This week we're pleased to welcome back Joseph Kruzich, Public Affairs Officer, US Consulate Shenyang Province, China. Joe previously entertaned us with blog posts about Chinese food and drink. He has agreed to take time out from his busy schedule to write about the goings on in China during the Olympics. Thanks Joe! --sdh
Well, the Olympics are now well on their way in China and I thought I would provide some color to what all of you are watching on television and reading about in the papers back home. My observations are mainly from a satellite city, Shenyang, which is hosting many of the soccer games for the Olympics, at least the quarter and semi-finals. The finals will be in Beijing. Shenyang is an old, industrial city in China's Northeast, commonly referred to as China's Rustbelt. I often describe it to friends as a combination of Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo in the early 1980's, but when some American friends recently came up this way they thought that analogy was off the mark, and they thought Shenyang, with all its neon signs, was "Splashy". Anyway, Shenyang was given the privilege of hosting some of the Olympic soccer games and they have taken their responsibilities seriously, building a brand new athletic stadium that is probably one of the nicest soccer stadiums in China now, touching up the city and sending thousands of volunteers throughout the city to make sure foreign visitors are given a warm welcome.
But before I delve into the soccer games, let me just say a few words about the opening ceremony in Beijing last Friday, which was probably witnessed by most of China. I watched it with a group of Chinese friends and though they cracked jokes about their leaders and their expressions and all of the countries, one could tell they were deeply proud of the grand choreography of Zhang Yimou and the "chinese history and culture in one hour" theme. To watch it on TV in China and with Chinese was quite special. I also have to add, there are a lot of dumb and stupid things said in the American media about China, but today's column in the Washington Post by George Will raises willful ignorance to a new art form with his comparison of the opening ceremony to some Leni Riefenstahl propaganda documentary. What an insult to the memory of the Holocaust.
If there are two sports that the Chinese care passionately about, it is soccer and basketball, and both sports have attracted the nation's attention these past couple of days. I mentioned earlier Shenyang is the host to many of the Olympic soccer quarter and semi-final matches, and the Chinese men's team opened up their Olympic appearance in Shenyang last Sunday. Now it is, of course, true that soccer is a Chinese national sport, much like the NFL is in the U.S., but the Northeast is the real soccer loving region of the country and the region with the undisputed best team - that beautiful coastal city of Dalian. Northeasterners love their soccer teams, much like Pittsburgh fans love their Steelers or Green Bay fans love the Packers. So, when the Chinese national team came to Shenyang last Sunday, it was quite a spectacle to watch; the enthusiasm was high and the expectations higher. Now, before I get to the China vs. Belgium game, let me take a little historical detour on China and soccer. The Chinese men's team has been disappointing their fans for most of the last 100 years, and certainly of late; its the same sort of love-hate relationship Chicago has with its beloved Cubs. In fact, the frustration is so palpable a newspaper in Changchun (the Detroit of China), a couple of months ago carried a headline on the front page: "China men's team loses again; We have nothing more to say". There was no story that followed.
And, alas, the 45,000 enthusiastic Shenyang soccer fans who came out to cheer their team on were again disappointed as China dropped the match to the better Belgium team 2-0. But, this time they could blame the refs.
Early in the second half, two Chinese players were given red cards for flagrant fouls, so China had to play two players down for over twenty-five minutes in the second half. I definately would not have wanted to be the refs walking around the streets of Shenyang that night or the next day. I think extra security was laid on to escort them out of the stadium after the game. The next day as I was talking to a taxi driver about the game, he said he also could not drive for a day after the national team plays because he get's so angry. I wish he had told me this before I got into the cab. Well, at least earlier in the evening I was able to watch the Brazilian men's team crush the New Zealand team 5-0, in a masterful display of style and skill. The Chinese turned out in large numbers to watch the game and you could tell they appreciated a great soccer team. Now this is a frightening thought, especially with all the talk of China's rise; just imagine if China was not just a giant in trade and economics, but also had a soccer team like Brazil. Chinese pride would soar to heights not witnessed since the glory days of the Tang Dynasty. Now that would truly be an unbeatable combination of "hard" and "soft" power.
Well, there is an American connection to this as well. First, the soccer. Tonight, as the good diplomat I went out to support the home team, as the American women's soccer team came to Shenyang to take on New Zealand. I am happy to say, it was no match. Our fine women beat the Kiwis 4-0, controlling the ball for most of the match and aggresively attacking the goal consistently. They look like they have a good chance for a medal in the Olympics, and maybe they will come away with the gold. I will keep my finger's cross as they travel to other soccer cities for further matches. They play with a lot of passion and heart.
Now, of course, the game that all the Chinese waited with anticipation for was the U.S.-China basketball game on Sunday night, starting at 10:15 at night. The Chinese undoubtedly love their soccer, but basketball is a close second. The NBA is an unbelievably popular brand here, and the intimate knowledge many Chinese have on NBA teams is amazing. Everyday, I am amazed at all the basketball experts in this town masquerading as taxi drivers. They can rattle off the names of Kobe Bryant, Dwayne Wade and Lebron James, all in their sometimes hard to understand Chinese names, and tell you about the strengths and weaknesses of each player on the U.S. team; Kobe is the best shooter, while LeBron has a better command of the floor, and, well, Wade is just amazing with his acrobatic play. For the first half it looked like China might give the U.S. team a run for their money, but in the second half the U.S. team just destroyed China, taking advantage of several turnovers, and running the ball up the court in a way that no team could stop. It was quite a display of overwhelming talent, and I have to say, most of the chinese I talked to afterwards thought it was great to watch, even if their team lost. I think deep down they kind of saw the match as a metaphor for comparing China with the U.S. on other metrics as well; they can see they have a long way to go to equal the U.S. in basketball, and an equally long way to go to catch up with the U.S.on economics and world influence as well. Now, when China has a soccer team worthy of Brazil, and a basketball team worthy of the U.S. Dream Team, then we will know the tectonic plates of world power, economic dynamism and influence have shifted from Washington to Beijing. We are not there yet, not by a long shot, but when the Chinese put their mind to something, they usually succeed. That is enough for tonight, but I promise to include some comments on food, culture, drink and the meaning of Yammerhood in my postings throughout the week. Zai Jian!
-- Joe Kruzich