China’s futile public relations effort to portray itself as something other than it is extends to ridiculous levels. For example, Beijing is notorious for having some of the worst smog in the world. Despite government orders that shut down hundreds of factories and blocked out about half the city’s vehicle traffic, a yellow-gray haze still hangs over the city.

But don’t worry, said a senior Chinese official: it’s not really air pollution, just a fine mist, “a feature of humidity and evaporation.” Perhaps there are locals in China who would believe the earth is flat just because the government said so, but many American athletes arrived wearing face masks. Olympic officials say they may have to reschedule or relocate some outdoor endurance events if smog levels don’t improve.

While the streets of Beijing are scrubbed and signs of protest are kept at bay by many thousands of police, all is not as it seems, even with the impressive opening ceremonies. I thought I had missed the highly touted aerial footprint-shaped fireworks that led from Tiananmen Square to the “Bird’s Nest” stadium at the start of the festivities, but it turns out nobody really saw them — all but the last couple of blasts over the stadium were faked. Officials were afraid the smog would dim the show and good camera angles would be difficult to get, so they worked up to a year in advance to develop a computer-enhanced clip to insert into NBC’s television coverage. The network didn’t divulge the charade, but it came out nonetheless.

Makeup artists also tried mightily to make three tiny Chinese gymnasts look older than they appear to anyone with decent eyesight. Information given in earlier, lower levels of competition puts the three girls’ age at 14, well below the Olympic requirement of turning 16 in the Olympic year. The Chinese government produced passports assigning them birthdays in 1992, however, and Olympic officials, not wanting to offend, accepted their story.

The saddest thing I’ve read, though, has to do with the adorable little girl in red who sang about the “motherland” during the opening ceremonies. It turns out that she was lip-synching, because a politboro member who saw a dress rehearsal decided the real singer wasn’t adorable enough (click the link for pictures). The girl had buck teeth, he said, which could hurt China’s image. So, at the last minute the real singer was told it was in the national interest for a cuter girl to stand in for her. Oy.

I ruminate on these things not just to criticize China for its extensive but futile attempts to hide every flaw and pretend to be something it is not. China’s over-the-top campaign just reminds me of how often we as organizations or individuals do the same thing, laboring to cover our inadequacies and to cultivate a contrived image we want others to see.

Sooner or later, though, those crooked teeth show through.

If only we could learn that off-center incisors and bent bicuspids are no cause for shame, and just smile with the smile we have.

[Photo at top from Tim Johnson’s blog, which can be found here.]

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