What have the Olympic Games done to affect the world’s discussions about China? Perhaps, very little. Instead of delving into the diversity and complexity of “China,” journalists focused on sports, especially the journalists’ home team. Cultural reporting, too, reflected the journalists’ national identities.
John Burns, a veteran foreign correspondent for The New York Times remembers today his experience running a route similar to Beijing’s Olympic marathon as the only foreign runner in 1973. He left China for the last time in 1986, as he notes, “when my second posting there for The New York Times ended with imprisonment and deportation on charges of using a motorcycle trip across the Chinese heartland as a cover for spying on the country’s missile program.”
Burns had expected to see more coverage of the type of things we saw covered during the Olympic Torch Relay. Dissidents, unrest in Tibet, the situation in Xinjiang, and the challenge of clearing the Olympic air. But he notes that the coverage he’s seen has been quite different.
In condemning the West, [Mao] said, the Chinese should be careful to distinguish between the “handful of capitalists and imperialists” who made it what it was, and the ordinary people, who were China’s friends.
It’s a dictum that can serve us, too. Whatever propaganda gains the current Chinese leadership may have sought from their multibillion-dollar Olympic extravaganza, one thing that has been beyond stage-management has been the joy and pride of ordinary Chinese that have permeated the images from Beijing, speaking more powerfully than any propaganda could of the happiness that three decades of growing prosperity have brought to a people repressed by Mao.
The key to this passage is his qualification that this joy and pride has “permeated the images from Beijing.” This implies something he doesn’t discuss: whatever exists that isn’t shown on camera, or quoted by foreign journalists.
Those journalists are unlikely to elicit completely honest opinions from the Chinese people they interview. It’s difficult to get honest comments from anyone anywhere as a journalist. People may offer opinions they haven’t thought through in an effort to appear more confident and knowledgeable than they actually are. And in China, people who have negative or unenthusiastic thoughts about the government are naturally cautious when speaking to journalists, foreign or domestic. (Nevermind the challenge of speaking frankly with someone through a translator neither of you knows well.)
I share Burns’ impression of the most-watched media during the Olympics—and I had the opportunity to watch coverage in Italy, England, and the United States. TV reports have focused on athletics and visits in Beijing ranging from slightly scripted to completely staged.
One morning, I watched with a sustained cringe as NBC’s Today Show cast interacted with “China.” Al Roker’s less than stellar performance in a segment where he began to learn Mandarin was produced with goofy music and colored by a sentiment of, “Boy, these Chinese are tough to understand!” But their bungling through Chinese culture also kept the positive, wholesome American tone of the Today Show’s normal broadcasts.
Similarly, one evening surrounding the opening ceremonies I watched on Italian TV as a singer from southern Italy who had apparently toured extensively in China interacted with shopkeepers. My initial thought was that this particular fellow was a bit brash, but in the opinion of the friend sitting next to me, his behavior was typical of Italians traveling abroad. The commentary, which I caught through some translations by my friend and some Spanish-based comprehension, was centered on the experience of being a disoriented Italian. Like the Today Show, this segment came off as warm toward China, but taught us little about Chinese people—except that one interviewee was visibly uncomfortable when the singer joked that corruption in China’s government and that under Italian President Silvio Berlusconi might have something in common.
Rather than take the opportunity to attack the difficult task of learning about China and hearing the way Chinese people view a great many things, television gave us good-hearted bumbling travel journalism. Anchors were gleefully confused, ignorantly polite (bowing is habitual in Japan, but can look out of place in China), and faux-adventurous (eating “exotic” snacks I’ve never seen outside tourist enclaves).
There remain a multitude of unheard opinions. The admiration of China’s history sought after by the opening ceremony and reinforced by neophyte reporters serves only to reinforce a narrative that had taken hold even before China was selected for the Olympics: China continues to rise as a world power in the post-Cold War era. In the political and social minds of North American and European TV viewers, for better or for worse, very little is likely to have changed.