For a dancer

Yesterday’s New York Times Arts section carried the story of the tragedy that befell the preeminent Chinese classical dancer Liu Yan two weeks before the Olympic games in Beijing last summer. On August 26 Liu “was supposed to give the performance of her life at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.” As the result of a horrible accident during rehearsal, however, Yan was left paralyzed from the waist down.

Times reporter David Barboza recently interviewed Liu in Beijing. “Life is not that sweet or beautiful after an injury,” she told Barboza tearfully during the interviewl. “You confront a lot of dilemmas and pain.”

The accident occurred on July 27, 2008. Barboza originally reported on it on August 14 and noted the secrecy that had enveloped the accident:

The organizers of the opening ceremony initially asked witnesses and friends not to disclose the accident ahead of the Olympic Games on Aug. 8, according to people who have visited Liu in the hospital.

But earlier this week, after inquiries from several newspapers, members of the Beijing Olympic Committee visited Liu and announced that they would soon hold a news conference.

For the most part, the Chinese state-run news media have not reported the accident, although Peoples Daily, the Communist Party’s official organ, mentioned it in a small article on Tuesday.

In his account yesterday Barboza updated the efforts of the Chinese government to keep her accident secret:

Strangely, Ms. Liu’s story is barely known inside China because in August, fearing that news of her devastating fall would detract from Olympic celebrations, Beijing’s Olympic Committee asked witnesses and family members not to talk about the accident.

Even today, China’s state-controlled news media have not been given permission to tell the full story of what happened to a dancer so celebrated she was often selected to perform for China’s top leaders, including President Hu Jintao.

Just before the end of the Cold War James Oberg devoted to the Soviet Union’s secret accidents. Oberg’s Uncovering Soviet Disasters described the efforts undertaken by the Soviet Union to cover up accidents that would have detracted from the country’s image.

The Amazon description reminds me that among the Soviet disasters covered in the book were munitions-plant explosions, subway fires, anthrax contamination and nuclear-reactor meltdowns. Oberg also included his research on civilian airline crashes, making it clear that air-safety standards in Russia were remarkably low.

Liu’s tragedy is not exactly a state secret, but Barboza’s story — “Still dancing in her dreams” — shows China to be following the old Soviet model with a weird variation.


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