One Picture, 706 Words
There is, we are often told, an old Chinese saying that a picture tells a thousand words. But no-one ever mentions which picture, what words and who might be listening. Or, for that matter, who might be watching, wondering. Consider the photograph on the left. What does it tell us? It shows an athlete running into a crowded stadium – only the marathon allows for that. His salute suggests victory ahead, and a certain confidence that would only come from entering the stadium with a comfortable lead. He is, in fact, Samuel Wanjiru, and he’s just over 400 metres away from crossing the line first in the Olympic marathon for men in Beijing this morning. We don’t know that from the picture, yet a quick search of the Internet will give us the background, the frame if you will.
But leave Wanjiru aside now, including his stupendous capacity to run just over 42 kilometres in 2:06:32 hours and not seem to be tiring. Consider what’s happening around him instead. Click on the picture to enlarge it if you need to. The crowd haven’t quite noticed Wanjiru yet, but they will soon. The stadium announcer will point him out, and cameras are just starting to relay his image to the big screens high up in the stands. And, if you look carefully enough, the screen in the picture is exhorting the crowd to cheer, in both Chinese and English for good effect.
Now ask yourself this: why does the crowd need to be told to cheer? This is no reminder. Crowds cheer – that’s why they go to any sporting event, let alone the Olympics. Not everyone understands the technicalities of every event, but when Wanjiru makes it to the track, when he runs beyond the frame, so to speak, they’ll know. So again, why do they need to be told?
Before you object that this sort of crowd manipulation happens at every major event, my answer is simple: it doesn’t. Imagine the football World Cup with signs flashing in the stadiums, exhorting rabid fans to support their teams. It’s just not necessary. Admittedly, the Olympics is somewhat different in that the host country is not likely to have an outstanding performer in every event, so enthusiasm might not be that high. But I attended a smaller venue at the Sydney Olympics and was not once told when to cheer.
The closest analogy to this situation lies not in sporting events but in the television studio, in which audiences are prompted to cheer, usually accompanied by recorded applause, when the cameras go live after advertising breaks. I once had the most curious experience of attending the Binibing Pilipinas pageant in Manila, the Miss Philippines final in other words. The crowd was extremely lukewarm in its applause when prompted, but enthusiastic beyond comparison when transvestites popped up from their seats during the breaks and mocked the entire concept.
Crowds have a mind of their own.
And that, I suggest, is what would have been worrying the Chinese Olympic organisers. A regime without democracy needs props and procedures, slight nudges, little ways of doing things, small measures of the status quo, which ensure that people think and act in the appropriate manner. Political legitimacy always depends on popular support, even if that support is implicit. It matters little that the crowd in the Olympic stadium would have cheered anyway. The nature of social control is to pre-empt action – even if that action is not at all likely to contradict the result intended by those in power.
This sort of thing happens on the edge of China in Hong Kong every day. People are even told how to cross the street and how to prepare to watch fireworks. Ex-patriots often complain that the government considers everyone stupid, but quite the opposite is the case. The government presumes that too much thinking might be dangerous to what it and its mainland counterpart usually call ‘stability’, meaning the continuation of governance without democracy.
Back in Beijing, consider the Olympics just gone as a dress rehearsal for a stable life, locally defined. The picture says more than you might have presumed, if not entirely a thousand words. But, then again, not all Chinese sayings are exactly what they seem.