A Tale of Two Cities
Not many people are going to watch the UK Olympic opening ceremony. Now, there’s been a lot of bad press leading up to the Olympics. Nobody really things that hosting the Olympics is a great thing. I don’t know what Sydney thinks about it, but in Greece, the Olympics has become one big sick joke. 2004 was a high point for Greece, because it was not only the year that they hosted the Olympics, but also the year they pulled off one of the greatest upsets in football history when they won the Euros. Now, the stadiums are in ruins, everybody knows that the government has overspent on the event, and a great financial crisis is about the befall that country.
Even Beijing, who was so keen to host it after it had lost the vote to Sydney for the 2000 Olympics (I even remember writing a Chinese essay in school about how those “western powers” were always undermining us Chinese) now has to contend with a lot of unused stadiums. That always makes you wonder if these big sporting events are growing out of control. Singapore also had something on a smaller level when it was hosting the youth Olympics.
When Beijing hosted the Olympics, it had decided to put out a great show. It was visually stunning, and they pulled out all the stops. The props, the scale of the events and the visual splendor was unlike anything people had ever seen. The preparations were brutal and meticulous. But there was a sense of unease about that ceremony, as though it were proclaiming not only China hosting the Olympics for the first time, but also its great arrival on the world stage, and claiming back what had been its historical right for the longest time – being the greatest empire on earth.
At the same time, its Olympic preparations were dented by a series of public relations disasters. There was the revelation that the little girl singing a song on one of the events was not the same one whose voice was used. People argued that that it crossed the line from showmanship into deceit. Steven Spielberg who was supposed to help direct the opening ceremony decided not to continue. Ai Weiwei who had helped to design the bird’s nest stadium later turned into a big dissident and one of the greatest pains in China’s ass. There were riots and self-immolations in Tibet. The Sichuan earthquake tragedy provided a lot of outpouring of sympathy for China but it was mixed with outrage at the corruption of officials that allowed substandard housing to be built for its people, and it raised some very uncomfortable questions about how a government found itself to be conducting disaster relief and preparing for the Olympics at the same time.
Because it’s really not easy to be a new big player on the world stage. People will look at you with apprehension, and they will wonder if you’re truly worthy to join the ranks of the great. China is going back to the old days of exhibiting some pretty unattractive traits of an imperial power. No, they will not join the ranks of Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia or the wanton destruction of the Mongol empire. But its fall from grace has been one of the most distasteful episodes of human history I’ve read. Widespread corruption everywhere, the nobility not giving a shit about their citizens. The Empress Dowager only too keen on holding on to power. The western powers selling opium in order to keep the Chinese drugged. Power plays. Gangsters. Wretched misery co-existing with the indifference of the elites. The imperial palace refusing to face up to the realities of the outside world. To the extent that trading with foreigners was made illegal at one point. I suppose the fact that our forefathers were some sort of outlaws is a nice thought – people from Guangdong, Fujian and other places who didn’t give a shit about what the central government thought.
But at the same time, between 1978, when Mao Zedong ran China into the ground once more like so many before him, and now, the pace of progress was astounding. Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore just gave people a small taste of what Asians were capable of. Now it was happening on a grander scale, and maybe twice as fast. Credit where credit is due: they were treading in our footsteps, but they will overtake us sooner or later. I heard that a lot of good things were done because of the Olympics, it forced Beijing to clean up, they even managed to clean up their air somewhat. There were plenty of renovations everywhere, and a lot of greenery was planted. So the Olympics was in its way undeniably great.
Great Britain was almost the polar opposite of Beijing. It didn’t exactly have the right to host the games. I remember the IOC meeting was held in Singapore, and Tony Blair visited. And although Paris was considered marginally the favourite, London got it, partially due to the great lobbying efforts of Tony Blair. Paris was considered to have better facilities than London. Well I have taken the tube, and I have taken the metro, and there is no contest – the metro is better run.
Later on it turned out that London had grossly underestimated their budget and it had to be revised upwards sharply. The Olympic mascots were pretty ugly, as were their logo. But when I heard that Danny Boyle was going to direct the opening ceremony, I had some hope. Danny Boyle was the movie director behind such films as “Trainspotting” and “Slumdog Millionaire”. His films were quite full of life and humanism, so I held out some hope that it would be a nice opening ceremony.
There was no way that Great Britain could ever match Beijing. There was an interesting symmetry between the two Olympics held four years apart. London was the capital of the greatest empire of them all, but that was all in the past. Beijing will regain its position as the greatest empire, but it will be in the future. I heard that Spanish and Italian football teams are quite popular in China, and that’s probably because those two countries, unlike Britain, were never implicated in the opium wars. But the thing about being a great power: Britain has been a great power before, and of the great powers, learnt how to conduct itself the best. I suppose there was a bit of humility there because Great Britain knows that it really wasn’t meant to be great. It’s not a big country, and it was probably one of the biggest freak accidents in history that it managed to be the seat of such a large empire. And when I say “the best”, it’s relative, because in a lot of incidents, they were like all other empires, behaving like assholes.
But they aren’t like the Americans or the Chinese: they seem genuinely open to other people, they seem to want to learn from other peoples’ cultures. They weren’t a land power, they were a sea power. And when they came across the idea of the leaders being servants of the people, or ideas of liberalism and democracy, these seem to be genuine intentions in making a better life for all. The British excelled in soft power. The football, the cricket, the rock music, the curry, the tea, the language, the Cinema, the common law. Not the food, mind.
This is not to disguise the brutal reality. Britain is fading power. It is possible that it will keep on fading even further. “Trainspotting” was a horrifying film about Edinburgh and its heroin addicts. There’s not much hope for its industries – they aren’t producing stuff that other people want to consume, except for cultural stuff. Everything’s been swallowed up by finance. They used to have the world’s best universities, but now maybe Oxford and Cambridge can be considered world class. Maybe the 90s were the last dying breath of its great cultural legacy. After that was one long painful series of Big Brother reality TV shows, premiership stars behaving badly, and mini-celebrities living in mortal fear of the paparazzi.
But the opening ceremony was a celebration of its former greatness. There was Mr Bean hamming it up during the “Chariots of Fire” number. There was James Bond and Queen Elizabeth jumping out of a helicopter. And there was the national health system – I think they put it there because they wanted to support Obama. They were a former great power, but they probably acted like your old uncle who used to be a gangster in his youth but mellowed to be this kindly old lovable rogue. There is a lot of richness in British culture, but there is also a lot of humility as well. There is a celebration of everyday life. More than that, they like to celebrate the middle class. It seems more autumnal. Or put it this way: they may have been a former empire, but they were behaving like a nation. They weren't trying to appeal to people who didn't know anything about Great Britain. They were just trying to be themselves as best they could. (To be frank, I enjoyed visiting England and Scotland more than I enjoyed visiting US, it’s just that the universities in US are better.)
So I’m thinking, China can be like that too one day, if it chooses. It can be a kindly power – and traditionally it was a kindly power. They never decimated the Indians the way the Americans and the Spanish did. They were happy and content to just extract a few tributes from the vassal states. But they were oh so insecure in their power. They just felt like they needed to build something grander that everybody else.
Look at Britain: they never built supergrand monuments. Look at the contrast between London and Washington DC. 10 Downing street is not a mansion like the White House: it’s an apartment. Buckingham Palace is grand, but it’s not the Forbidden palace. Piccadilly square is not Tiananmen. They didn’t have to overwhelm visitors with visions of splendor and grandeur. And they built a fabulous empire. I think deep down they knew they weren’t really meant to be a great power, and whatever greatness they had, it was meant to be fleeting, and that is why they just lived in the moment, content with being moderate. Don’t you think that China could learn a thing or two from them?
China are the Noveau Riche, but they will not stay that way forever. They'll have a lot to deal with, and sooner or later they will have to reckon with their own cultural identity. There is a great cultural heritage, no doubt, but they'll have to bring it into modern times. They'll have to ask themselves all the questions that all those other great cultures asked themselves. Chinese people are pretty average at learning: on one hand we have such a great and vast culture that nothing is truly foreign to us. On the other hand we're pretty insular and resistant to learning from other people. We'll have to learn how to be as creative as these westerners. We'll have to create characters which are as instantly recognisable and likeable as Mr Bean, Simon Rattle
So that’s the thing, Singapore – the two empires who have influenced you the most. Which one do you look up to?