Hu Yong: The “Sacred Flame” in China

Hu Yong, an associate professor of School of Journalism and Communication of Peking University and a blogger, writes on his blog, translated by CDT’s Linjun Fan:

The Beijing Olympic Torch relay was brought to every province and autonomous region in China in addition to tour in 19 cities across the world. Wherever it went in China, countless residents were organized to watch and defend the “Sacred Flame.” The torch was delivered on the top of Everest on May 8. Although the devastating Sichuan Earthquake had temporarily suspended the carnival-like torch relay, it was resumed with great pomp and circumstance shortly after the disaster-striken areas started reconstruction.

We Chinese have a world-class ability to carry out pompous and ceremonious projects. And the torch relay had a few unique Chinese characteristics:

First, the event was extremely lavish. All local governments went to great lengths to make the ceremony grand. For instance, Sanya City spent a huge amount of money to build a Torch Square for the relay. Officials of Benxi, a declining industrious city, spent more than 50 million RMB to “embrace the torch with all the city’s resources.”

However, the torch failed to show up in the city eventually due to a route change, which made local residents very disappointed…

Second, the torch bearers were all celebrities or they were from elite groups. The selection process was not transparent. Top officials often decided who would be the torch bearers. Therefore very few ordinary people were able to participate in the relay. China has larger rural areas than urban areas, and its rural population is bigger than its urban population, yet the torch never passed through any place in China’s vast countryside.

Third, the relay was commercialized. One could be a torch bearer if he was willing to pay money for it. A number of potbellied party secretaries and company presidents were selected as torch bearers, so the relay had become a chance for the rich and the powerful in the Chinese society to show off.

Fourth, the Games was politicized, which was opposed by many Olympic countries. China has politicized the Games itself, however, ironically it has been calling on the world to not play politics with the Games. Officials in Beijing, and local officials in charge of the cities on the torch relay route must have taken the Beijing Games as the most important political event this year.

We have another amazing ability to dramatize things, which was perfectly illustrated by the story of how residents of Benxi City were fooled during a torch relay farce… [See CDT’s translation of this story here.]

Wherever the torch arrived, there was chaos. City officials racked their brains to select a safe route for the torch to pass through. For instance, officials of Kunming City decided to let the torch circle inside its World Exposition Park several times. Officials of Liaoning Province decided to take the torch to its sparsely-inhabited suburb. Once a torch relay route was set, everybody, including officials, police and ordinary residents, got extremely nervous. The atmosphere there was as tense as in some western countries where the torch was under attack by protesters.

Steel pipes were erected to seal off roads. The Police Department of Qingdao City convened a large army of security force composed of police, armed police and security guards. …Ordinary citizens bought Olympics T-shirts and banners intending to celebrate the arrival of the torch and waited for days for it. However, their enthusiasm was smothered. …

The torch relay became a big drama staged by the government. Officials were actors as well as spectators. They used two strategies to support the pompous event: spending a large amount of money and exploiting a great number of people. The government used administrative resources to carry out the torch relay. They spent public money from taxpayers to set up grand stages for their play, and they ordered tens of thousands of people to support the play by issuing paper notices. To put it more plainly, they wanted to hold a grand performance, but they were caught in a dilemma: they were worried that they would lose face if few people showed up, and were also worried that trouble would arise if lots of people were in the audience. They longed for the arrival of the torch, but they feared it as well.

Undeniably, some people were trying to sabotage the torch relay. But the government could just have canceled the relay if it was so worried about its safety. Why toil the people and waste their money? Who could tell us taxpayers how much money had been spent for the government’s political purposes and sense of face? The Beijing Olympic Games seemed to be destined to be the most costly in the Olympic history, considering all the visible and invisible costs.

The Olympic Torch was referred to as the “Sacred Flame” in China. I don’t know why the “torch relay” in English had been translated into “Sacred Flame Relay” in Chinese. The torch is actually a big lighter operated by a single person, and its flame is made out of some chemicals. How much symbolic meaning does it carry? For those who call it sacred, do they know the connections between the torch relay ceremony and the Olympic Games hosted by Nazi Germany?

The Chinese people have been familiar with the feeling of sacredness, which is closely related to despotism in the country. The more sacred an emperor was, the humbler his subjects were. The more sacred the doctrines were, the humbler the minds of ordinary people were. The more sacred we regard the system, the more powerless an individual becomes. We need to push away those sanctified things that have trampled upon us…

The “Harmonious Journey” of the Beijing Olympic torch, which the Chinese government had wished for, had become a big drama. To foreigners, China appeared on the stage as an unsure upstart who is eager to show off his wealth. It yearns for respect but doesn’t know how to respect others. Its citizens’ real feelings of joy and their enthusiasm for participation were stifled by the government. No wonder artist Ai Weiwei has asked: “Will it be really possible to have a genuine joy and celebration of people in a non-democratic society?”