By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 9, 2008
BEIJING, Aug 8 -- Hours before the first performers began entertaining the crowd Friday, a doctor from Sichuan province sat on the curb outside the iconic Bird's Nest stadium with his 7-year-old son, waiting to go in. He had no water, no umbrella, to protect him from the sun; those had been banned for security reasons. His wife could not join him on the curb; she was barred from entering the neighborhood because she had no ticket.
But Huang Biao was armed with a brand-new pair of binoculars, a $286 camera and a giddy sense of hope and pride about the Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing Games.
"I don't have much expectation for the singing and the dancing, but from the behavior of the athletes and the volunteers, I hope they can show the new look of China," Huang said, smiling broadly. "Definitely there will be nothing like China's old 'sick man in Asia' image."
With more than 80 heads of state in attendance, the epic production was much more than an advertisement for China's economic and athletic prowess. Many Chinese saw it as heralding a resurgent empire.
"The rise of China is not a dream anymore," said Zhang Teiwang, 50, joining the 91,000 other spectators leaving the Bird's Nest after an extravaganza that lasted four hours and 10 minutes.
All across the capital, ordinary people watching the long-awaited Olympic kickoff said the event presented to the rest of the world a strong, unified China whose time had finally come.
Huang Jisu, a playwright and deputy chief editor of International Social Science magazine, didn't care for the music but said the ceremony's message was one of survival.
"The Olympic songs, I don't feel very good about. It sounds like some prostitutes are trying to attract business," he said. "But China has walked out of national crises and reached today's achievement. We are going to attend the world affairs and write the history of the world together with other countries. China has been reborn, instead of being very careful in front of foreigners."
In a narrow hutong alley, dozens of neighbors gathered at a local shop to watch the ceremony on a small TV set that had been turned to face into the street. After an outdoor dinner of peanuts, chicken's feet and bitter melon, the crowd dwindled to Li Yuming, who sells goods on the Internet, and shop owner Chi Heli, both 32.
"Did you know China's population is 1.3 billion?" Chi said. "It's not easy for China to develop to this level with that big a population. This is the first time we've hosted such a big world event."
The ceremony showed the nation's newfound strength, Li said.
"Right now, the country is rich and people are strong, and we Chinese are really standing up," Li said. "Twenty years ago, no matter where we Chinese stood, people looked down on us. But now no one dares to invade us anymore."
For many people, the emotional highlight was the entrance of China's 639-member athletic delegation, the country's largest ever and the biggest team of these Games.
"Everyone is crying out, 'Go, China!' I feel the park is going to explode," said Liu Jian, 29, a composer who watched the ceremony in Ditan Park.
Audiences cheered loudly for Hong Kong and Chinese Taipei, as Taiwan is referred to at the Olympics. They applauded loudly for allies such as Pakistan and Cuba, for soccer nations Brazil and Spain, and for Iraq. In Ditan Park, there were no discernible boos for the United States or Japan, both targets in the past of virulent expressions of Chinese nationalism.
When a towering Yao Ming entered the stadium at the head of the Chinese delegation bearing a giant Chinese flag, thousands of people sitting on every available inch of pavement rose to their feet screaming and cheering until their faces were red.
"Their voices can't be any louder. Some of these girls have tears in their eyes," Liu said.
As much as government leaders hoped to impress the rest of the world, much of Friday's pomp was directed at a domestic audience.
In a year of challenges, from the Tibet riots and the Sichuan earthquake to fears about rising housing prices and a stock market crash, officials used Confucian elements in the show to help portray a "harmonious society." The catchphrase is meant to evoke President Hu Jintao's legacy but underscores Communist Party concerns that an unhappy public is a threat to its power.
Several intellectuals said the Opening Ceremonies reminded them of the Berlin Olympics in 1936. "The Berlin state wanted to show an Olympics in which all countries take part, that their power is a legal, legitimate one, that they can bring prosperity and splendor to the country," said Chen Yongmiao, a dissident writer and former lawyer.
Unlike other countries, Beijing has been able to close factories by fiat and order motorists to drive on alternate days, in an effort to clear its smoggy skies. Traffic was mostly light Friday as a government-imposed day off kept many people at home.
Security was so strict around the outside perimeter of the Olympic Green that sidewalks below a large outdoor screen were filled not with ordinary citizens but with Olympic volunteers and journalists. Shortly before the ceremony started at 8:08 p.m., a computer mouse could be seen trying to adjust the brightness on the outdoor screen. But then it went blank.
The small crowd didn't seem to mind.
"After China experienced so much trouble this year, China is still very strong and we Chinese want to use our best face to welcome the world," said Liu Jing, 20, a university freshman and volunteer. "For local Chinese, the government just wants to create a happy atmosphere. The Olympics will make you forget a lot of troubles, no matter if you're a high official or an ordinary person."
Correspondent Jill Drew and news researchers Zhang Jie and Liu Liu contributed to this report.