peaceful relationship between children and the military (the people and the state, the sheep and the Shepard, etc.), the historical determinism at the foundation of Chinese society and culture, the fruits of that historical determinism in technology and the production of knowledge that fed the world, the wealth and power of the state, and the willingness of its people to sacrifice all and to bend all will for the collective good. Yes, it was propaganda, and it as little to do with the lived reality of the masses (but which state's mythology does?), but it served to express, in a condensed and spectacular way, the shape of the consolidated modern mythologies of the Chinese State and its sense of itself. And if nothing else was absorbed, what emerged clearly was a willingness to see the good and a projection of a positive forward looking society grounded in a sense of the glories of the past.

Yet for all its splendor and message making, the the opening ceremonies represented a spectacular but by no means unique expression of these ideas. The Chinese have been attempting to create and distribute this vision of China through a tremendous production of cultural objects for a number of years. Foremost among the exported products are movies--cultural constructions masquerading as costume drama, action flicks and colorful adventures of merry bands of diverse people. But together these pictures advance the idea of an inevitable and singular China. This is a China constructed out of an amalgam of peoples, foremost among them the Han peoples, but not exclusively so. Political division is understood as temporary and inevitably giving way to a unitary state. That state might be constructed out of violence by powerful forward thinking figures who are first able to grasp the "Truth" about China. That violence might be accompanied by a certain amount of necessary authoritarianism as well. But all is for the greater good: a reality that no thinking person can resist, at least no thinking person looking to further the greater good of Chinese society within a normative structure of harmony within hierarchy.

The most recent and brilliantly effective expression of this ideology of unity, harmony and the road thereto, the movie Hero, nicely captured the essence of the form of the production of this knowledge for internal and external consumption. It nicely illustrates lessons about the reality of China exported to Western audiences as the "natural" state of affairs. The movie intertwines a number of binaries--pen and sword, peace and war, ideas and implementation, anarchy and order, and the perversity of the birth of order through pain and suffering, and on the ambiguity of apparent tyranny. It suggests a historical determinism based on a progression from ferocity to culture under the firm hand of a unifying force. All this is bound up in the calligraphy of "sword," a character with many shades of meaning reflected in its depiction, and swordsmanship.
This scroll of Broken Sword's isn't about sword technique but about swordsmanship's ultimate ideal. Swordsmanship's first achievement is the unity of man and sword. Once this unity is attained even a blade of grass can be a weapon. The second achievement is when the sword exists in one's heart when absent from one's hand. One can strike an enemy at even with bare hands. Swordsmanship's ultimate achievement is the absence of the sword in both hand and heart. The swordsman is at peace with the rest of the world. He vows not to kill and to bring peace to mankind. Hero Script unofficial translation.
The message was not lost on viewers. Brian Marple perhaps got it right when he suggested: "Zhang’s movie fits the CCP script very neatly. It appropriates China’s history, its founding moment, the unification by the Emperor Qin, and uses that history to teach the very same lessons that CCP has taught: the need to give up individual claims (what we today call rights) for the sake of a great and powerful China under the rule of a strong leader (the CCP)." Brian Marple, Whose Story Does the Beautiful "Hero" Tell?, The Epoch Times, September 4, 2004.

And that was the essence of the Opening Ceremonies--its historical determinism, its strong sense of the importance of the individual whose work is bent to the collective, of unification and of the inevitable fruits of that unity and harmony--strength, power, influence, superiority--all under Heaven. By implication, the Opening Ceremonies pointedly emphasized the consequences of an absence of social harmony, erasing that period of Chinese history after the destruction of the Imperial state and before the rise of the modern Communist State in 1979. Indeed, one of the most remarkable parts of the Opening Ceremonies was the connection between the culture of the current regime and its Imperial and Confucian predecessors. The Chinese Communist Party appeared to be suggesting that they were the natural and only legitimate heirs to the Imperial governmental apparatus--and in place of the Imperial presence the collective in the form of the Chinese Communist Party. Brian Marple noted:

Like the Emperor Qin, Mao Zedong, upon winning the civil war against Chiang Kai Sheik, unified China. Mao was an open admirer of the Qin Emperor. In one poem, he wrote, “Please don’t slander Emperor Qin Shihuang, sir.” Mao praised the Emperor’s suppression of Confucianism. This often-hated emperor came to be seen as a symbol for the Communist Party. Since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, the Chinese Communist Party has used China’s state controlled media to make the claim that the Communist Party exists for the sake of a great and unified China. Love of China and love of the Party are conflated, and love of China is taught to be of supreme importance. This propaganda campaign has been an extraordinary success. Id.
In the West those objects are digested (along with the message) in an unquestioning way. The conflation of state and Party, already solid within Chinese constitutionalism principles is given a cultural and historical dimension. The movie "Hero", like the Opening Ceremonies, deepens the common knowledge of a unified China fulfilling its destiny under the firm tutelage of the "Party in Power." It reaffirms a cultural and historical legitimacy both to claims of territorial integrity and the position of the Chinese Communist Party in relation to the state apparatus. I have written about the constitutional dimension of this project. See Larry Catá Backer, The Rule of Law, the Chinese Communist Party, and Ideological Campaigns: Sange Daibiao (the 'Three Represents'), Socialist Rule of Law, and Modern Chinese Constitutionalism, Journal of Transnational Law and Contemporary Problems, Vol. 16, No. 1, 2006. Here is a much more powerful context in which these principles are naturalized--within frameworks of history and culture.

Law, culture, history, thus come together to naturalize the idea of China as a unitary state under the necessary leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. That leadership is grounded in principles of harmony, hierarchy and embraces all people in a common enterprise. The Opening Ceremonies did not have a singular or individual personality--it suggested, instead, a representation of collective personality. Thousands of people working together can produce an extraordinary and unified creation that transcends and elevates the individual in the service of something greater, but something that in turn reflects the greatness of the individuals who contribute to the collective effort in accordance with social rules of organization, harmony and order. And, in that way, China can evidence, in one creative stroke, a re-imagining of its collective self--under the leadership of the representative Party in Power--a self understanding of its place at the first rank of states and peoples. That evidences both the subtlety and brilliance of the self construction of the state (and its ethnos) in ways that other self constructing states--from the European Union to the United States, ought to pay careful and reverential attention.

One has to admire this effort. At just a time when the West has become fascinated with a cultural self loathing (in the name of truth, or factual accuracy or political progress, or the projection back of values, etc.) that manifests itself in the official expression of social, economic and political elites, the Chinese remind us that great states are constructed and maintained by the careful cultivation of a positive sense of self. Sure, there are extraordinary distances between a common aspirational sense of national identity and its realization. The Chinese Communist Party must still live up to its ideology if it means to survive, relations with non-Han minorities are quite imperfect, and the question of the autonomous regions remains problematic. See Larry Catá Backer, China: On the Problems of Unity and Solidarity of a Multi-Ethnic State, Law at the End of the Day, May 31, 2007. But there is also a great difference between political cultures based on a positive relation between aspiration and reality and one best characterized as defeatist and self loathing. While there is certainly more drama in the latter than the former, there is also a great deal of danger as well. It is far more likely that those states fail whose political culture is mired in loss, betrayal and a failure to reach the aspirational heights, whose socio-political reality is grounded on a project of backward projection of modern sensibilities to discredit the moral, ethical and political legitimacy of its own founders and their philosophy. These are states without self confidence, without a desire to continue. For them, other will not have to work hard to take from them their greatness, they will have torn that down themselves.

The Chinese have absorbed a lesson Westerners, and principally American and European elites, have found it fashionable to forget.
First, dominant society does not react well to rebellion. It is far easier to accept assimilated 'others' into the fold. . . than it is to recognize the 'others'' normative points of view. . . . But rejection of dominant group hegemony is also a challenge to that hegemony, even (especially) when the challenge originates within subordinated groups.
Larry Catá Backer, Pitied But Not Entitled: The Normative Limitations of Scholarship Advocating Change, 19(1) Western New England Law Review 59, 61-62 (1997). Western political intellectuals have become used to a self criticism that has sometimes morphed into self loathing. Don't get me wrong--there is nothing wrong with self criticism, or with the search for the "truth" of historical, social, cultural and political reality. But there is a distinction between such a search and a challenge which is meant to remake the polity--or tear it apart. Official culture has been tempted to institutional dialogs premised on "an acceptance of the notion that the socio-cultural norms on which dominant society is built must be destroyed or swept aside." Id., at 64-65. This may be intellectually honest, and refreshing, and might serve as a pragmatic expression of the deconstruction or reconstruction of a demos. However, as an institutionalized expression of the foundational self understanding of a state, it serves only as a means of institutional self destruction. The Chinese learned this the hard way--from the end of the Imperial period through the end of the Cultural Revolution. It was a hard and painful lesson. Perhaps it was intellectually stimulating, but I suspect most of the citizenry would have preferred less theory. The Chinese have reclaimed their past without a focus on the warts or a magnification of its potential for division. They have done this for the purpose of constructing a state that might even be able to lurch toward the attainment of its hortatory goals. That will be the difficulty for the Chinese, as it has been for the Americans since before the American Civil War. But to work toward this within a institutional framework that seeks to strengthen the ties among the individuals constituting the demos, by the creation of a shared positive mythology is a very different project than to seek deconstruction of the polity in the serve of some sort of higher truth. For Americans, that might be the most valuable lesson from the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Beijing.


My colleague S. Beth Farmer provided an excellent comment to this posting. Professor Farmer's comment follows:

The most interesting thing was how the great (truly spectacular) show interfaced with what I called the narrative of 100 years of humiliation. Humiliarion and subordination by Japan and the nationalists and the western invaders who imported the opium and took huge chunks of land, more than just the Concessions in Shanghai, in tribute and have been demeaning China for generations. This was the story line appearing recently in many TV movies and soaps, violent to western eyes, alongside my favorite romantic costume dramas and the 24-hour Beijing opera channel. Unlike America, where history is so yesterday, this sense of tragic history is not forgotten by the Chinese, it is treasured, taught and repeated in ways that serve to keep the historical lessons the state seeks to draw quite sharp, but also keeps the pain and resentment present. That projection forward of historical pain is a two edged sword, one that the government ought to consider carefully. For example, the intense nationalism of the students to the Olympic insults seemed partly naive and partly worrying, especially as more and more foreigners come to China. The movies kept playing, technicolor reminders of old hostilities, as the central government was negotiating with President Ma in Taiwan and exchanging state visits with Japan. Sometimes, it seemed on the edge of control - the angry blogs after the international torch protests turned into angry protests at Carrafour. It makes a point, but popular protests can sometimes get out of hand. I saw the same thing surrounding minority populations. There, the welcome narrative is affirmative action - how generous the central government has been with financial support and coveted places in university reserved especially for such groups. Those are, of course, perfectly worthy goals undertaken in some form or another by many states. Still, unless properly assimilated into the political culture of the masses, these programs and efforts can stoke resentment. That, certainly, has been the experience among some sectors of the American polity. So, yes, everybody described the Olympics as China's coming out party, their chance to take over center stage, but outside the Olympic venues, the state has a great task ahead of itself--to overcome its projection of the past forward, a past marked by defensiveness and historic sense of inferiority that appears to make China just a little bit dangerous, and to project itself forward on the basis of its current political, cultural and economic strengths.

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