2008 Beijing Olympic Games
Posted by Joel Martinsen on Sunday, February 17, 2008 at 8:07 PM
Buddies, once upon a time.
Steven Spielberg's announcement of his withdrawal from the Beijing Olympics has had time to settle in — and to garner a response from China's foreign ministry, which on Friday expressed "regret" over the director's decision.
In the meantime, there have been a number of interesting reactions in English-language blogs and the mainstream western press, which Imagethief has pulled together alongside his own analysis. Bob Chen at Global Voices rounds up some of the reactions by Chinese internet users, concluding:
Below are translations of three additional blog posts, from Rose Luqiu, Han Song, and Wang Xiaoyu.
From Phoenix TV journalist Rose Luqiu, a call for a measured, informed reaction and mutual understanding:
Thoughts on Spielbergby Rose Luqiu
At an event at the end of 2006, I had to opportunity to exchange a few words with Steven Spielberg, flanked by bodyguards. The question we asked was how he felt about the Beijing Olympics. When he saw that we were Chinese, he immediately became excited and said that he was looking forward to coming to China.
To this day I still believe that Spielberg has a yearning toward China, perhaps because of the appeal of culture, or perhaps because of business elements — after all, aside from his identity as a director, he is also a businessman. It's just that in an increasingly politically correct America, none of this is as important as his reputation.
The American actress Mia Farrow has tirelessly criticized Spielberg over the past year, calling his assistance in the Beijing Olympics as tantamount to indulging the Sudan government's ethnic cleansing policies, and she compared him to the German director Leni Riefenstahl. This German actress, director, and producer, who passed away in 2003, came under controversy following the Second World War because of her two most famous works: the Nazi propaganda film The Triumph of Will and the Berlin Olympics documentary Olympia. Whatever else they are, those two films' aesthetic and technical achievements had an enormous influence on later films. Such a comparison and accusation would be unacceptable to Spielberg, who is Jewish. And the respect that Spielberg commands is as much from works of tragic humanitarianism, like Schindler's List, as it is from the commercial movies he has shot. He himself established a foundation to educate young people in the memory of the Holocaust.
Turning to Mia Farrow, a UN Goodwill Ambassador who has focused her attention on humanitarian aid work and most recently the Darfur issue: she has sent up a website which displays photos and writings about her visits with refugees in Sudan, Darfur, and Chad. In her latest essay, she criticizes US President Bush for planning to attend the Beijing Olympics.
Hollywood has always been a bastion of the American left — "left" implying anti-establishment. In the 1950s, under McCarthyism, Hollywood was a disaster zone. Our old friend Charlie Chaplin was one of those persecuted at the time, and to this day Hollywood continues to produce works with anti-establishment themes, from George Clooney's Syriana, which exposed the countless mistakes the Bush administration made in its Middle East policies, to the recent Lions for Lambs, which also reflects on the government's military policies and has Tom Cruise as producer and lead actor. And it is because of these values that the actions of people like Mia Farrow and Spielberg should come as no surprise.
Except for the fact that this approach — laying the responsibility for improving the situation in Darfur onto the Chinese government — is unfair and unrealistic. The source of Darfur's problems lies in the 1960s. At that time, because of the arid climate, Arab nomads moved into central and southern Darfur in large numbers in search of water and grasslands, leading to conflicts with the local black farmers. The anti-government armed forces in Darfur claimed that they were protecting the locals from slaughter at the hands of Arab militias. Under such circumstances, improving the people's livelihood is the key to resolving the local conflict, and this is one of the problems facing the international community: which is better, aid or sanctions?
More than a year ago, individuals and civic organizations in the US launched protests against US companies that had investments in Sudan, and as a result, the majority of US-financed companies left. Stock god Warren Buffett came under fire because of his holdings in PetroChina, and his response at the time was that there are many ways to assist a country, investment being one of them. Last year, however, he substantially reduced his holdings. It is unknown whether this was because he could longer endure criticisms of being politically incorrect; he denied that it had anything to do with Darfur.
The voices that use the Olympics to demand that China take on more responsibility for Darfur have not slackened and will not let up in the future — they've now reached a climax because of Spielberg's name-recognition. Next, there will be even more voices with even higher demands. Looking at things this way, as a difference in mentalities, if we behave ideally then there is no need for an overly drastic reaction, no reason to put this on the level of an insult to the feelings of the Chinese people. Ultimately, people understand a given issue in different ways, and thus they have different ideas of how to resolve it. Ignorance and prejudice may lead to misunderstandings.
We ask them to understand us, so we ought to try understanding where they are coming from. We should carry doing what it is we have correct, and if there are things that could be improved, then we should do our best to improve them.
As for "Team Darfur," even though many well-known athletes have signed on, many athletes have openly declared that they will not do so at the Beijing Olympics. During the US-Soviet Cold War, athletes were sacrificed to politics. Politicians today understand that standing up today to boycott the Olympics is not the smartest approach. So what we hear now are only the voices of individuals and non-governmental organizations. At any rate, everyone is aware that a single Olympics cannot solve all of the world's problems.
From Xinhua journalist and science fiction writer Han Song, a condemnation of knee-jerk nationalism:
Spielberg Sparks a Patriotic Movement in Chinaby Han Song
To us, the Spielberg affair is science fiction news. Why science fiction? We are science fiction writers, and we don't do politics or sports. Even though Darfur, or whatever, is involved, doesn't it still seem like SF news? Think about it for a bit. Have you seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind? ET? A.I.? War of the Worlds? Spielberg once said that science fiction needs feelings. It's a sure bet that the members of the Olympic Committee have neither seen nor heard of this idea; otherwise, they may have acted differently with Mr. S, and things would be different now.
Last night, talking to a friend about Spielberg, I felt that it's a shame how things turned out. When Mr. S first accepted the job to do the Olympics, it must have been on friendly terms. But presented with such a great opportunity, how was it that were we unable to bring him over to our "united front"? Winning over Spielberg, I think, should have been easier than doing the same with someone like Bush or Merkel. But unfortunately, our United Front departments do not value science fiction (this includes SARFT). We believe that science fiction is something you give to kids, and for this reason the United Front departments most likely treated Spielberg like a kid from the very first. I have previously brought up the idea that Beijing is very SFnal, that the Beijing Olympics ought to be the SF Olympics, but no one listened. If they had, the Spielberg affair wouldn't have ended up like this. China's SF community feels disgraced and has started the self-examination process.
But the country's citizens feel no shame, and they will not engage in self-examination; rather, this affair will launch a patriotic movement to condemn Spielberg while proudly claiming that the Beijing Olympics will go on just the same with or without him. They'll even complain about the foreign ministry's few words on the subject — they're only increasing his visibility! Why should our grand nation of China care one whit for the comings and goings of a lowly artist? Scram, spiel-bork. Put this squeal-bark on the blacklist! (See, even before the Olympics we've accomplished the goal of unifying the populace!) The Times of London noticed that only one newspaper, the Global Times, reported Spielberg's withdrawal. The Global Times article quoted comments from anonymous netizens: "Who do you think you are?" "The Earth will continue to rotate even without you." "You're really just taking advantage of this for self-promotion." (This is the standard behavior of the Global Times.)
So what sort of man in Spielberg, really? An Oscar-winner, an internationally-famous director, a public-opinion leader (early on we warned that working with opinion leaders in the west would play an important role in Olympic planning), and to a certain degree his influence exceeds even that of the US president. If you enter the English words "Spielberg Olympics China" into Google, you come up with 158,000 results. The top headline in the mainstream media across the world concerns the news of the withdrawal of this "lowly artist"; without Spielberg, the Earth would rotate somewhat differently (this would be obvious to aliens, although the Chinese United Front departments would be utterly in the dark). Maybe this is the difference between China and the rest of the world. I'll venture to guess that this is one of the reasons that Spielberg got away (in passing, let me mention that from the first, the members of the Olympics Committee had no idea he was thinking, just as they have no idea of what other foreigners are thinking. However, they do not deign to listen and find out). But all of them have now shut their mouths on this topic and simply go about their business, like this heroic scrap of doggerel: A single drop means nothing to the vast and boundless sea, / A bull can shed its coat without a care. / That fool director exits from the Bird's Nest jubilee: / What a pity Mr. Spielberg won't be there. (I slay me.)
And columnist Wang Xiaoyu takes aim at Zhang Yimou and the establishment:
At Least Spielberg's no Zhang YimouWang Xiaoyu
I've always enjoyed watching Foreign Ministry press conferences, because they often reveal a few secrets that everyone in the world already knows. For example, on Valentine's Day, China expressed its regret over Steven Spielberg's withdrawal from his position as artistic consultant for the Bejing Olympics, and from the reporters' questions, we learned that this was because of the Sudan issue. On the Darfur question, China has always exhibited the standard behavior of a red country, and it has come under vicious attack from not only Spielberg but from a handful of Nobel Peace Price laureates as well. Zhang Yimou, the director of the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies, has frequently been called "China's Spielberg," but this designation is evidently a false analogy on the part of some of our countrymen. Spielberg's most recent actions demonstrate that he is no comrade of Zhang's. Nobel laureate Imre Kertész called Spielberg's Schindler's List a popular fairy tale and said that the appearance in color of a triumphant crowd of people at the conclusion of that black-and-white film implied that humanism had emerged unscathed from Auschwitz, and that such an assumption simplifies the multi-faceted nature of the Holocaust. But compared with the red tail of Not One Less, or the "whole nation a sea of red" of Hero, Schindler's List is merely an amateur.
In my opinion, it is more appropriate to call Zhang Yimou "China's Riefenstahl," after the director whose contributions to the 1936 Berlin Olympics are unforgettable. Some in the Chinese media hope that the 2008 Beijing Olympics will be like the 1988 Seoul Games and push forward democratic transitions, but I feel that they would be as the 1980 Moscow Games: let the reactionary, corrupt, and decadent capitalist countries voluntarily withdraw—the Soviet revisionists, too. Then we'd certainly have absolute superiority, and we'd rank first in the gold, silver, and bronze medal counts. Previously, Mia Farrow (Hollywood actress and Woody Allen's ex-wife), a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Children's Fund (Kuroyanagi Tetsuko, author of Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window, previously held this position), warned Spielberg that he could become the Leni Riefenstahl of the Beijing Olympics. Perhaps those words got to him, but the resolute Zhang Yimou will not be moved. With Hero as his entry-card, he finally proved that he has a red heart inclined toward the sun. The organization placed him in an important position, and no matter what happens, he will not betray the trust of the organization in that key capacity. Of course, we cannot rule out that several years from now he may change his form again and shoot another movie like To Live. Riefenstahl lived to be 101; Zhang Yimou is like the minister of culture in The Lives of Others, always smartly dressed no matter the occasion. When To Live becomes the official mainstream, Zhang could shoot To Live or To Die several times over with no effort at all. The people have poor memories, so they would praise it again and again. Zhang collected capital through Hero, and the price he paid for this — criticism from the intellectual set — was negligible. We all thought Zhang was an idiot, but as a matter of fact he saw things clearly long ago. Wang Shuo once seriously suggested that Zhang Yimou should become vice minister at SARFT once he finishes with the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies. That's no joke: it's a wise use of the man's talent.
I am not entirely certain who is among that handful of Nobel laureates; reportedly the list includes Desmond Tutu and Elie Wiesel. Tutu's No Future Without Forgiveness (translation: Shanghai Literature and Arts Press, 2002), and Wiesel's A Jew Today (translation: Writer's Publishing House, 1998), are works that deserve to be targeted for criticism. I advise the central authorities to launch a campaign to criticise Spielberg, Tutu, and Wiesel, like the one against Antonioni. To facilitate this, I recommend that they quickly organize crack troops to translate Tutu's and Wiesel's works so that the people can have their eyes opened. A PhD student at Renmin University who is relatively familiar with international affairs told Singapore's Lianhe Zaobao that he has frequently heard the name Darfur in the news, but he is not at all clear what the situation there has to do with China, or why people want to boycott the Beijing Olympics over this: "It's truly mystifying." This PhD student is full proof that our higher education system is completely successful. Congratulations.
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The Eurasian Face : Blacksmith Books, a publishing house in Hong Kong, is behind The Eurasian Face, a collection of photographs by Kirsteen Zimmern. Below is an excerpt from the series:
Big in China: An adapted excerpt from Big In China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising A Family, Playing The Blues and Becoming A Star in China, just published this month. Author Alan Paul tells the story of arriving in Beijing as a trailing spouse, starting a blues band, raising kids and trying to make sense of China.
Pallavi Aiyar's Chinese Whiskers: Pallavi Aiyar's first novel, Chinese Whiskers, a modern fable set in contemporary Beijing, will be published in January 2011. Aiyar currently lives in Brussels where she writes about Europe for the Business Standard. Below she gives permissions for an excerpt.
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+ Religion and government in an uneasy mix (2008.03): Phoenix Weekly (凤凰周刊) article from October, 2007, on government influence on religious practice in Tibet.
+ David Moser on Mao impersonators (2004.10): I first became aware of this phenomenon in 1992 when I turned on a Beijing TV variety show and was jolted by the sight of "Mao Zedong" and "Zhou Enlai" playing a game of ping pong. They both gave short, rousing speeches, and then were reverently interviewed by the emcee, who thanked them profusely for taking time off from their governmental duties to appear on the show.