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Watching the London Olympics in Beijing

The piece was published earlier on Foreign Policy.

BEIJING — The opening ceremony of the London Olympics aired at 4 a.m. Saturday morning Beijing time. Despite the early hour, more than 100 million Chinese stayed up to watch the show, including Xu Jicheng, a journalist who previously worked as deputy director of media operations for Beijing’s Olympic organizing committee.

Xu, a senior Xinhua reporter, said that it’s difficult to compare opening ceremonies, but he was obviously proud of China’s achievement. “Our system can mobilize social resources and power almost immediately,” he told me. “The Chinese have become ever more confident in themselves and think they can pull off whatever foreigners can do.”

Yes, China can mobilize better than any country in the world. In the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Chinese leaders spent close to $2 billion just on building and refurbishing stadiums, expanded its subway system from 25 to 124 miles, and built a state-of-the-art airport terminal. But they also rounded up dissidents, manipulated the weather by shootingsilver iodide into the sky, and drove out migrants, homeless people, and sex workers to minimize social discontent and maintain a presentable harmony.

Beijing’s opening ceremony was a masterpiece of cohesion: Almost 200,000 people, mostly students and People’s Liberation Army soldiers, trained together for months so that their actions would be perfectly synchronous. To showcase the Chinese invention of movable-type printing, more than 1,600 soldiers practiced more than 10 hours a day inside 897 tiny movable-type blocks — for nine months. Chinese film director Zhang Yimou, who directed the opening ceremony, told a Chinese newspaper that he joked with his performers that only North Koreans could have put on a more uniform show.

That comment hit too close to home; one wag suggested that Zhang had borrowed the entire ceremony from the totalitarian North Koreans. But the uncomfortable reality behind the joke is even more resonant in China today, a feeling compounded by what London accomplished with its opening ceremony. In an interview on July 29, Jiang Xiaoyu, former executive vice president of Beijing’s Olympic organizing committee and now vice chairman of the Beijing Olympic City Development Association, called the 2008 Beijing Games and the opening ceremony “flawlessly organized.”

After seeing the London opening ceremony, however, many now feel Beijing’s performance, while technically impressive, lacked soul. “Zhang’s performance emphasized a collective spirit, and he wanted it to be vigorous and stunning,” said Dong Wenwen, a Chengdu-based writer, adding that she preferred the London opening ceremony because “it was more sincere.” The performance, which featured scenes from the Industrial Revolution, Peter Pan’s Neverland, and cameos from James Bond and Queen Elizabeth, drew praise for its modest but confident portrait of Britain. “It was an extremely creative performance,” said Liu Dongfeng, a professor of economics at Shanghai Sports University.

Surprisingly, the most popular segment of the London opening ceremony for Chinese people seemed to be when 300 hospital beds appeared on stage to celebrate Britain’s National Health Service (NHS). “The Beijing ceremony is completely beaten when you see that every citizen there has public health service,” wrote a Weibo user named Fangfangdou. “The creative ceremony showed Danny Boyle’s humanitarian care for society. Especially the NHS part, the doctors, nurses, and children are all from the Great Ormond Street Hospital. Even the patients are real,” tweeted Zhang Lifen, editor in chief of, a message that was reposted more than 1,000 times.

“I’m afraid only a great nation dares to show their public health system onto the Olympic stage. It should all of a sudden make some so-called ‘great nation’ ashamed of themselves,” commented another user named GoodDadZheng.

In what seems unlikely to have been a coincidence, the day after London’s opening ceremony, Chinese Health Minister Chen Zhu announced to journalists that 96 percent of the populationnow enjoys “basic health care.” Commentators ridiculed Chen, pointing to rising medical costs, corrupt doctors, and the threadbare nature of Chinese medical coverage. “The majority of the government’s health budget … goes to the welfare of civil servants, out of tune with the reality in which people find it hard to see and afford a doctor. [The government] is just playing with the numbers,” commented an opinion piece on the second-tier city of Wuxi’s news portal.

Jiang, who formerly ran Beijing’s propaganda department, carefully avoided comparing the London and Beijing games. “China’s political system has its own merits. It allows the government to concentrate power to stage the event, maximizing people’s support to the Olympics” he said. But it also means that it showcased China, and not its citizens. “Looking back at the Beijing Games, you no longer feel proud when you get to know more [about what really happened in China over the last four years],” said a Weibo user named Tuoni. “It’s just the great party staged a globally lavish PR event and has nothing to do with its people.”

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