Changing China

Giant on the move

A pleasant surprise in Beijing

August 25, 2008

Volunteers stand near the targetsI’d expected the worst when I got to Beijing three weeks ago. I remember what it was like in another Communist country — East Germany with its suppressed and scared people coupled with deplorable service and shoddy quality everywhere you turned.

That’s roughly what I had in mind for China, although I knew Beijing itself would certainly be a more prosperous and modern place than East Germany, and with a bit of window dressing for the Olympics.

But China has turned out to be a lot different than I imagined. Even if it is perhaps a facade for the multitudes of foreign journalists like me getting their first taste of China, the single-most overwhelming aspect for me has been the wholehearted friendliness of the people.

I’ve been looking everywhere for that proverbial half-empty glass and the fly in my soup ever since I got here but instead have found mostly kind, helpful and friendly Chinese people who have been doing perfect 10-score back-flips to keep me and the fraternity of curmudgeon-like journalist colleagues from Seattle to Saigon happy.

I’m sure they’ve been drilled on how to be friendly and helpful to Lao Wai (foreigners) like me. The volunteers in Athens were all pretty friendly too, until the last day of the Olympics when they started ignoring my questions and the smiles disappeared. Here they haven’t stopped smiling or being helpful yet.

It doesn’t mean there haven’t been angry, tense, frustrating moments. And no one here can forget the ostracised and punished dissidents in China (you wonder why free speech runs into limits in such a powerful and proud country with so much going for it).

I’ve also had a few minor run-ins with rather inflexible local officials. But there is still no escaping the kindness, smiles and friendliness of the Chinese people everywhere you turn. It’s contagious.

Just before an interview with an athlete the other day, the battery on my tape recorder died. I turned to a local Chinese volunteer to ask if she knew where I might be able to buy, find or borrow a new one. “Sorry, no.” No worries, I told her. I’ll manage.

A few minutes later she ran over with new batteries. It was unreal. She had made it her personal mission to search the venue for a battery for me. Could anything like that happen in London in 2012?

My favourite line of the Olympics has been this one from a 22-year-old student walking on Tiananmen Square just before the opening ceremony. It sums it all up best: “My heart is bursting with excitement about the Games. I want the people to see what is special about China.”

PHOTO: Volunteers stand near targets with arrows during the men’s archery individual ranking round at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games August 9, 2008. REUTERS/Ruben Sprich


Hi, Just wanted to echo your sentiments. I had a great time in China, watching the games on big screens, in restaurants, even on the Subway train!


an amazing dive which hopefully has inspired gay teenagers around the world

Posted by CHRIS WALLACE | Report as abusive

Nice to hear the objective comments. BTW, you can experience similar genial hospitality closer to home … just wander in to one of the ubiquitous Chinese restaurants in your town. You’ll get first class service, good quality food at bargain prices. That’s the curse of the Chinese … numerous, industrious and competitive.

Posted by Frank | Report as abusive

The Chinese are not only courteous, they actually are happiest about their country in a recent survey. Do not ever compare China with East Germany, or else! ;-)

A survey conducted by a foreign company showed China ranking first among all countries surveyed in terms of how satisfied they are with the country’s direction. Quick, someone tell the Chinese they’re supposed to be unhappy and miserable… sia/poll.php


Chinese satisfaction with the country soared in recent years, according to a survey of Chinese adults after the onset of civil unrest over Tibet and before the May 12 earthquake in southwestern China.

This is clearly a nation that sees itself as ascendant, and that leads to tremendous satisfaction with the way things are going nationwide, even though the people are still struggling on an individual level,” said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, which
conducted the survey.

Eighty-six percent of the Chinese surveyed said they were content with the country’s direction, up from 48 percent in 2002 and a full 25 percentage points higher than the next highest country, Australia. And 82 percent of Chinese were satisfied with their national economy, up
from 52 percent. By comparison, only 23 percent of Americans surveyed said they were satisfied with the country’s direction and only 20 percent said the U.S. economy was good.

Posted by Kari | Report as abusive

P.S. The volunteers and most everyone else did in fact keep smiling, bending over backwards to help, and remained friendly right up to the minute I got on the plane home yesterday. I’ve got such wonderful memories of all the warm and friendly people. You’ve got a lot going for you China so please keep moving forward with reforms and opening yourself up, especially with human rights. It’s a fascinating place. I hope it can become a fantastic place — for everyone — before long.

Posted by erik kirschbaum | Report as abusive

Oh My GOD!

It is fine to respectfully congratulate the chinese on their culture and the games. However, facism may make the trains run on time and the Parks stay clean. But, do not unconditionally praise facist society unless you would be happy to live in one yourself!

Posted by Marcos d. J | Report as abusive

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