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Blogging Beijing

The 2008 Summer Olympics will punctuate three decades of development and test China's global legitimacy. They've already transformed the way millions of people think and live. Seattleite and Fulbright researcher Daniel Beekman brings you Beijing.

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August 24, 2008 2:08 AM

Personal note, thanks and goodbye

Posted by Daniel Beekman

The Olympics are nearly through, and I'm headed back to Seattle. This is my last and 100th blog entry. Feel free to browse Blogging Beijing's archives - just click on 'Daniel Beekman' above.

China's politicians, magnates and athletes hogged the Olympic spotlight in 2007 and 2008. I hope Blogging Beijing afforded common Chinese voices a measure of respect.

There's more to Beijing than the Yao Ming, Wen Jiaobao, the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube, just as there's more to Seattle than Ichiro, Greg Nickels and the Space Needle.

Whether we consider China a threat, sinister and fascistic, or a partner, dynamic and strong, understand China we must. It's the world's most populous country and an economic power.

In 2001, Beijing's leaders promised a 'Humanistic, People's Olympics.' Perhaps they delivered. Perhaps not.

Regardless, let's follow their lead. Let's match their commitment. Let's exceed their good will.

As we in America and the Pacific Northwest strive to understand China, let's concentrate on the Chinese people.

Your correspondent in Beijing

Thank you to the U.S. Fulbright Program, the Institute of International Education and the United States Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs - for funding and guidance.

Thank you to the Humanistic Olympics Studies Center at Renmin University of China and Dr. Jin Yuanpu - for sponsorship.

Thank you to The Seattle Times - for space to report.

Thank you to my family and friends, Chinese and American - for love and support.

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August 22, 2008 8:43 AM

Olympic success for China?

Posted by Daniel Beekman

Ai Wei Wei says these Olympic Games are a waste - of money, of passion, of goodwill.

So he told The New York Times in an interview August 4. So he boldly declared by way of a guest column penned for The Guardian August 7.

Ai likens China's Olympic effort to a forced smile.

"I was questioning whether it's possible for a society that doesn't have democracy to excite the joys and celebrations of its people. And is it possible for such a society to win international recognition and approval when liberty and freedom of expression are lacking? There are all kinds of efforts under way that are means for stricter and tighter control. When these new security rules and restrictions are put in place, how can one smile and perform, cheer and pose?" - from NYT interview
"In the Olympics, we expect to witness new heights of effort and hope, speed and strength, that will inspire China to lift the pace of reform, to be more determined, more courageous, and more at peace with ourselves. To reach this point, China has endured disasters, suffering, humiliation, and a darkness that made people hopeless. Almost 60 years after the founding of the People's Republic, we still live under autocratic rule without universal suffrage. We do not have an open media even though freedom of expression is more valuable than life itself. Today is not the time to dwell on our problems, but neither should we accept those who tell us these games are not political." - from Guardian column

China spent $40 billion on the 2008 Games. According to Ai, the country's freedom was never for sale. Other Chinese see things differently.

"I like diving best," a young woman walking near Zhongguancun, 'China's Silicon Valley,' exclaimed. "China wins so many gold medals in diving. Actually, China will probably finish first in the gold medal count. We already have won more than 40.

"It's clear that Chinese sports have developed. We're all very proud. As Chinese sports develop, our country as a whole develops. Our economy, our culture, our living standard - these all may rise together."

Ai the artist trashed an invitation to August 8's Olympic opening ceremonies - spurning spectacle in the 80,000-seat 'Bird's Nest' he once sketched.

"I've always thought of this ceremony as a product of government bureaucracy, rather than a natural celebration and expression generated among free citizens," Ai wrote in The Guardian.

"I'll never forget watching (Chinese hurdler) Liu Xiang drop out," remarked a Beijing BBQ snack vendor. "And I'll never forget the opening ceremonies - so strong, so beautiful."

"I saw the opening ceremonies on television, at home with my family," an elderly neighborhood volunteer, pivoting to use her one good ear. "The best parts were little Lin's song, Chairman Hu (Jintao)'s speech and all the Chinese flags."

"The opening ceremonies demonstrated China's ability as host," explained a young woman out shopping. "I watched them in a bar. There were lots of Chinese, lots of foreigners. Everyone was very excited."

Labeled the 'Genocide Olympics' by foreign activists and the 'No Fun Olympics' by foreign reporters, Beijing's Games have yet offered moments of sporting glory - especially for China.

A young Team China fan poses for his parents on Beijing's Olympic Green.

Nini, one of five Olympic mascots, joins the Chaoyang beach volleyball cheerleaders.

"I'm in love with Michael Phelps," crowed the Zhongguancun woman, employed at an Internet company. "He's won eight gold medals - so of course many Chinese people admire him."

A western-style cafe on one Beijing college campus has screened the Olympics on a projector screen every day.

"My favorite memory from the Games has been Team China's (men's basketball) win over Germany," a waitress at the cafe said.

"My favorite? The Chinese rowers' last 1500 meters," said a waiter. China took its first-ever rowing gold in the women's quadruple sculls.

In the run-up to the 2008 Games, Beijingers spoke about China's Olympics in terms of success and failure - after an earthquake 8.0 on the Richter scale devastated China's Sichuan province May 12, even more so.

"(The earthquake) is horrible," said a Beijing construction worker in May. "Our work-unit has already pitched in - we've collected money for the relief effort. Fortunately, we trust our government. As for hosting the Olympics, China will succeed."

Months later, China sits atop the gold medal count. We've had a week of cool, clear weather in Beijing. The opening ceremonies drew oohs and aahs.

On the other hand, Muslim malcontents have mounted a series of violent attacks in China's northwest. Free Tibet activists demonstrated near Tiananmen Square and the Olympic Green. Police roughed up a British reporter. Americans were assailed on the Drum Tower.

Three days and the Games will be over. Undoubtedly, China's leaders will count them a success. Undoubtedly, China's critics won't. As for the country's people...

"Of course we've supported the Games. Of course we've been welcoming. Of course we've watched the competitions here and there," a bent old man in inch-think saucer spectacles confirmed, gesturing at his wheelchair bound friend.

"But we're hobbled. We're poor. No tickets. No Bird's Nest. We don't really know whether the Games have been successful or not, you see."

Down the block, five lao tou'er ('old heads') sat hunched round a tiny courtyard table, playing Chinese chess. A younger man tinkered with his motorcycle in the dirt nearby.

"Some of you foreigners have been courteous. Some of you haven't been courteous," one of the lao tou'er said. "Guests in Beijing but you don't understand China."

He turned back to the chess game and WHOMP slammed down a wood disk.

"Even so - yes, we've hosted a somewhat successful Olympics."

And now that the Games are nearly done, I asked finally, how do you feel?

No answer. WHOMP WHOMP. The chess game continued.


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'The Beijing 2008 Olympic Games: Not all of China is cheering'

'An Olympic hero, airbrushed from China's history'

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August 18, 2008 12:23 PM

Liu Xiang drops out

Posted by Daniel Beekman

There wasn't even time to gasp. China's swiftest son burst off his blocks, grimaced and disappeared.

Gold medalist hurdler Liu Xiang tweaked his Achilles tendon on a false start Monday morning, then quit the 110-meter heat.

"Four years," wailed a Chinese fan, peering down from the National Stadium's nosebleed section. "Four years waiting for this, and he's out."

Beijing's Bird's Nest National Stadium

Filial, humble and dashing, Liu has dominated China's Olympic imagination since Athens 2004. In Greece, he set a world record for the 110-meter hurdles, offering hope to sprinters of Asian descent across the globe.

(Note: For more background on Liu Xiang, see 'Liu Xiang vs. Lei Feng' on Blogging Beijing.)

"I want to prove that Asians can run very fast," Liu said then.

Liu ran the 110-meter hurdles in 12. 95 seconds in 2007, but scored bigger as China's most marketable man. He endorses everything from cleats to yogurt, soda pop to automobiles.

The 25-year old has, by all accounts, handled his fame gracefully. According to coach Sun Haiping, Monday's calamity had everything to do with Liu's injury. Yet few athletes have shouldered so much pressure.

A disappointing day of track & field in Beijing

Last year, 'I wish to see Liu Xiang become Olympic champion (again)' topped respondents' Olympic wish lists in an extensive Internet survey. 'I wish to become a torchbearer for the Beijing Games,' and 'I wish to watch the opening ceremonies with friends' lagged behind.

"To see Liu win is the dream of my entire family," one fan told the Beijing News last year. "We are confident that Liu will lead the pack and make our long wait worthwhile."

"He's our hero and China's pride," a retired schoolteacher lectured me this spring. "We Chinese all love him. We tell our kids - look at Liu Xiang. Work hard to improve your body. Do your best. Practice. Don't worry what other people say.

"Liu Xiang is a good boy. When he's not running, he helps people. He's our heart."

Back at the Bird's Nest - which seats 80,000 - silence greeted Liu's heat. For a flash, there he was on the stadium's big-screen - crumpled into a locker-room chair.

"Disappointing," a middle-aged woman remarked somberly. "So disappointing."

Another quarter-hour of women's hammer throw remained. The Bird's Nest emptied in five minutes.

"Oh no! Oh no!" whispered a young man, wrapping up a Chinese flag and shaking his head.

A paralyzing down day for China - so it seemed as Liu's faithful thousands poured onto the Olympic Green.

Only it wasn't.

Beijing's smoggy skies parted. Intense sunrays sailed in. And west of the Bird's Nest, a super-fun water fountain thrilled bunches of sopping-wet Chinese children.

One little boy clutched an umbrella, shrieking. Another slip-slid past delightedly - leaving a shoe. Two small girls held hands to splash around.

No winners. No losers. A wonderful up day for China. If only Liu Xiang could have seen it.

Water fountain fun on Beijing's Olympic Green


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August 17, 2008 4:04 AM

Beijing's Kite Master

Posted by Daniel Beekman

Michael Phelps has swum. Yao Ming has jammed. Gold medal fever has gripped Beijing.

On the sixth floor of his modest brick building, in the living room of his modest apartment, Ha Yiqi picks a gorgeous dragonfly kite off the wall and flashes his modest smile.

Beijing's greatest kite maker will watch these Olympics on television at home with his family - "No tickets, no problem," chuckled Ha. "I'm just an artist."

But Ha, like China's veiny gymnasts, belongs to the 2008 Games. For seven years he's championed a truly Olympic cause - bringing Chinese culture to the world.

"You foreigners - visiting Beijing for the Olympics - have your own skyscrapers and bullet trains," Ha remarked. "What don't you have? Two thousand years of Chinese kite culture."

A fourth-generation kite-maker, Ha demonstrated his craft before the globe's best athletes August 1-7 at the 2008 Olympic Village. Other Chinese folk artists - singers, dancers and shadow puppeteers - performed beside him.

"The athletes were so civilized," said Ha. "They watched quietly, listened and asked intelligent questions. They were interested - they'd never seen art like ours before."

The first athlete to approach Ha was a friendly man from the tiny West African river nation Togo.

"I gave him a small kite - a present," Ha recalled. "He was very grateful."

Russian tread-marks lead into Georgia and Beijing's protest pens remain empty, but according to Ha, the Olympic Village felt blessedly free of political tension.

"I enjoyed the atmosphere - when the athletes arrived it became hot (as in cool)," said Ha. "Over 200 nations. So many languages. So many faces.

"We met famous Chinese athletes, German gymnasts and a French badminton champion. We met people from 50 different nations one day. We talked a lot, and treated all the athletes the same - the athletes from China and the athletes from Togo."

Ha Yiqi is a fourth-generation Beijing kite maker and Olympic fan.

Ha devoted himself to the Games following Beijing's successful bid in 2001, working on government-sponsored xuanchuan (advertising or propaganda) campaigns. He'll keep on kites when the races are run; these Olympics have boosted cultural pride domestically, awareness abroad and furthered heritage protection.

"The 2008 Games have provided everyone with a chance to think about China," said Dr. Kristin Congdon, professor of film and philosophy at the University of Central Florida. "The Chinese government wants the world to understand who the Chinese people are. That story can best be told through Chinese traditions and folk art."

Congdon leads ChinaVine, an educational alliance designed to teach English-speakers about traditional Chinese culture. She and her students have documented Ha's craft, and that of fellow folk artists in Beijing and Shandong province for ChinaVine's website.

"Because I have made so many friends in China, I was happy that the opening ceremonies were so successful," said Congdon, who's seen Beijing three years in a row. "I think the show honored Chinese traditions beautifully. They were an artistic statement beyond my wildest imagination."

ChinaVine, a partnership between UCF, the University of Oregon and the Shandong University of Art and Design, is part of the cultural renaissance these Olympics have sparked. Of course, Olympic organizers here planned the Games for China's future, not its past.

"Many of Beijing's new buildings are world-class and I applaud the way so many people are being lifted out of poverty there," Congdon said. "At the same time, I mourn the loss of the city's traditional life. Folk art and folklore change with time and place, but Beijing is developing so fast, its folk art and folklore may not have time to adapt."

Ha, 54, is more optimistic.

"Beijingers' attitudes have changed since I was little - changed for the better," he said. "Back then the status of folk art was very low. Now searching through our history for meaning, for identity.

"People appreciate our craft more today. Just as our society has developed economically, it will develop artistically."

Born in Beijing to a professional kite maker, Ha grew up painting. He didn't try kite making until the age of 10.

"My first kite was simple. My father helped me," said Ha, opening a washed-out kite book. "I still remember - a double fly kite."

When Ha was 20, a friend and fellow factory worker asked him for a special kite. So it began.

"At first it was fun," said Ha. "Nothing more, nothing less. But I did a good job. And the more kites I made, the more I grew to love kite making."

Ha's great-grandfather was a kite maker. So was his grandfather. In those days, kite makers in Beijing depended on rich patrons for business. The Ha family ran a small restaurant as well.

"Our kite shop opened during the Qing dynasty," said Ha. "In China, Beijing kites are number one. Quality and exquisiteness, that's what Beijing's lords demanded.

"Kite making is unlike other arts. It requires a combination of imagination and skill, physics and aesthetics. If your kite looks great but doesn't fly..."

In 1970 Ha founded the Beijing Kite Art Company. He's determined to keep his family's craft alive.

"Chinese people have flown kites for quite some time. In the beginning, kites were used only for war. Now everyone can fly."

Ha and other Chinese folk artists' patience and passion have inspired ChinaVine participants.

"(Ha) is more a 'kite scholar' than a 'kite maker'" gushed Myra Tam, 27, a Chinese national from Hong Kong and University of Oregon graduate student. "He respects his family's business - his respect reflects the core tenets of Chinese culture."

"From a westerner's perspective, what really strikes me as special about Chinese folk art is the generations and generations of tradition," said Blair Remington, 20, a UCF undergrad who traveled to China this May as a ChinaVine photographer.

"The styles change to fit popular taste, but the techniques and processes stay the same. In America, if you make the same cookies for Christmas every year, it's a tradition. In China, it's only a tradition if your great-grandfather did it. I wish we had the same respect for history that the Chinese do."

ChinaVine participant Erika Rydell filmed Chinese folk art this March.

When you think 'Olympics,' you might not think 'folk art,' but every modern Games has paid homage to its host city's culture. Barcelona's Catalan, Cubist sheep dog, Nagano's snow monkeys, Atlanta's...Coca-Cola dispensers.

Most people here see these Games as a showcase for Chinese history and culture. Ha, though, believes in a deeper connection between sport and art.

"There's a powerful link between the two," the kite-maker declared. "Sport is art. You hear athletes saying things like 'our gymnastic art,' 'our diving art.' What they're saying is true.

"How do I know? I've watched American basketball players - the Dream Team. Their movements are very artistic, very beautiful."

Asked what he thought of Beijing's Olympic Village, Ha smiled, then described the compound's sprawling tennis and basketball courts, it's streams and trees.

"We artists have worked so hard," Ha said. "Performing for the athletes, even letting them was wonderful.

"They have banks inside the Olympic Village. They have Internet, restaurants and dry cleaners. We wanted to offer them something too - a tranquil, civilized space to appreciate art. I know they appreciated it."

Ha paints and tinkers with kites for art's sake. For tradition's sake. Mostly.

"For the Olympics we made a kite out of 205 different nations' flags," Ha said. "It stretched 103 meters, took seven of us 25 days. It looked so pretty, so harmonious up high. No animosity - everyone's flag in the same sky."


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'Chinese Inspired by Iraq Olympic Team'

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August 17, 2008 4:02 AM

Stubborn in Beijing

Posted by Daniel Beekman

(Note: No attempt was made to contact the state-owned company referred to below, in accordance with the principal interviewees' wishes. This Blogging Beijing entry, therefore, speaks to one family's experience only. It does not constitute a full investigation. The principal interviewees also asked that their names be withheld. Ayi is the Chinese word for 'aunt.')

Her first day in court, Ayi heard someone say, "What a troublemaker! Does she want to ruin the Olympic Games?"

Months later, the native Beijinger hoisted an enormous Chinese flag above her splintered door.

"I put the flag there to make my heart less worried," she explained. "Seeing it helps me keep faith. I trust my country - I trust what's right.

"I don't want to make a fuss and spoil the Olympics. But I have no choice. That's what the flag means to me."

When it comes to property, modern Chinese law is all a muddle. Ayi is wading through the mud...waist deep.

Others have dubbed her a crusading dingzihu ('nail-house' fighter). A dingzihu can't be bought. A dingzihu hangs on to his or her property, whatever the consequences.

All Chinese land belongs, officially, to the state.

"We don't have private property in China," explained Matthew Gao, Secretary General of the Beijing Planner's Society. "The state wields a lot of power. When these disputes go to court, the common people usually lose."

In booming China, where hard-hat crews raze land faster than Olympic hurdler Liu Xiang flies 110 meters, dingzihu evoke a combination of pity, admiration and impatience.

Beijing boasted between 3,000 and 6,000 hutong - narrow, twisting alleys - in 1949. Less than 1,000 remain today.

"We're trying to preserve the city,' observed Gao. "But we can't preserve it all. Beijing is too big. Most of it will be torn down."

According to the government, some 500,000 Beijingers have relocated from the city's center since 1990. The Geneva-based Centre for Housing Rights and Evictions estimates 1.5 million - 165,000 per year since Beijing won the right to host the Olympic Games.

"I never intended to become a dingzihu," Ayi said.

"I put the flag there to keep my heart less worried," explained Ayi, an unwilling dingzihu.

Ayis's tiny courtyard - no heat, no water all winter.

The house in question, a crumbling, one-story jumble of wood and brick, fell July 15 - nearly after Ayi's battle began. Where it stood, workers are laying down a new road.

Ayi never owned the house. She and her husband were long-time renters. Nevertheless, she balked when their proprietor, a state-owned Chinese company, ordered them out last year.

"We were told a unit security guards would live in our home," Ayi said. "That's all. No notice. No paperwork. Nothing."

The company offered Ayi, her husband a son another place, outside Beijing's 3rd Ring Road. She refused.

"It was an inconvenient, dangerous building," said Ayi. "Plus, the apartment was tiny."

In November, a construction crew visited the neighborhood. After a day of digging, Ayi realized they'd cut her pipes - the house had no water or heat. All winter, she trudged five blocks to wash.

"Ten or twenty security guards settled in," Ayi said. "They sat around yelling and spitting. My son couldn't sleep.

"I asked a boss of the company how he could treat a child this way. I asked him - 'if it were your kid, what would you do.' 'My son is grown and abroad,' he answered. Pah!"

One chilly December day, Ayi remembers watching TV. Suddenly, her house began to shake. The demolition of Ayi's block had commenced.

"My husband ran outside with a knife and made them stop - they ran away," she said.

Ayi and her family received threatening, anonymous phone calls.

In January, the company took Ayi to court, claiming unpaid rent. Ayi explained she'd never paid on a month-to-month basis before.

The court advised she leave and requested that Ayi's suitor find the family another house. Again, Ayi demanded more.

Most of Ayi's neighbors - employees of the landowning company - vacated their condemned homes quietly.

"They didn't want to lose their jobs," she said. "The court, the police, the company - they were all in it together, for the money. Can you believe it?"

"Who should be involved in development? I'd argue four parties: government, developers, designers and citizens," said Neville Mars, a Dutch architect who runs a think-tank in Beijing. "Here, two of those four participate. It's the government and the developers alone."

According to Gao, developers run a gauntlet of red tape before Beijing allows them to build.

"We call it 'five permits and a document,'" he said.

Ayi's dispute dragged on. She moved her eight-year old son in with his grandparents and scrawled three lines of Chinese characters on the home's plaster wall.

"People live here! Proceed with caution! Demolishers will face consequences!"

"People live here! Proceed with caution! Demolishers will face consequences!"

Workers demolished Ayi's house in July.

June came and went. Workers erected a high, blue construction fence around the house - an attempt to "clean up the neighborhood for Beijing's Olympics," Ayi said.

And then, less than one month before the Games, it was over. The company showed Ayi to a new home 500 meters away.

"In most cases, I think people are happy to move," said a spokesman with high-end developer SOHO China (not the company involved). "What's at issue is compensation.

"SOHO generally acquires property already leveled. We don't want to be involved in the painful process of relocation. People get very attached to their land."

Ayi is half-furious, half-relieved. Her family's new house covers 100 square meters. It's larger than her previous place and closer to her son's primary school.

Still, its floors are unfinished concrete. There's a weedy courtyard and a trashed tool-shed. Worst of all, the house may not last long.

"My friend at the company told me this home scheduled for demolition next year," Ayi sighed. "We'll go through all this again."

Beijing will halt for the Olympics; most of the city's 5,000 building sites have already shut down. Organizers want clean air for the athletes - construction dust free.

As for Beijing's common people, they're looking forward to a breather. Because once the athletes army of bulldozers will, for better or worse, shudder back into gear.

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August 14, 2008 11:26 AM

Boos, soccer, star-power at Worker's Stadium

Posted by Daniel Beekman

The boos that filled Beijing's Gongren Tiyuchang (Worker's Stadium) Wednesday night had nothing to do with unrest in Tibet. Or biased western media. Or human rights.

Seven years ago, Amnesty International reported mass sentencing rallies at Worker's Stadium - death row parades. But Wednesday's Olympic crowd - largely Chinese and 50,000-strong - directed its rage at Sergio Batista in a scene less macabre.

Entire sections of striped Argentina supporters - soccer fans here love South America's blue and white squad - turned on Albicelestes. They chanted "MESSI MESSI MESSI," desperate to see the wonder-boy Argentine play.

Batista, Argentina's Olympic coach for the 2008 Games, choose to bench 21-year old striker Lionel Messi and playmaker captain Juan Riquelme rather than risk losing either to injury.

Already through to the tournament's second round thanks to triumphs over Cote d'Ivoire and Australia, Argentina skipped past Serbia 2-0.

Chinese Olympic soccer fans wanted Argentine star Messi to play.

Nigeria advanced after an untimely red card crippled the U.S. squad.

Argentina-Serbia was supposed to be Wednesday's marquee bout, following Nigeria's gritty win against the U.S. earlier in the evening.

Batista's boys are supremely talented and Messi a delight to watch. The diminutive and quick-footed FC Barcelona attacker tallied a goal and an assist in Argentina's first 2008 Olympic match, against Cote d'Ivoire.

Young Chinese nationalists watching across downtown Beijing yelled themselves hoarse during Messi's opening ceremonies march into Beijing's National Stadium last week. My own men's league soccer team - a bunch of local 30-somethings - don modified Argentina kits every weekend.

Hungry fans of all nations jostled in line at KFC before Wednesday's doubleheader.

Looking for Messi, nicknamed El Pulga -'The Flea.'

It took 70 minutes for Gongti's pro-Argentine throng to rally behind the Serbs. Shouts for MESSI crescendoed after halftime, when he and Riquelme began to limber up. But Batista's three substitutions came and went without an appearance by either star.

An Argentine defender deftly flicked the ball backwards - toying with his Serb opponent to a smattering of boos. Soon enough, grade-schoolers and grandpas joined the frustrated chorus.

Whenever Argentina held possession, Worker's Stadium jeered. A bewildered but encouraged Serb team pushed forward to cheers.

Wild-eyed patriots are willing Team China to victory this summer, as numerous foreign journalists have described. Wednesday night was hardly a tribute to loyal collectivism with Chinese characteristics, however.

Wednesday was all about Messi. Wednesday night was all about star-power.

(Note: There were empty seats at Worker's Stadium Wednesday night, as there were Sunday at Beijing's Capital Gymnasium. Two weeks ago, Olympic officials accounced they had sold every one of the record 6.8 million tickets printed for the 2008 Games. So, what's going on?)


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August 13, 2008 5:36 AM

Beijing 2008 Games: Volleyball

Posted by Daniel Beekman

The balls were flying at Beijing's Capital Gymnasium volleyball venue Sunday night. The Germans clapping. The Poles spiking.

That's when Ms. Zhu, one of several thousand yellow-clad grandmas and grandpas - members of the 'Beijing Civilized Workers Cheering Squad' - turned to me and asked..."Are you an American? Are you a basketball fan? China is playing your Dream Team tonight."

Ms. Zhu then rattled off the U.S.'s starting lineup: Zhan Musi (Lebron James), Ke Bi (Kobe Bryant), Ji De (Jason Kidd), Huo Huade (Dwight Howard) and Kameiluo Andongni (Carmelo Anthony).

We'd just watched a lanky, fiery men's volleyball squad from Bulgaria dismantle China. Now Poland's giants went to work on Germany. Chinese flag folded neatly in her lap, Ms. Zhu relaxed. She began to pepper me with questions about basketball in the U.S.

"This has been fun," remarked Ms. Zhu, referring to men's volleyball at the Capital Gymnasium. "But I wish we were watching Wei De (Dywane Wade) and Yao Ming. They're great."

Olympic volleyball in Beijing - China vs. Bulgaria & Poland vs. Germany

Photos by Andy Ramdular

Anxiously patriotic during China's loss to Bulgaria, delighted by Poland's raucous fans and gaga for the NBA, Ms. Zhu reminded me why I wanted to attend these Olympic Games.

Security here is suffocating: police everywhere, no beer-gardens, wet markets and nightclubs shut down. Foreign reporters have dubbed the 2008 Olympics China's 'No Fun Games.'

Truthfully, Beijing lacks an Olympic carnival atmosphere. But here in the city of Mongol emperors and politico-engineers, people are having fun. Strangers are exchanging smiles. Athletes are performing miracles.

Ms. Zhu's quirky questions Sunday night didn't grant China's domestic press freedom. A spectacular parade of nations at Beijing's National Stadium last week didn't dampen human rights and Darfur-related fears.

Still, we're learning about China this Olympic month - as we never would have otherwise. We're learning what's wrong with Beijing, what's right and what we're willing to fight for. We're learning to respect another country. And judging by her NBA fervor, Ms. Zhu is too.

The World Cup is fun. So is the World Series. The Olympics can be fun too. But mutual respect and sporting excellence are the characteristics which make every Olympic Games special.

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August 12, 2008 9:43 AM

Purple park protest-free

Posted by Daniel Beekman

Last month, Beijing's Olympic organizing committee (BOCOG) designated Purple Bamboo Park a special 'protest zone.'

"I haven't seen any protests," said a retired schoolteacher from Liaoning province, in China's capital to watch the 2008 Games with her invalid mother. "I haven't seen any protestors either. And I walk the entire park every day."

Blasted here and abroad for human rights abuses and press restrictions ahead of the Olympics, organizers promised to set up three protest zones in Beijing: Purple Bamboo Park, Ritan Park and World Park.

While Chinese police have scooped up and deported a handful of foreign protestors this month, Beijing's protest zones have yet to host a demonstration. On August 7, the city sent three Christian activists from the United States home. Six Canadians with ties to Greenpeace and Students for a Free Tibet were deported August 11. A number of American Students for a Free Tibet have been detained and booted as well.

"This will allow people to protest without disrupting the Olympics," Ni Jianping, director of the Shanghai Institute of American Studies, announced July 23. "We're giving people a platform to express their views."

Authorities in Beijing normally punish all forms of protest. Demonstrations are banned outside of the city's Olympic protest zones. Posters, pamphlets, musical instruments and national flags larger than 1-by-2 meters are not allowed at the 2008 Games.

Ni and Susan Brownell, an American expert on the politics and culture of Chinese sport, urged Chinese leaders to make an exception for these Olympics. Protest zones have been a feature of every Games since Sydney 2000.

"I don't know what you're talking about," a young man watching taichi shook his head. "I don't think anyone wants to protest the Games anyway."

Weeks ago, supporters lauded the plan as a meaningful step for Beijing and a genuine concession to demonstrators. Others, including Brownell, predicted that organizers would use the protests zones to isolate and monitor disruptive activities during the Olympics.

Purple Bamboo Park swarmed Tuesday morning with baseball-capped 'public security volunteers' of military bearing, many equipped with earpieces and collar microphones. No protestors in sight, however. No protest zone signage. No protest zone.

"Yeah, the park's got a protest zone," answered an elderly woman playing jianzi (shuttlecock). "Over by the East Gate. Check there."

"Protest zone?" a public security volunteer posted at the East Gate repeated. "I'm not sure."

Protest-free Purple Bamboo Park

Back in July, BOCOG's security director, Liu Shaowu, revealed that groups wishing to demonstrate would require permission from local officials. Would-be-protestors must apply at least five days in advance, stating their purpose and program in Chinese. Slogan and posters need also pass review.

"Assembling to march and protest is a citizen's right. But it must be stressed that citizens must not harm national, social and collective interests," read an online BOCOG post attributed to Liu.

Even demonstrations held at the city's protest zones during the 2008 Games need satisfy existing Chinese law; the first stop for Chinese wishing to protest is the Beijing Public Security Bureau. Demonstrations that threaten the territorial unity of China are illegal, as are those that endanger public security.

Chinese without permanent or long-term residence in Beijing may not stage Olympic protests. Police here plan to detain for a month property rights activist Zhang Wei, who applied for permission to demonstrate in one the city's protest zones.

Zhang's application on behalf of her neighbors was rejected. Residents of Qianmen, a historic Beijing neighborhood near Tiananmen Square, Zhang and her neighbors say officials illegally destroyed their homes to make way for a pricey commercial complex.

Housing activists from Suzhou near Shanghai and a group which backs China's claim to a string of islands held by Japan were also denied permission to demonstrate. According to an activist from Shandong province who visited Ritan Park August 8, groups numbering less than five people need not apply.

"The whole park is an Olympic protest zone," a wiry man limbering up for kungfu with his friends declared. "Anyone can come here and demonstrate. But no one will. Why? Because the Games are not political. Because we all support Beijing.

"We old guys believe exercise is important. That's why we practice kungfu. Every morning we read the newspaper here and practice kungfu. Excercise is what the Olympics are really about. Exercise, friendship, peace, harmony! See my friends practicing kungfu - isn't this a harmonious scene."

Contrary to what a number of foreign reporters have written, at least one of Beijing's protest zones is located near an Olympic venue. Purple Bamboo Park's East Gate is across the street from the Capital Gymnasium, where a score of volleyball matches have already been played.

Anglers, boaters, joggers, babysitters and dancers filled the park Tuesday, enjoying a cooler-than-usual summer day.

"We all love China," smiled a grandmother. "Why protest?"


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