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September 4, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright September 4, 2008 Timothy S. Oakes. Used by permission.


Now that the 2008 Olympics have come and gone, Beijing can perhaps breathe a sigh of relief that after two weeks of intensive scrutiny, the most embarrassing thing the foreign media could come up with during the Games was that some of the events in the spectacular opening ceremony were faked. First, we learned that 9-year old Lin Miaoke was not in fact singing a revised “Song of the Motherland” at all, but was lip-synching the voice of the less photogenic Yang Peiyi (see Geremie Barmé’s “Painting Over Mao”). Then, we learned that at least some of thefirework footprints leading up to the National Stadium were photo-shopped versions of one that had been done ahead of time. And finally, we learned all of the children dressed in nationality costumes were not minority children at all but Han Chinese. A few newscasters and pundits did their best to muster some shock (shock!) that the world had been hoodwinked into believing China could really pull off the perfection we saw on our television screens.

We tend to smell in fakery like this the whiff of scandal. The fake carries with it the stain of deception, of shame, even immorality. And yet, it turns out that fakery is an important part of our ability to imagine perfection. This is not because perfection is the opposite of fakery, but because perfection depends upon the fake. Only the real world is imperfect, blemished, and full of chaos and unpredictability. The fake world of televised opening ceremonies, by contrast, is dependable, predictable, and orderly. And while we may live in the messiness of the real world, we yearn to believe in the more ordered and dependable replica we see on television.

Of course, it also turned out that during the 2000 Olympics, Sydney faked their opening ceremony too. The Sydney Symphony mimed its entire performance. In fact, some of it wasn’t even the Sydney Symphony playing on the backing tape, but their archrival, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Such orchestral maneuvers, it seems, are routine for important events where nothing can be left to chance. And so, China apparently has no monopoly on faking it. Nevertheless, the situation in Beijing gave Ai Weiwei occasion to lament in The Guardian about how China may be able to fake its way to a perfect Olympics – to the “fake applause” of the media and the public – but “true happiness” can never be faked: “This nation is notorious for its ability to make or fake anything cheaply,” he wrote. “‘Made-in-China’ goods now fill homes around the world. But our giant country has a small problem. We can’t manufacture the happiness of our people.” He added that, “Real public contentment can’t be pirated or copied.”