The Beijing Olympics opening ceremony began at 8:08 a.m., on the eighth day of the eighth month of 2008. The exact time was picked by organizers because of the meaning of the number eight to the Chinese. It represents luck, prosperity and wealth. It was an appropriate number, apparently, as the opening ceremony and the Olympics in general have painted a picture of the new China: increasingly prosperous, powerful, harmonious and open.
“I’m proud when watching the opening ceremony,” said Juan Ziyi, an undergraduate student at New York’s City College, referring to what has been called the most lavish opening ceremony in the history of the modern Olympic movement. “People don’t understand China’s history or how we are now. I think this will show people that we are a powerful country, but also that no one has to fear China [because we are also] a friendly country.”
A major theme of the Olympics has been “harmony.” Indeed, this has been the overriding theme of the Chinese Communist Party for a number of years. China aims at building a “harmonious society,” which means a number of things: shrinking the wealth gap between the rich and the poor, improving relations between humanity and the environment, and a peaceful world order—something especially important, given that experts say China is likely to be the world’s dominant power within a few decades.
The March of Nations, in which all nations sending a delegation to the Olympics entered, was viewed by many as a showcase of a more harmonious society. As expected, the largely Chinese audience applauded very loudly for the delegations from China and the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (North Korea). However, many were surprised at the loud cheers for the United States and Japan. There have been simmering tensions—which have flared up at various times over the years—between Japan and China since Japan occupied and brutalized China during World War II. But when the Japanese delegation came in, waving Japanese and Chinese flags, the audience erupted in applause.
France also won a surprising amount of applause. The Chinese people had only a few months earlier been organizing boycotts of any French chain, after demonstrations in favor of separating China from Tibet turned particularly ugly and a young, wheel-chair bound Chinese athlete was attacked.
Obviously, the Chinese weren’t happy with either the assault on the athlete or the western-backed campaign to separate Tibet from China.
“People should come to China to understand,” said Wei, another student at City College of New York. “The idea to make Tibet independent comes from outside China. I spent a year there.” The government makes many special provisions for the preservation of Tibetan culture, she said.
Among other things, the central government limits the number of non-Tibetans who can move into Tibet per year, in order to preserve the standing of the Tibetan ethnic group, as well as, like all ethnic minority groups in China, exempts Tibetans from the famous one-child policy.
Of course, as with anything of this scale, not everything has gone perfectly. The father-in-law of the U.S. men’s volleyball team coach, Todd Bachman, died after being stabbed, along with his wife and his Chinese tour guide, by a disturbed man who later killed himself.
After the incident, President Hu Jintao visited the surviving victims and offered condolences. Judging by both official statements and message boards, many Chinese were horrified at the incident and the Bachman family said the outpouring of compassion by both U.S. and Chinese officials and people was tremendous.
“As the most precious thing in the world, a life is never inferior or superior to another despite the different nationalities, ethnic groups, or colors of skin,” wrote Ding Gang, editor of the People’s Daily, newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party. “Love for and care about life is the most fundamental and greatest affections of human being. Chinese people would like to let all of our sincerest sympathy and deepest condolences go out to American people, to American athletes, and to the families and friends of the victim.”
Also, an al-Qaeda style terrorist organization, the East Turistan Islamic Movement has been responsible for a wave of terrorist attacks, which have killed dozens of people in Western China. The organization’s goal is to separate parts of western China into a new Taliban-styled state. ETIM has also threatened violence at the games themselves, but Chinese authorities seem to have greatly lessened the danger.
Nevertheless, despite the difficulties, the Olympic Games seem so far to be an overwhelming success. The games are going on as intended and millions of people have finally been able to get a glimpse at the modernity and prosperity of the new China.
“We are very proud,” said Ziyi Zhang. “For many years people have thought wrong about us, but now they are seeing different. For us, we think the more people see China, the more they will like China.”