BEIJING — The opening ceremony of the London Olympics aired at 4 a.m. Saturday morning Beijing time. Despite the early hour, more than 100 million Chinese stayed up to watch the show, including Xu Jicheng, a journalist who previously worked as deputy director of media operations for Beijing's Olympic organizing committee.
Xu, a senior Xinhua reporter, said that it's difficult to compare opening ceremonies, but he was obviously proud of China's achievement. "Our system can mobilize social resources and power almost immediately," he told me. "The Chinese have become ever more confident in themselves and think they can pull off whatever foreigners can do."
Yes, China can mobilize better than any country in the world. In the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Chinese leaders spent close to $2 billion just on building and refurbishing stadiums, expanded its subway system from 25 to 124 miles, and built a state-of-the-art airport terminal. But they also rounded up dissidents, manipulated the weather by shooting silver iodide into the sky, and drove out migrants, homeless people, and sex workers to minimize social discontent and maintain a presentable harmony.
Beijing's opening ceremony was a masterpiece of cohesion: Almost 200,000 people, mostly students and People's Liberation Army soldiers, trained together for months so that their actions would be perfectly synchronous. To showcase the Chinese invention of movable-type printing, more than 1,600 soldiers practiced more than 10 hours a day inside 897 tiny movable-type blocks -- for nine months. Chinese film director Zhang Yimou, who directed the opening ceremony, told a Chinese newspaper that he joked with his performers that only North Koreans could have put on a more uniform show.
That comment hit too close to home; one wag suggested that Zhang had borrowed the entire ceremony from the totalitarian North Koreans. But the uncomfortable reality behind the joke is even more resonant in China today, a feeling compounded by what London accomplished with its opening ceremony. In an interview on July 29, Jiang Xiaoyu, former executive vice president of Beijing's Olympic organizing committee and now vice chairman of the Beijing Olympic City Development Association, called the 2008 Beijing Games and the opening ceremony "flawlessly organized."