Both China and the rest of the world are struggling with China’s new role as superpower. The 2008 Olympics in Beijing marked the start of a new Chineseness, says Guohua Zeng who did his PhD on this at the University of Amsterdam.
An ideal China
The “new” Chineseness that was presented during the Olympic Opening Ceremony showed an “ideal China”. The nation China “was presented as a superpower with a long and continuous history, with a rich culture and a harmonious society. This new China needed to be a serious alternative for the Western modernity”, Zeng concludes in his doctoral thesis.
Zeng argues in his thesis that this “new Chineseness” had two different goals. “On the one hand it was aimed at strengthening the national identity in China and needed to contribute to the transition towards a ’rejuvenated’ China. It also needed to improve the interaction with other countries and stimulate soft power.”
“On the other hand the new set of Chineseness was designed to become more accepted by Western countries. It has a high level of ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’, as the term is used in the Chinese language. It involved a strict presentation of the national identity, created by the national government. The opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics was produced within dominant western perspectives, esthetics and production methods.”
The Games were one of two events that made 2008 a key year for China. The other event was of an entirely different kind, but also contributed to a new Chinese pride.
On 12 May 2008 an earthquake hit Sichuan and killed 90.000 people. “This tragedy was the first in a very long time that was dealt with entirely by the Chinese. They could take care of themselves. China had enough money, technology and, above all, solidarity. The people of China were finally one, something that had not happened since the internal tension since 1989”, says Anne Geerdink from Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences.
Cute panda or evil dragon?
Did it work, did foreign media see a new and harmonious China? Zeng concludes that “the BBC and the American network NBC projected their own agenda’s on the opening ceremony. NBC had above all commercial interests, it wanted to maximize its revenues from reruns. It made the Opening ceremony deliberately spectacular and presented the show with fairly ‘friendly’ commentaries on the new Chineseness and the ceremony, although it had to find its place among other media that had a tendency to criticize China.”
The BBC had more ideological interests, as “it did not present China as a ‘cute panda’, but as an ‘evil dragon’.” Zeng concludes that the BBC viewed China as a ‘rising evil empire’. The intended ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ that needed to result in higher soft power was highly contested by the BBC and NBC.”
“Were western media indeed scared of this ‘rising evil empire’ or did they hold human rights and the environment in high esteem?” asked one of the promotores. Zeng disagrees but states that “it is of vital importance for China to reflect on the historic ‘humiliation’ from Western countries and Japan. On the other hand Western media need to reflect on the image they use of China. Why do they present China as ‘evil’, and do they want to keep China a ‘subordinate’ power?”
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