Olympics to Showcase a Changing China

BEIJING – Flashing lights, giant signs, and elaborate displays now adorn the once-drab streets of China’s capital city. Digitized concrete billboards stand nearly fifteen feet tall at major intersections, screaming in bright lights the number of days, hours and minutes until the event that will place China at the center of global media attention. With less than a year left to the Beijing games, the 2008 Olympics have the entire city abuzz with excitement, from its political leaders to everyday citizens. As for the hoards of aggressive peddlers that line the crowded sidewalks of this bustling city, their ware of choice no longer seems to be Great Wall postcards or Chairman Mao statues, but an extensive array of Olympic-related paraphernalia from stuffed animals to camera cases, all prominently displaying the 2008 logo. Having made leaps and bounds in its population’s standard of living in the last quarter century, China is eager to display its progress and new status as world power, and the Olympics provide the perfect opportunity to do so.

“2008” has Beijingers of all strata modifying their agendas to cater to and profit from this 1.5 million guest event. Construction projects that attest to China’s self-proclaimed role as a new world power abound across Beijing’s continuously morphing skyline: by some estimates, nearly one third of the world’s construction cranes are currently located within Beijing’s city limits. In 2003, construction began on a special 91,000 seat stadium, which will house the opening and closing Olympic ceremonies. The nearly .5 billion Yuan venue, nicknamed “Bird’s Nest” for the interwoven metal spindles that characterize its architecture, features complete all-weather protection, an in-stadium shopping arcade, and, as of last Sunday, a 53,000 square meter sound proof membrane. Water sports will be housed in the adjacent 100 million dollar “Water Cube” aquatic center, and all media communication will be held at the new Beichen National Convention Center, which employs a range of the most current green building technologies.

While the rush of construction projects intended for the athletes’ use may be quite extensive, infrastructural projects designed for the thousands of expected spectators are in no less short supply. In March, Beijing’s International Airport is scheduled to unveil the world’s largest terminal, which will welcome the half million international attendees. Non-athletics-related secondary undertakings such as shopping malls, hotels and entertainment venues are springing up all over the once bleakly utilitarian political capital, which will cater to the leisure time and money of sports fans. The individual pieces of the “new Beijing” will be linked by gleaming expressways and six new subway lines to be added to the three currently in operation. Even the street vendors have undertaken metallic construction projects on a smaller scale, updating their souvenir bronze dragons to spell out 2008 in the loops of their tiny curled bodies. As Newsweek reported on August 13th, “…Beijing is creating its once grim capital on an awesome scale.”

The impending “Open-House” has also inspired the government to pour money into lasting infrastructural improvements across the city, committing 12 billion Yuan for “greening” projects to improve the quality of life. A 125km “tree belt” is being constructed around the city, and aging buildings are being demolished in favor of parks and greenery. At the end of August, one million of the city’s three million cars were removed from circulation in an experiment in air quality improvement: even-numbered license plates were forbidden to drive on Friday and Sunday, and odd-numbers on Saturday and Monday. Authorities reported significant improvements in pollution quotients and smog was noticeably ameliorated. Since June, even the city’s formerly non-potable tap water has been made safe to drink. Although some raise doubts about the city’s ability to safely transport that water to the average resident, purifying the source is a significant improvement in itself. To improve quality of life for the games, officials are regulating aspects of everyday life from noise levels of household electric appliances to waiting in line. The 11th of every month is “line day,” on which residents practice molding the chaotic mobs that characterize ticket counters and public service locations in Beijing into orderly lines.

Finally, to complete the image of a world-leader possessing the social benefits of a first-world nation, the government has made many humanitarian improvements, among them placing a school class size cap at forty students and increasing the minimum wage in some of the areas where the cost of living is highest.

When the topic of the 2008 Games comes up in conversation, as it regularly seems to in Beijing, it is accompanied by beams of excitement and pride while people detail the positive effects the games will have on the city and on the world at large. Beijingers frequently cite the Olympics’ enormous potential to improve foreign relations by serving as a venue for friendly dialogue. Extending an open invitation to the world community will foster international goodwill; the ties of common accomplishment that emerge when nations strive together against nature and themselves to push the limits of human capability cannot be underestimated. The games will also serve to promote dialogue and cultural exchange. As foreigners travel to the events, they will be able to learn first-hand about life in China, and hopefully their misconceptions will be reconciled.

“I was impressed by how modern China is!” exclaimed a tourist standing in the middle of Tiananmen Square, when asked about the impact of visiting China for herself on her conception of the nation. “Before I came, I thought it was a completely backward country; it’s been so exciting for me to see how developed China is.” The Olympics have the power to bring a huge influx of tourists to China, so that they may have similar experiences and share them in their own countries. China is proud of its growing wealth and power; and the average Beijing resident is pleased to display his rising standard of living and the progress of his nation to foreigners. The Chinese government hopes to show the world the changing face of China so they can understand and appreciate China for what it truly is and what it will be.

The Olympics promise not only to improve China’s worldwide image as a more developed country, but to aid that development in itself. The positive economic impact of the games is cause for great excitement in Beijing, as people cite the financial benefits of tourism while multinational corporations from across the globe invest in China to seize what they can of the Olympics’ giant marketing opportunity.

Meanwhile, the government is busy publicizing the Olympics themselves, taking advantage of every corner of the city to advertise. The Millennium Monument, for example, supposedly a world and modern art museum, has had half of its display space converted to a showcase of hundreds of pieces of children’s artwork promoting the Olympics. And one is led to wonder whether the many Olympics shops that sell only Olympics-related items are really responding to an enormous demand for touristy bric-a-bracs or if they are more of a self-financing advertisement, an attempt to artificially create a demand.

Not all Chinese are optimistic about some of the societal adjustments the Olympics bring with them. Some worry that social reforms may be no more than a temporary effort to win favorable press coverage that will be easily be revoked once the spotlight has lifted. Others warn against the destructive potential of new construction on a massive scale. Erecting sky scrapers and digging subway tunnels disrupt not only daily life, but threaten a piece of Beijing’s historical charm as well: construction of an essentially new city may destroy the unique ambiance of areas that hold the most treasured cultural heritage, most controversially, the preservation of the ancient “Hutong” (alleyway) district in central Beijing. Chinese and international critics warn against forced conformity to a new way of life. Indeed, Beijingers’ lifestyles may be changing as much as their city’s skyline, as they are restricted from driving their cars, and in some cases forced out of their homes to make way for Olympics-related construction.

At the root of the Olympics controversy, it seems, is the fear that China has swung to excess in the effort to prove itself to the rest of the first world. Prof. Zhou Rong of Tsinghua University’s architecture school told Newsweek Magazine that China is building “the pyramids of the 21st century,” and critics suggest that such an excess can only be explained by an equally large underlying ambition. The average Chinese national knows his standard of living has skyrocketed in the last several years and marvels proudly at the lavish Olympic preparations that demonstrate this to the rest of the world. On August 24, Tiananmen Square erupted in bright displays of color, lights and music, marking the one-year pre-anniversary of the games with a massive party attended by ten thousand people. The games themselves will be an equally massive coming-of-age party for the world’s newest economic superpower, making the Tiananmen Square celebration the perfect preview of China’s stunning self-inauguration as a global power. The American newspaper The Oregonian has drawn an analogy between 2008 and the 1936 games—which showcased Nazi Berlin for the world to see—claiming “a regime may be at stake,” if things do not run as planned.

Concerns are arising about the need to balance expensive projects with continued economic growth. Suggesting that the billions of Yuan spent on lavish Olympic preparations could be better spent, another university student in Beijing remarked, “At the end of 2008, we’ll have several brand new stadiums…and several million people still living in abject poverty.”
Nonetheless, the public opinion in the streets and political circles alike of China’s capital city remains highly optimistic. As people busily go about their preparations for 2008, the sense of pride in the air is unmistakable. The official Olympics website proudly proclaims: “This has been over a hundred-year dream for the Chinese people and they finally have the standard of living and the global presence to accomplish it.” While it is an impressive feat to transform the appearance of an entire city for the global spotlight, it is quite another to raise the standard of living of a billion people. One can only hope that Beijing will not become so caught up in impressing the world with an elaborate show of modernity that it forgets the impressiveness of the progress it has made with respect to the former conditions of its average citizen, the real victory to celebrate.

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