Changing China

Giant on the move

Beijing can’t fake itself just for Olympic visitors

March 28, 2008

A worker smokes after his lunch at a construction site in BeijingBeijing promised to turn itself into a model city after winning its bid for the 2008 Olympics almost seven years ago. I lived in the city then and thought, yay, go team. Beijing, afterall, could use some work.

Infamous traffic gridlocks would be sorted out, the waiting world was promised. Working-class taxi drivers who love to chatter in Chinese would speak English. City-dwellers would quit spitting on the sidewalks. The polluted grey skies that aggravated my head colds would turn blue. Order would be enforced at the capital’s chaotic international airport.

Twenty-four-hour construction that dominates kilometre after kilometre of sprawl would be polished off, making the wee hours darker and quieter. Foreigners would be welcomed, not blamed by association with their governments for upsetting China at some point in history. No more pirated DVDs, meaning less harassment on street corners and less friction between China and Western governments.

A dream team of state agencies, media and street-level public opinion advocated all these and a list of other changes before the Games.

After being away for nearly two years, I was back in April. And certainly some things have changed….

Beijing commuters now line up on subway platforms. I was stunned when they left a single-file corridor for exiting passengers at a particularly packed station.

Guards at the airport hand out broANTI-SPITTING SIGN IS POSTED IN BEIJINGchures listing expected taxi fares to major hotels to prevent visitors being ripped off. My cab driver was even fair to the point he stopped the metre when he took a wrong turn.

Dust has settled on some major construction sites over the past two years, turning hazardous public wastelands into towering shopping complexes with lounge bars and spacious coffee houses.

“You can find quiet space amid the chaos here,” said one Beijing native who seldom compliments his city when we got together.

But now with around 2-1/2 months to go till the start of the Games, some of my international phone calls still get bounced and Chinese friends say their Web-based e-mail can’t always be opened, probably due to the same technical glitches that were around five years ago.

Scrappy, stinky poured cement construction sites the size of small towns still hulk on segments of the horizon, blasting hammer blows and flood lights through residential neighbourhoods long into the night with no hint of nearing completion.

A car trip from the financial district of west Beijing to a bar district in the east can take more than an hour as columns of cars wait turn after turn at red lights, basically no change from a few years ago. “You can’t just hop across town for dinner in Beijing,” an expatriate remarked to me.

Also winning no medals, English directed at tourists rarely exceeds snarky shouts of “hello!?” followed by grammatically mangled commands to buy something, all in the fourth tone. Tourists from parts of China not used to foreigners still stare at non-Asian faces.

A city isn’t a DVD. Beijing can’t fake itself just for Olympic visitors, not after hundreds of years of doing particular things in particular ways.

The fact is, if you live in Beijing, you spit in public, smoke wherever and yell in quiet places (such as hallways in the multi-star hotel where I stayed).

None of these Chinese characteristics need stop Beijing from holding an international sporting event, my friends and sources accurately remind me. As a former student of anthropology, I also believe Olympic visitors should see true Beijing instead of a facelift version. I give uncut, unpolished real Beijing a medal for being itself.

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