Could any other city in the world have staged an Olympics opening ceremony to match the scale and spectacle of Beijing's debut Friday?
I doubt it. My jaw kept dropping as I watched what will surely be remembered as one of the most awe-inspiring opening ceremonies in Olympics history.
Any one of the many set pieces would have been the centerpiece of any other games. But ceremony director Zhang Yimou (China's celebrated film director) delivered one ground-breaking moment after another, flowing easily from symbolic imagery to sublime artistry on a scale that Olympic audiences have never before seen.
If there is a mission behind these Beijing Olympic games, it is a complicated one. China is well aware of its international image. First and foremost, the Beijing games are intended to reassure the world (so says the New York Times) that China is ready and able to be a good global citizen, promoting harmony and prosperity. We can all be friends, says China. You have nothing to fear from us.
But China is also undeniably in ascendancy as a Superpower—a position it was accustomed to holding (and did so for centuries). And China is still stinging from having lost its status as a Global powerhouse following World War II. So along with messages of friendly reassurance comes this unmistakable announcement: We're Back!
And what an announcement it was. I watched the opening ceremony with more than a little bit of apprehension. This was, after all, a spectacle put on by the world's largest totalitarian government. China is not an open democracy, however much it may try to present itself as such. There are many aspects of China that are simply terrifying to a Western observer.
Among them, China's emphasis on 'Harmony', which to my eye often looks more like forcing a nearly countless population (some 1.3 billion, we're told) to march in flawless synchronization (a feat perfectly but perhaps inadvertently symbolized by Zhang Yimou during the first set piece, in which thousands of drummers performed as one).
I was apparently not alone in this reaction. During the drum segment, NBC's Bob Costas noted that the drummers had been told to 'smile more' to take the edge off the otherwise thoroughly intimidating performance.
That edge remained salient, however, and I found my thoughts wandering back to the 1936 Munich Olympics, in which the world similarly watched a totalitarian state in ascendancy, and wondered what would follow.
The hope of the Olympic Games is that they will not only transcend the moment, bringing nations together to temporarily set aside differences and compete as one, but that the Olympic experience will somehow change those same nations, softening edges, blurring divisions, expanding understanding.
That didn't happen, obviously, following Munich. But watching these Beijing Games, there is every reason to believe this outcome may be different. If the opening ceremony is any indication, the spirit of Change is already well-seated in China's soul. Where, I wonder, will it take us?