Thursday, February 12, 2009

Living Abroad Matters 15 - China's Spectacle

Beautiful idealism, ugly reality
When Liu Qi said simply “Friends, Beijing welcomes you” it was clear that the 29th Olympic Games in China is about a bigger issue than sport. It’s about humans rising to their potential for goodness. It’s about a shared desire for lasting world peace.

Andrew and I joined a quiet, well behaved crowd gathered in Trafalgar Square to watch the Opening Ceremony on a Big Screen set against the imposing monument of Nelson’s Column, with red buses rumbling in the distance. The gentle peeling of the bells of St Martin’s wafted through the subdued overcast sky.

The ceremony started at precisely 1 pm London time, being 8 pm in the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing keeping with the Number Eight theme of such significance to the Chinese. The spectacle lasted exactly four hours. For us, it was four hours sitting dumb stuck and numb-bummed on a concrete step.

For 91,000 spectators and four billion viewers worldwide, 14,000 Chinese performers and countless thousands behind the scenes staged a show of incandescent beauty and epic proportions; a riot of colour, pageantry and invention.

The Chinese led the world on a magical mystery tour of Chinese history beginning 4000 years ago with the age of Confucius. 3000 solemn men wearing flowing robes and pointy headgear carrying bamboo slips celebrated learning and the printed word.

Ancient Chinese civilisation invented the printing press in 1041; something I am personally grateful for! An undulating mosaic of rising and falling blocks operated by thousands of joyful boys who had rehearsed for a year eventually formed the Chinese character ‘He’ meaning Harmony.

While 29 footprints of fireworks stomped across the sky to represent the total number of Olympics Games, thousands of tiny lights came together to form the Olympic rings which lifted into the air.

The Silk Road was unfurled representing the ancient trading route when caravans of traders set out across the mountains to engage with the rest of the world before China became isolated behind the Great Wall.

A performance of the venerated Kunqu Opera saw musicians rise on 32 ornate red pillars while hundreds of women dressed in the elaborate costumes of the Tang dynasty danced beneath them.

As the show moved into the modern age, dancers formed a dove followed by a mass display of martial arts including 2008 Tai Chi performers. Then figures in sleek suits suspended on wires ran gracefully around a beautiful illuminated globe highlighting the theme One World One Dream.

A child chasing a kite flew through the air. School children painted a mural and chanted a poem. A famous Chinese pianist and little girl played a grand piano. Opera star Sarah Brightman and Chinese singer Liu Huan trilled the Games anthem You and Me in English and Chinese.

Children in traditional costumes representing the 56 ethnic groups of China paraded before a scroll unfurled to form a giant screen showing stunning images of China’s history.

The Chinese flag was carried by giant 7 foot 6 inch basketball player, Yao Ming holding the hand of tiny Lin Hao, a nine year old earthquake survivor.

It was a stirring display of unity between diverse groups within China, between China and the rest of the world, between all races, all ages, all shapes and sizes. Humanity was united in peace and harmony, if only for this idealistic moment.

By the time the athletes’ parade started, the Trafalgar Square crowd knew we were in for the long haul as teams from 204 countries filed past, waving and beaming and wielding mobiles and cameras. Andrew and I waited and waited for the Australian team then finally the straggly bunch of grinning Aussies in cool aqua outfits poured in just before the imposing Chinese athletes marched around the stadium.

Huddles of young Chinese ex-pats in London at first cheered politely but couldn’t restrain their pride at being in the world spotlight and burst into exuberant chanting, waving red and yellow flags.

For me, the highlight was witnessing former champion gymnast Li Ning hoisted into the air to run the final lap carrying the Olympic torch, through the night sky; his ascension symbolising the human potential to be elevated beyond the mundane and find heaven.

Big hot tears rolled out of my eyes and down my cheeks as this powerful figure strode through the air with torch aloft, after it had travelled 85,000 miles, passed from hand to hand around the planet. And then he lit the fuse which ignited a massive torch of fire.

The 11,000 athletes who will compete during the Games represent the pinnacle of achievement and self-transformation and give us all hope. Displays of human excellence also serve as a glossy cover for the terrible atrocities and depths of cruelty and depravity to which humans can sink.

In their glorified history show, the Chinese conveniently omitted the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. In their book, Mao, the Unknown Story, authors Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, after 14 years of research, conclude that Chairman Mao was a mass murderer on the scale of Hitler and Stalin. In that decade three million people were tortured and killed and many more millions died of famine. 6000 Tibetan monasteries were destroyed and peace-loving Buddhist monks continue to be persecuted.

In 1989 the world watched army tanks remorselessly crush and murder 5000 teenage students staging a peaceful demonstration in Tiananmen Square. In that same tragic square, ordinary Beijing citizens were not permitted to gather to watch the Opening Ceremony on Big Screens, such is the Communist regime’s mistrust and control of its own people.

Our good friends, Glenda and Gerard are dedicated activists working for human rights by publicising the atrocities of the repressive Chinese regime which imprisons, tortures and murders countless thousand Falun Gong practitioners, Christians, Muslins and other dissidents. Their only crime is holding different beliefs from the atheist state.

While China is admired as an economic power, in factories, sweat shops and labour camps, frail men, women and children hunch over machines for long harrowing hours in appalling conditions for low pay to churn out cheap clothes and consumer goods for the rapacious and insatiable markets of the West, dining out on throw-away obsolescence.

After the tragic earthquake in the Sichuan province in May that left 69,000 dead, 18,000 missing and 4.8 million people injured and homeless, grief-stricken parents have been arrested for daring to question the poor standards of school buildings that killed their children.

Meanwhile one of the 21st century’s greatest warmongers, President Bush sat smugly in the stadium, strangely incongruous, watching the Chinese spectacle celebrating the ideal of world peace. While the American government covers up the figures, the death toll from their invasion of Iraq has reached one million and thousands of children are left maimed and disabled from US bombs. Bush’s mega rich buddies are enjoying the spoils from the sale of weapons, rebuilding contracts and of course, oil.

This is the hidden underbelly of human life; the ugly flip side of the beautiful pageantry and potential for human greatness. Humanity lurches between two extremes. Real healing for individuals and societies will only happen when we break through pretence and deception and face the painful realities along with idealism and bring together the two parts of the split human psyche; the good and the bad.

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