I watched the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics last night, and I must admit they were visually stunning. The artistic theme celebrated the endless wonder that is Chinese culture, and it served notice on the world that China is a power on the world stage.

Some of the images were truly unforgettable. I was personally thrilled to see the celebration of Zheng He, the Ming Dynasty eunuch admiral whose treasure fleets sailed as fair as South Africa, and quite possibly the New World, if Gavin Menzies' theories stand up to scrutiny. Indeed, I agree with Menzies that Columbus' voyages used maps and data collected on Zheng He's journeys.

The lighting of the Olympic cauldron was over the top, and yet somehow remained equally impressive and almost tasteful. Sending a man hundreds of feet in the air, on wires, to run the circuit of the stadium like a bicycling Superman somehow worked.

Of course too there were fireworks. After all, this was China.

The ceremonies celebrated Chinese martial arts, music, art, architecture and all of the achievements of the only first-generation civilization of antiquity to survive, continuously, to this day. If you don't believe in the staying power of China, ask a Sumerian.

Yet for all the splendor of the ceremonies, there were elements that were disturbing, almost bloodcurdling. The display of 2008 drummers, playing in unison, was impressive, but despite the smiles ordered on the musicians' faces, calculated to intimidate.

Another image that I found beautiful in appearance but somewhat upsetting was the giant ball that turned into a globe. Acrobats, again on wires ran about the globe and eventually flew off spectacularly.

High atop atop Sara Brightman and Chinese singer Liu Huan, performing a duet. The images were incredible, and the song beautiful.

So what was wrong?

The people were completely overwhelmed Brightman and Liu were tiny figures on a stage so enormous that it diminished them. Similarly, the acrobats were little more than dark silhouettes against the Earth-shaped lantern.

That was symptomatic of recurring theme of the ceremonies: Masses of people dressed and made up to look identical, doing identical things, often subordinated to the mammoth stage sets around them. It was the victory of the collective over the individual at ever turn.

Or one might ask, what individual?

Finally, there was a military intrusion that was wholly inappropriate. No matter how sharp the creases in their pants or how shiny their boots might be, goose-stepping soldiers have no place in a celebration of international brotherhood. Especially jarring was the moment in which fifty-six children, each representing one of China's distinct ethnic groups, delivered the flag to the People's Liberation Army storm troopers. NBC, in its apparent determination to either suck up or brown nose the Chinese Communists (the only difference is depth perception), parroted the official line that it was a symbol that the soldiers were the guardians of the children's future safety.

In this case don't ask a Sumerian, ask a Tibetan.

I was revolted by this militaristic intrusion, and images of 1936 came to mind. The goosestepping is best left to those who guard Chairman Mao's wretched corpse.

Thankfully, the best moment came courtesy of a Chinese. Yao Ming carried the flag for his country's team, accompanied by a small boy who survived the collapse of his school in the Sichuan earthquake. This little boy lost twenty out of thirty classmates but, though injured himself, went back to the school to help dig out two of his friends. That kind of courage earns my respect any day of the week, and he is a little hero fully deserving of that honor.

Significantly, it was the only real acknowledgment of an individual over the collective throughout the ceremonies.

So I am left with distinctly mixed impressions. In visual terms, the ceremonies were a show that went beyond the mundane term of spectacular. They were also an effective statement of Chinese culture in all of its glory.

Yet there is a caution embodied in them as well. The disregard for the individual and the glorification of the group, all marching in the same direction, is antithetical to democratic ideals and those of freedom. Then again, the Chinese Communists reject the first, and use the second mainly to create a financially healthy environment and not much else. Liberty is a limited tool that regime, never an end to itself.

Additionally, one cannot shake the intimidation factor. The drummers were there to serve notice, and the honor guard was as obviously inappropriate as a swastika in a grade school Christmas pageant.

My admiration for Chinese history and culture certainly survived watching the ceremonies. Then again, so did my distrust and dislike of the tyrants who currently rule that country.

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Comment by Jim Werbaneth on August 17, 2008 at 11:18am
I agree that the caste system is alive and well, and likely to hold India back.

I'm going to start teaching this week, college freshmen and sophomores mainly, so I'll have a better idea in a few weeks than I do now of how well they're prepared for college.
Comment by Jon Compton on August 17, 2008 at 8:50am
During my years in the IT arena I worked with many Indian immigrants and work-visa holders. I found them to be hard working, and more importantly to have a tremendous work ethic combined with great integrity. But there is one thing I also discovered. Despite all claims to the contrary, the caste system is alive and well in their consciousness. This was quite evident in the way they treated each other. The fact is that I do not believe that India can aspire to super-power status either until that system is expunged from their cultural consciousness, and frankly that's a tall order. That said, I agree that India may be better suited systemically than China over the long term. I also firmly believe the the US has no chance if it doesn't get its act together educationally. My wife, since leaving politics, has been teaching elementary school in the public system, and the stories she brings home regarding the competence of education practitioners would deprive you of all hope for our future.
Comment by Jim Werbaneth on August 16, 2008 at 12:53pm
What genocide? What atrocity? We didn't see nuthin.'

China's involvement in Sudan is definitely a disgrace, and an example of a country where no one else will do business, for a reason. Its general penetration of Africa is likewise something for which we should all be concerned, and that includes the Africans too.

I see your point too about cheating in international sports. It reveals a huge inferiority complex, and we've been down this road before with the USSR and East Germany.

I think too many people consider China's dominance of the twenty-first century to be inevitable, and it's not. Too many things are liable to go wrong, and it's already started. The country is overly burdened by graft and corruption, environmental problems, and above all, I see the population bomb as its biggest long-term obstacle. Only it's not the obstacle that they expected; China has an aging population, and the one-child per family rule makes it harder to produce the younger workers necessary to support them. I see this as China's greatest impending crisis, and the one thing that will hold them back from superpower status.

If I were going to pick one country with the best ability to rise, and cope with crises, it's going to be India. Nothing is inevitable, but I think that India is on a much better track.
Comment by Jon Compton on August 16, 2008 at 9:21am
My wife has been watching the gymnastics and also been doing some research on the gymnasts. There is a minimum age requirement of 16 to participate. My understanding is that girls younger than this are at an unfair advantage because they are more limber due to their stage of physical development. Apparently several of the female Chinese gymnasts we only 13 or 14 at last year's world competition, yet somehow managed to ages 3 years since, and showed up at the games with passports saying that their age is 16.

I haven't researched any of this myself so I can't verify the veracity of any of these claims, but one thing is certain. If a country feels it has to cheat to compete at this level, it's a third rate power indeed.

Recently one of the networks broadcast a special presentation on China and its role international trade (the name escapes me, perhaps The Rise of China?). Don't know if any of you happened to catch it, but it was quite good I thought. The take away was that China is investing heavily in infrastructure in countries where the West won't do business. Furthermore, it's building this infrastructure in trade for access to resources such as oil, and conditioning the loans on the condition that 70% of the work is done by Chinese firms. Otherwise, there are no strings attached, unlike the World Bank, etc. which imposes multiple reform conditions to any loan, then frequently sits by and watches the loan be misappropriated and conditions be unmet.

China does business with no concern for the stability of the international market. I seeks economic hegemony while washing its hands of hegemonic responsibility. The inevitability of a rising China is taken as a given in most places. Yet is the world really going to be a better place if its main economic power is unconcerned with any form of human rights, and regards every genocide and atrocity as an "internal matter?"
Comment by Chuang Shyue Chou on August 15, 2008 at 9:06pm
It is by no means a broad-based cross section but it is reflective in some aspects, do watch it.
Comment by Chuang Shyue Chou on August 15, 2008 at 9:04pm
I would like to recommend 'Mad about English', a 2008 documentary as it opens a window to the psyche and hopes of many common Chinese in Beijing. It's quite entertaining. I am not too sure if you can find it where you are but I think it is worth a watch.

http://www.asiaing.com/mad-about-english-2008.html
Comment by andy malcolm on August 11, 2008 at 12:02am
Russia is protecting their interests, how is it different to the US / UK being in Iraq? I don't condone what they are doing, but comparing them to the Nazis is a little odd.
Comment by Greg Blanchett on August 10, 2008 at 11:32pm
No matter how you slice it, it is still Communism...

Looks like we also have to watch Russia... as it looks like they're taking a page out of Hitler's book as well.
Comment by Jim Werbaneth on August 10, 2008 at 12:15pm
Very well said Bob, and I agree completely.
Comment by Jim Werbaneth on August 10, 2008 at 12:13pm
Of course it'll be raining, Posh Spice will be the torch lighter, and she'll complain that her toes are wet.

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