Forget the economy. Forget tanks rumbling across Georgia and Obama-mania. Somebody call Milli Vanilli, and maybe William Hung.
Chinagate Part Deux is upon us.
It is a seemingly trite cultural moment that has been blown up to monumental proportions in the media echo chamber, pitting East against West, and reminiscent of a melodramatic movie script. A bad one.
Imagine. Days after the Beijing Olympics began, Chinese officials allowed that, “in the national interest,” they switched a plain little girl with crooked teeth for a pretty little girl in a red dress during a pivotal moment in the Opening Ceremonies on Friday.
A billion TV viewers bore witness to the interlude, which lasted about two minutes. As the Chinese flag was carried into the arena by a flock of costumed children, adorable Lin Miaoke - complete with a clip-on microphone - sang “Ode to the Motherland” in the simple, dulcet tones of a 9-year-old as the audience went crazy and uniformed soldiers snapped to attention.
Little Miaoke was billed as a “smiling angel” by the Chinese press, and made the front page of the New York Times as a veritable icon of a kinder, gentler, more cuddly China.
Except that Miaoke was only mouthing the words; it was the voice of another child soaring over the spectacle. Bob-haired and in need of braces, Yang Peiyi was not cute enough to represent the nation and was withdrawn from the performance minutes before it began.
“The reason was for the national interest. The child on camera should be flawless in image, internal feeling and expression,” music director Chen Qigang said on Beijing Radio, noting that the switch was made upon request of a senior member of the Politburo.
The situation upstaged athletic events and drew dramatic press and public interest - with all the frills. By late Tuesday, more than 800 stories had appeared in print and broadcast, as well as online.
“Beijing Olympics, produced by Milli Vanilli,” quipped the Los Angeles Times, referencing the ill-fated but comely 1980s singing duo who lost their careers after word got out that they lip-synced their tunes.
“It was an ode to fakery,” the paper said, echoing similar sentiments in European and Canadian newspapers.
“Singer outed,” said MTV, which deemed the moment “The Miaoke scandal.”
“Beijing’s true face,” snickered Britain’s Spectator, while the Sun tabloid noted that little Peiyi had been excluded because of her “wonky teeth.”
Even the Gulf News - published in Dubai - joined in, proclaiming, “Olympic organizers hit a sour note.”
“The officials, they wanted the Olympics all perfect and exact, they took it so seriously. Maybe too seriously. Then there are all these people who want to use the Olympics to make a lot of noise. Some are bashing China, some are just looking for scandal,” said Yong Chen, a history professor with the University of California at Irvine who specializes in cultural differences between East and West.
“The officials made a bad decision. But in the end, this is nothing. The real problem is that the games up to this point have been boring,” Mr. Chen added. “Everything is too serious. This should be a party.”
The excruciating care that China took in producing and marketing the Olympics took a tumble as journalists connected the dots for an eager public. All was not as it seemed. During the opening ceremonies, fireworks had been digitally enhanced, flags flew on a fake breeze, ticket sales were doctored.
“First the fireworks, now the fake singing. All our Olympic dreams are shattered,” said USA Today sportswriters Reid Cherner and Tom Weir.
The Chinese government also was criticized - particularly in the blogosphere - for its treatment of the wee chanteuses. One enraged online observer said the ceremony had become a showcase for an “Asian Jeanne Benet Ramsey.”
Discussions of news media treatment and human rights in China also surfaced, along with a laundry list of other sore topics, such as recent recalls of Chinese products and the country’s energy use.
Phoebe Eng, a fifth-generation Chinese-American and director of the Creative Counsel, a Manhattan arts group, has hope the situation doesn’t go downhill.
“I’m hoping it won’t get politicized and that people fall into stereotyping,” she said Tuesday.
“I was astounded by the opening ceremony and astounded by China’s amazing leap forward with its athletes. But I’m hoping the world doesn’t devolve into stereotypes like ‘the Yellow Peril.’ I hope we think about this not as a Chinese question, but as an issue of sportsmanship and fair play.”
But things remain tense between East and West, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, which polled an average of 1,000 adults in each of 24 subject countries. An analysis released Friday revealed that 39 percent of Americans had a favorable view of China, 13 percent would consider China a “partner” and 56 percent said the country was unilateralist.
“Ratings for China are decidedly negative in three of the four Western European countries included in the survey,” the researchers said.
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