Jeffrey Wasserstrom: U.S.-China Similarities: An Olympic Perspective

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine. He is co-founder and regular contributer to The China Beat: Blogging How the East is Read. His books include China's Brave New World (2007) and the forthcoming Global Shanghai, 1850-2010.]

China and America, according to much U.S. Olympic commentary, currently offer a study in contrasts. Not surprisingly, we've been hearing repeated references of late to the stark differences between our young land and their old one when it comes to religious freedom and press censorship. And we've seen some novel variations on the familiar U.S.-China contrasts theme, like an August 18 Los Angeles Times piece by Mary McNamar that focused on style. Our every-day-can-be-casual-Friday approach, she claimed, clearly differentiated the look of "laid-back," gum-chewing U.S. competitors, a sockless Matt Lauer, and a shirt-sleeved George W. in sports fan mode from the look of their Chinese counterparts.

There definitely are many basic U.S.-China differences, including not just how our presidents dress and act (it's tough to imagine the buttoned-down Hu Jintao hanging out with beach volleyball players), but more importantly how they're chosen. Still, Americans should realize that, to international audiences, recent events could be read as revealing how much, not little, China and the U.S. have in common.

For this is a year when we keep showing up side-by-side in global rankings. Medal counts prove we're in a league of our own as Olympic sports powers. We're also neck and neck at the top of the pack in percentage of global manufacturing output (U.S. 17%, China 16%). And we share the top (or bottom) greenhouse gas emissions spot: they're ahead overall, but on a per capita basis, we're leading.

Returning to the Games, the Opening inspired many only-in-a-country-like-China comments. These stressed the number of performers (China's so big), the synchronized movements (China's so conformist), the echoes of Berlin 1936 (China's so authoritarian), and the fakery (China's people accept being lied to).

The PRC is likely the only country that could and would spend so much money on this kind of state-run extravaganza just now, and while there were some disturbingly authoritarian aspects to it. But the spectacle sometimes brought to mind Hollywood -- the place where the phrase "and a cast of thousands" was coined. The choreography was sometimes more Busby Berkeley than Leni Riefenstahl. And a friend told me seeing those 2008 drummers made him think of a 2002 Hollywood production, "Drumline," which also featured young men furiously keeping the beat.

It is true that revelations of White children pretending to be Native American ones would have caused more of a flap here than revelations that Han children pretended to be Tibetan and Uighurs on 08/08/08 did there. But a country whose past includes minstrel shows and Charlie Chan movies without ethnically Chinese leads shouldn't be too smug. When it comes to the lip synching scandal, as McNamar notes in her piece, Chinese efforts to ensure that a song that sounded just so seemed to come out of the mouth of a girl who looked just right resonate disturbingly with our fetish for simulated physical perfection via plastic surgery.

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