China: One Country, Many Voices

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Four years ago, when the Beijing Olympic slogan was "One World, One Dream," global audiences were wowed by a Chinese spectacle that began with a quote from Confucius describing the pleasure of welcoming friends from afar. Now, the sounds coming from China and grabbing our attention are not spirited drumming but angry chanting about settling scores.

It's worth comparing the recent street actions in China, triggered by an ongoing dispute over control of specks of land known as the Diaoyu Islands in Chinese, the Senkaku Islands in Japanese, with the mesmerizing gala of the Beijing Games. The two spectacles offer a striking study in contrasts - and intriguing parallels.

Let's start with contrasts.

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The 2008 spectacle, choreographed by filmmaker Zhang Yimou, was held in one locale and, though filled with historical allusions, included no nods to Japanese invasions or direct references to Chairman Mao. Today's demonstrators, marching through streets across China, carry portraits of Mao and refer continually to past atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers.

The Communist Party, keen to remind the populace that it once battled imperialism and now protects China from foreign bullying, tries to guide the anti-Japanese protests. In some cases, especially in the capital, according to journalists such as NPR's Louisa Lim, the government has been doing more than that: directly stage-managing demonstrations and ordering employees, including plainclothes police, to join the parades.

Not all protests are choreographed. In some cities, demonstrators have departed from official scripts, slipping in complaints about corruption, calls for reform or laments about China lacking a strongman leader like Mao.

The government finds the protests useful, but also worries they'll spin out of control.

International response to the 2008 and 2012 spectacles diverged. Foreign commentators criticized elements of fakery in the former, such as the beautiful voice of one girl presented as belonging to another, and a North Korea-like kind of lockstep conformity. On the whole, though, critics found more to applaud than complain about, expressing appreciation of a China presented as respecting tradition, but eager to move forward and make friends. This year's street displays, by contrast, have been roundly condemned.

The comparisons may be more intriguing.

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Jeff Wasserstrom is the author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, co-editor of Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land, Asia editor, Los Angeles Review of Books; Chancellor's Professor and Chair, history Department, University of California at Irvine; and editor, Journal of Asian Studies. He can be reached at @jwassers

Copyright © 2012 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. Yale Global

(AP Photo)

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