Sat, Apr 22, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Hu Jintao's battle with symbols

Steven Spielberg is reportedly teaming up with fellow filmmaker Zhang Yimou (張藝謀) to design the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. But a scene that played out on Thursday at the White House was a moment of drama that neither man would allow in their own screenplays because it would reek of cliche. In reality, however, it was most compelling.

Parading in front of Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and US President George W. Bush on the South Lawn of the White House, US troops dressed in Continental Army uniforms dating back more than 200 years seemed to project the message that the US could compete with China's heritage -- if not in terms of the length of its written history, then certainly in terms of the depth of its surviving political and philosophical traditions. What could Hu have offered on behalf of China's 80-year communist era in return, other than re-enactments of the masses in a frenzy clutching little red books before tearing each other apart?

As Hu began his speech, a lone Falun Gong protester, pathologist Wang Wenyi (王文怡), shrieked at Hu from her vantage point among the press. After a surprisingly long interval, Wang was escorted away by security, leaving Bush embarrassed and Hu less than pleased at being insulted so publicly at a moment of considerable gravity.

There could not have been a more fitting incident to demonstrate the basic difference between these two powers. Had Wang the gall to launch her protest on Chinese territory, her fate would have been grim: protracted physical abuse, lengthy incarceration if not execution and -- if Falun Gong propaganda is to be believed -- possibly placed high on a list of compulsory organ donors for good measure. In the US, on the other hand, she will receive much more reasonable punishment if found guilty of "disorderly conduct," and possibly "willingly intimidating or disrupting a foreign official."

The incident is all the more meaningful because of the lack of progress in talks on the trade deficit, revaluation of the yuan, North Korea, Iran and Taiwan. Going into the meeting with Bush, Hu had been toasted by some of the most powerful businesspeople in the world, people who could be relied on not to raise irritating issues such as human rights and aggression toward Taiwan -- because there is no money to be made from such things. But the Falun Gong protest brought Hu back to earth with a thud, and he subsequently found Bush to be considerably less effusive, if more apologetic, toward him than other heads of state.

Hu's trip will be remembered more for symbolism than breakthroughs in bilateral relations, and it is instructive that the two powers could not even agree on the status of the visit -- "official" or "state" -- and that Hu was not thrown a reception down home on Bush's Texas range.

Spielberg and Zhang, as master filmmakers, are as aware as anyone of the power of symbolism in the mass media. There is every chance their mighty talents will be put to use in 2008 in a scenario with more than an echo of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It would be savagely ironic if the directors of Schindler's List, Munich, The Story of Qiu Ju and To Live were to become unwitting Leni Riefenstahls of the 21st century, though Spielberg may yet have the wisdom to rethink his decision.

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