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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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January 29, 2008 2:42 PM

Homeward bound

Posted by Daniel Beekman

Beijing's ayis are headed home for the holidays, leaving dirty dishes and cranky babies behind.

According to China Daily, thousands of white-collar families will go maid-less during next month's Spring Festival - beginning February 7 on Chinese New Year. And they'll do so reluctantly.

Most ayis (live-in maids - lit. 'aunts') here spurn double or triple wages when fleeing Beijing, ignoring their employers' desperate pleas. Very few have roots in the capital - the vast majority are migrant workers.

The ayis' annual exodus inconveniences over-worked, wealthy Beijingers - so much so it's acquired a headline-appropriate name: 'maid shortage.' Spring Festival, China's most important holiday, sweeps 20,000-30,000 "indespensible" ayis away from Beijing every year.

"Chunjie ('Spring Festival') is my one chance to go home every year," an ayi from Hebei province told me, waiting to buy a train ticket in Beijing's West Railway Station last Tuesday. "I've worked in Beijing for five years - my first three, I didn't go home. I don't earn much. Rather than spend on a train ticket, I saved for my family."

According to the London Telegraph and the Sydney Morning Herald, Beijing's maid shortage is part of a larger trend in China today. The country's labor reserves are nearly spent. Rural migrants - who have powered China's economic revolution - aren't so expendable anymore. Consequently, their wages are rising.

Still, Beijing ayis and other migrant workers here have it rough. With the exception of Chunjie, most receive very little time off. That's why the city's trains and train stations stay crammed from January until March.

"I work construction," said a middle-aged dagong (migrant worker) killing time outside Beijing's Main Railway Station before an 18-hour train back to Jiangsu province in southern China. "Last year I worked on an Olympic stadium, although I don't know what sport it will be used for."

"This is my first trip home all year," he explained. "My wife and kids all live in Jiangsu. I send them my money. During my vacation, I won't get paid. We dagong love Beijing - it's so beautiful. And it's our country's capital. It's really great. But I'm always happy when it's time to go home."

The holiday season started January 16, amid widespread concern. Experts estimated that 30.09 million passengers would pass through Beijing - up 7 percent over last year. The capital, unfortunately, is set to handle just 21.03 million.

As a result, tickets are hard to come by. Every morning, huge queues form outside Beijing's railway stations and neighborhood booking windows. On the second day of the season, Beijing police nabbed 17 train ticket scalpers operating out of restaurants and phone booths around the city's West Railway Station. I visited the station with an English-speaking Chinese friend.

"I don't think I'm going to get my ticket today," a migrant worker sitting on her luggage sighed. "I work every day from 7am to 10pm (as a security guard, paid to keep squatters out of newly constructed buildings) in Beijing. My husband lives in Henan. At least my two sons are grown. One's a dagong in Zhejiang province. The other is in high school."

Across China, 178.6 million people are expected to ride the rails this Spring Festival season - making Chunjie the world's most massive annual migration. For perspective's sake, the United Kingdom's total population is about 60 million. In 1994, 40 passengers died and 44 others were injured in a train platform stampede. Even those Spring Festival travelers with tickets push and shove to board first - there's never enough room.

On Monday, snowstorms and ice had stranded more than 500,000 Spring Festival passengers in Guangzhou - a large southern city and railway hub. Temporary shelters were arranged and police dispatched to handle the frustrated crowds. Most stuck in Guangzhou were migrant workers returning home. Guangzhou is the capital of Guangdong province, a center for China's export industry.

"I've been working in a Beijing family," the Hebei ayi I spoke with said. "But the old man of the family died yesterday and I'm out of a job. When I return to Beijing next (lunar) year, I'll have to look for work. I have four children. My husband cares for them at home."

According to the Telegraph, maids in Beijing make between 800-1,500 yuan (US$100-180) per month.

"There is an big income gap between China's rich and poor," said a bleary-eyed People's Liberation Army janitor on his way home to Chengdu. "Many migrant workers live very hard lives."

Three friends I chatted with at Beijing's Main Railway Station were particularly excited to usher in the Year of the Rat.

"We're just dagong, so we have no real connection to the Olympics. But we're really happy the Games are coming to Beijing. Our families back home in Anhui like the Olympics too - the Games are helping China's economy."

A friendly man wearing all black, in line for a ticket at the West Railway Station, expressed a similar opinion.

"I go home once a year to see my family in Jiangxi province," he said. "But today, I'm not sure whether I'll be able to buy a ticket. I enjoy all the Olympics sports. I think all Chinese people should participate in the Games. Myself, I try to do small things - like picking up garbage. The Olympics are very important to our economy - they have boosted China's development."

I asked if the 2008 Games had or would change his own life.

"There's been no change to my personal economic situation," he replied.

"I work for an electricity company in Beijing, and I've noticed the government has invested a lot in our electricity system for the Games," a tall young woman from Hubei province's capital city, Wuhan, told me.

"I've been living in Beijing for one and a half years. I've been really impressed by the new stadiums and the environmental programs. Of course an income gap exists - every developing country faces that problem. It's natural. Generally speaking, we live in a harmonious society."

My Chinese friend helped me ask a young man from Anyang, a city in Henan where Chinese civilization began, his thoughts.

"Income gap? I've never heard of it."

Some travelers were dismissive of the 2008 Games.

"I'm just switching trains here. We in the military don't care about the Olympics," a young Hubei-bound PLA solider told my friend and I. "We protect the Motherland. We don't care about other things."

A billboard beside Beijing's Main Railway Station reads "New Beijing, New Olympics" (see photo below).

Yet many people leaving Beijing for home are taking the Games with them. I counted more than three official Olympics stores inside Beijing's Main Railway Station.

"These Olympics are very significant for China," a young salesman wearing a red Adidas shirt told me. "People want a piece of the Games for themselves. There are more and more people coming through our store now that it's Spring Festival season. Our most popular items are Olympic dolls - for family members - and Olympic coins - for friends."

"I like sports," said the Hebei ayi. "I like arm exercises, leg exercises. I like using the exercise machines in the park. I've watched the Olympics before, and now I want to see with my own eyes. I want to see what the Games are really like. But I probably won't get that chance."

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January 29, 2008 7:13 AM

Worth another look

Posted by Daniel Beekman

Last week, Blogging Beijing checked out Tianjin. According to one discerning reader and Tianjin local, however, there's much more to see. "Huge changes have taken place in the past few years - partially due to the Olympics," Cao Likun commented. Tianjin is a big city and I visited on a gray, chilly day. Many thanks to Likun for these photos.

Tianjin's brand-new, teardrop-shaped Olympic soccer stadium.

The city's former British Concession.

Tianjin's Drum Tower by night.

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January 27, 2008 7:24 AM

Bye bye bargains

Posted by Daniel Beekman

In upscale east Beijing, the night may belong to Salintun Bar Street - where sin-bent Western ex-pats exercise their 'right' to excess. But Yaxiu Market's relentless bootleggers own the day.

"Hey American! Hey friend! Shirt, ok!" they shout, zeroing in on a dazed Danish victim. She's middle-aged, money-belted and unprepared. They've clutched her sleeve. "You pretty. You say price. What you like? Come back now!"

Foreigners flock here for name-brand jeans, phony cashmere sweaters and cheap 'antiques.' Tommy, Ralph, Louis, Calvin - churned out after-hours (perhaps in south China's sweatshops).

And they'll descend on Yaxiu in sweaty droves this August - Beijing officials expect 500,000 foriegners to attend the 2008 Olympic Games.

Or perhaps not.

"The Olympics are going to be bad for business," a young Yaxiu t-shirt vendor told me. "Back in my hometown, I heard people talking about the 2008 Games. So, in 2007, I moved to Beijing. I wanted to learn English."

"Now I'm studying, on my own. But there are lots of things we won't be allowed to sell - like these brand-name shirts. During the Olympics, we'll sell only Chinese brands."

In all likelihood, Beijing's Olympic organizers are behind the change. Years ago, they pledged to crack down on all sorts of product piracy, particularly Olympics merchandise.

Public education campaigns here stress respect for intellectual property rights as key to hosting a 'civilized' Games. The International Olympic Committee is known for aggressively protecting its five-ringed brand.

Hoping to head off Beijing's copycats, organizers have opened a slew of official Olympics stores - one at Yaxiu (see photo below). The demand is there. But who wants to pay three hundred yuan (US$42) for an infant-sized doll? Despite the government's sternest warnings, bogus 2008 merchandise has popped up everywhere.

I asked a DVD vendor - her Yaxiu stall features a tall selection of box-set American T.V. shows (Deadwood, The Hills, 24, Gray's Anatomy etc) - why the Olympic crackdown.

"The government and organizers want to boost Chinese brands," she said. "They're also afraid that, to foreigners, China could look like a jiade ('fake') country."

On January 24, China Daily - Beijing's top English-language newspaper - reported that the Silk Street Market (Xiushuijie) has unveiled its own brand: SILKSTREET. Like Yaxiu, Xiushuijie is considered a one-stop shopping destination for overseas tourists.

According to China Daily, the SILKSTREET line will include t-shirts, jeans, jewelry, luggage, tablecloths and scarves. Though the newspaper story failed to state so explicitly - the market's highly popular counterfeit goods will probably be replaced.

Silk Street was once an open-air market, favored by tourists for years. In 2005, it moved indoors. Like Yaxiu, Silk Street now boasts hundreds of commercial stalls spread over six crowded floors.

Only those shopkeepers "with no record of selling fake or shoddy products within six months" have been authorized to sell SILKSTREET, Wang Zili, the market's manager told Beijing Evening News.

Although Silk Street's and Yaxiu's stall-lined corridors suggest variety, most shopkeepers manage a number of stalls and all report to one market manager. Cruise Yaxiu's basement and you'll notice the same flashy Nikes displayed over and over again.

That’s why Yaxiu's hawkers - rural migrants, overwhelmingly - clutch sleeves and scream.

"I rarely sell more than one pair of shoes in a day," one salesgirl admitted to me.

Chinese policies are frequently vague. In theory, Yaxiu banned fakes long ago.

"The Olympics will be great for business," a middle-aged saleswoman said. "We're not allowed to sell knock-offs, and we never do."

In practice...

"Of course we sell knock-offs," a young man showing sweatshirts exclaimed. "Reebok, Adidas, Abercrombie. We're not supposed to sell fakes, but we do all the time."

Come August and the Olympic Games, even Yaxiu's most committed bootleggers say they're planning to toe the IP line.

"We'll sell Chinese brands during the Games, sure," said the same young man, who lived in Henan province before Beijing.

Some Yaxiu hawkers are eager to support China's first Olympics.

"When we won the right to host the Games, in 2001, I was at home, in Beijing," a 37-year old toy seller - originally from Sichuan province - recalled. "Home was the restaurant where I worked. We were watching T.V. - my co-workers and I all together."

"We were so happy! You'd have felt the same. Everyone was lighting fireworks (at that time illegal inside Beijing's Fifth Ring Road) and nobody cared. The taxi drivers were all giving rides for free. It was beautiful."

Many at Yaxiu believe the Games won't affect them.

"A whole lot of people are coming to visit Beijing," a jacket vendor from Anhui province explained. But they're coming to watch the Games. They're not coming to shop."

"We'll see whether the Olympic tourists have enough time," said Yaxiu's DVD seller. "If they do, we could make some money. If they don't, the Games won't really matter."

"I moved to Beijing from Zhejiang province in 2006," a tailor's assistant told me. "The Olympics are very important to me. I don't know why. They have nothing to do with my life."

I approached a young woman checking and re-checking her nails, pushing US$3 dress shirts.

"Our boss told us not to sell jiade during the Olympics. Don't ask me why," she said, sighing. "I have no idea. I'm not a boss."

Interactive map of Beijing - follow up on posts and get oriented:



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January 23, 2008 9:47 AM

To Tianjin

Posted by Daniel Beekman

Olympics travel tip #1: if you think Beijing is gray, if you think Beijing is grimy, if you think Beijing is chaotic, sprawling or strange, spend a day in nearby Tianjin.

A municipality home to over 10 million people and China's most important seaport in the north, Tianjin will host a number of preliminary Olympics soccer matches this August. By then, the city will boast a brand new, teardrop 60,000-seat stadium and a bullet train to Beijing.

Tianjin is a potential economic powerhouse - its annual GDP now exceeds US$54.4 billion - but has, in recent years, lagged behind Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing. The municipality's urban center, which wraps around a broad river 45 kilometers in from the sea, is dotted with European colonial structures (following the Second Opium War in 1858, Britain, France, Japan, Germany, Russia, Italy, Belgium and Austria-Hungary all maintained concessions in Tianjin), and supposedly suffused with north China's tastiest deep-fried xiaochi ('little eats').

Last weekend, I woke up early and hopped a huoche ('fire-car') east to Tianjin. The train station was packed with Chunyun (Spring Festival) travelers headed home. My one-way ticket cost about US$5 - 42 yuan.

The trip took 70 minutes (bullet trains will soon cut that in half), the seats were comfortable and I had plenty of legroom. The countryside between Beijing and Tianjin appeared altogether dreary.

"Where to go in Tianjin?" my cabdriver, a pony-tailed, middle-aged woman, repeated the question. "Well, there is Food Street, and there's Ancient Culture Street. And, um...why are you here, anyway? Tianjin isn't really a fun city."

An hour earlier, my train had coasted into Tianjin - playing that soft, instrumental 'arrival' music ubiquitous to Chinese rail. The city's East Railway Station is kind of a dump - at least compared to Beijing's two biggest. Cold and sleepy, I hurried off the platform and across a muddy, wobbly 'skybridge.'

By the time I reached the station exit, other passengers from my train had already formed a ticket line by the gate. I joined them - anxious as they to secure my seat back to Beijing.

A handful of leather-coated cabbies swooped in on me as I lef the station, and I ducked into a mammoth convenience store. Because train rides in China can be so long, people often stock up on snacks before getting on.

Emerging from the store four yuan (50 US cents) poorer and one milk-tea richer, I hailed a battered, maroon taxi. We made for Tianjin's most celebrated tourist attraction - Ancient Culture Street. "I'm here researching the 2008 Olympics," I explained, then asked my driver about Tianjin and the Games.

"Yes, we're going to have soccer," she confirmed. "But, you know, I don't love soccer. I don't think I'll go."

Are there tickets on sale in Tianjin? She didn't know.

"We're supposed to learn some English - just like the cabbies in Beijing," she remarked. Her eyes wrinkled mischievously in the car's rear view mirror. "I just haven't started yet."

We turned onto one of Tianjin's main drags, which runs along the west bank of the Haihe River, and passed a construction site. A loud, concerned crowd of men had stopped working - one held a bloody rag to his hard-hatless skull.

Beijng's Olympic spin-doctors have christened Tianjin a 'Diamond on the Bohai Gulf.' Odd, modern bridges span the Haihe at regular intervals and seven new subway lines are currently under construction.

Tianjin hardly shines, though. Located downstream and downwind from Beijing, it's received more waste from the capital's factories than attention from Beijing's environmental stewards. Chinese cars are produced in Tianjin. Manufacturing accounts for half of the municipality's economy.

Tianjin has been compared to Baltimore - a once proud metropolis down-and-out in the shadow of China's capital. A Washington Post soccer blogger, in fact, recently nicknamed it 'Tiangrim.' Philadelphia is Tianjin's American sister-city. And for those of us familiar with the Pacific Northwest: Tacoma, anyone?

Ancient Culture Street sounded unpromising - another kitschy souvenir village. Beijing is full of quasi-historical sites where tourists and pushy tourist-hunters swarm.

Sure enough, the street was quite fake.

Fake, but great. Lined with knick-knacks, paved with flagstones and trimmed with red Chunjie lanterns, Ancient Culture Street was, unpredictably, beautiful. Lots cute Chinese kids around. Not many foreigners. Less crowded than Beijing.

A slim man selling miniature, handcrafted shoes as key chains was thrilled to show his wares off.

"Yes," he said, laughing. "I make them myself. Let's see...Yes, here's some soccer cleats. Do you like them? Nigh-keh! (Nike)."

I spoke with a woman hawking intricate red paper-cuts - the Chinese character for happiness, a flower, some Fuwa (cartoon mascots for Beijing 2008).

"We're very excited about the Games here in Tianjin," she told me. "Thanks in part to the Olympics, our salaries are rising - I used to make 700 yuan a month (US$90), now I make 1000 (US$115). Still, we're behind Beijing economically. I don't know why - that's for the leaders and the businessmen to decide."

It was freezing on Ancient Culture Street (Tianjin's weather is similar to Beijing's - cold and dry in the winter, hot and humid in the summer). Fortunately, a chatang team had set up shop right in the heart of the action.

Chatang ('tea soup') is made with a flour-based paste. Boiling water is poured onto the paste. Then sugars, spices and bits of dried fruit are added. It was fun to watch the chatang cook add water by tipping a huge, brass cauldron.

"In Chinese history, the three most important cities have been Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin," an antique-seller explained, inviting me into his store to keep warm. "In fact, Tianjin opened to 'the West' and began to develop first."

"Now Beijing is China's political and cultural capital," he said. "Tianjin is just an economic center."

What about the Olympics, I asked him. Could the Games help restore Tianjin's past glory?

"Of course, we're all happy about the Olympics," he answered. "They should be good for Tianjin. We've built the Shui Di soccer stadium, for instance. It's our Niao Chao ('Bird's Nest' - the new National Stadium in Beijing). I just heard on the news last night that 60 percent of China's international trade flows through Tianjin. But Beijing will have everyone watching it during the Games. Tianjin won't. Everyone here is studying English, but we have a problem. We aren't as well-mannered perhaps as those in Beijing."

"This year (meaning the current Chinese lunar year, which ends next month) our lives haven't changed," the 36-year old Tianjin native said. "But next year our business should be better. We'll bring up antiques from southern China - so that the foreign tourists will be able to buy them here."

An elderly woman shop-keeper also offered me a seat - a gesture rare in Beijing.

"I don't have anything against the Olympics," she explained. "But they won't change our lives. We've no time to go see the Games. I suppose we'll watch them on T.V."

Her middle-aged co-worker had something to say.

"It's too bad Tianjin got soccer," he complained. "China's team is horrible! And still the players make so much money!"

"We’ve lived here all our lives," the old woman added. "In the past there weren't all these tall buildings. I'm glad the transportation system is better. But the price of housing is now very high and Tianjin's poor are extremely poor.”

I left Ancient Culture Street in time to witness an open-fist slap fight between a bus driver and an auto-rickshaw driver - it ended abruptly when the latter's vehicle started to coast away - and headed for Wanghailou Church on foot. Perched over the Haihe near Ancient Culture Street, Wanghailou was built by French missionaries in 1869 and was the scene of a showdown between Christian and non-Christian Tianjiners one year later. The clash stemmed from reports that Christians were kidnapping and mutilated young Chinese children.

In a park near Wanghailou, I chatted with an older man.

"I think we're hosting some soccer matches," he said. "But I'm not really sure. What I know is that more foreigners are arriving. They're becoming more interested in Tianjin."

A quick trip to Food Street took up the rest of my day in Tianjin. Food Street was disappointing - just a bare, boring mall.

"I'm not really a soccer fan," my second cabbie, an affable fifty-year old man, admitted on the way back to the train station. "I guess I like our new stadium. Other than that…I haven't heard much about the Olympics. I keep busy driving."

Note: If you make it to Tianjin, check out the city's Boxer Rebellion Museum. The Boxer Rebellion was a Chinese social and military movement against foreign influence in trade, politics, religion and technology during the final years of the Qing Dynasty (1899-1901). Tianjin's Zhou Enlai Memorial Hall might be worth a visit too.

Interactive map of Beijing - follow up on posts and get oriented:



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January 21, 2008 1:22 PM

Beijing 2008 Q & A: Susan Brownell

Posted by Daniel Beekman

Few foreigners know Chinese sports and the Olympic Games like American anthropologist Dr. Susan Brownell.

Since her championship performance in track & field at China's second annual National College Games in 1986, Brownell has worked to build cultural bridges between Beijing and the 'West.'

Her first major work - "Training the Body for China" - was well received in 1995, and her second – "Beijing's Games: What the Olympics Mean to China" will hit bookshelves this March."

A member of the International Olympic Committee's Selection Comittee and anthropology department chair at the University of Missouri - St. Louis, Brownell feels, more or less, at home here. From 2002-2006, she translated Olympic diplomat He Zhenliang's biography.

I spent an afternoon with Brownell at her current base of operations - Beijing Sport University. A Fulbright U.S. Research Scholar for 2007-2008, she is working closely with Chinese academics and officials. Below: a truncated version of that interview.

What do you recall from your first year in Beijing - 1985-1986?

I first came here in 1985 to study Chinese at Bei Da (Beijing University). At that time I was a national-class track & field athlete in the United States - in the heptathlon. Actually, I had just competed in an international meet. I'd already begun my Ph.D at the University of California - Santa Barbara, I'd studied Chinese for two years and written two master's theses. My plan was to research sports in China.

After arriving, I went to the coach of the track team at Bei Da. He said I could join. I still remember that conversation - him asking me my best performances and times. My Chinese wasn't good at that point and he had a thick provincial accent. I had trouble understanding him. He couldn't believe that I'd just been training at such a high level - only a few weeks before. He kept thinking I was a retired athlete, because in China at that time you just didn't see high-level college athletes. All the athletes with promise were tracked into the state sports system, where their education was de-emphasized. In fact, that was a major problem back then. The state sports system was producing more high-level athletes than could be absorbed back in as coaches and administrators. They called it an 'exit problem' - chulu wenti. Even at that time, people were making efforts to hook up the state sports system with colleges - like in the U.S.

Anyway, as it happened, China's second National College Games were to take place that year. Other universities had been recruiting student athletes like crazy - accepting those with low admission scores and, in some cases, waiving entrance exams. All the universities hoped to gain face from the Games. But Bei Da (generally considered China's top university) had refused to lower its admission standards. The coaches there were worried that Bei Da was about to lose face.

That year, the Games were to consist of only two sports: track & field and basketball. So when Bei Da's coaches and administrators realized that they had a legitimate student on their doorstep who had passed all the requisite tests and who was a heptathlete capable of setting records and medaling in a number of events (Brownell), they were ecstatic. I was the answer to their prayers.

How was Beijing different back then?

At that time, though China's 'era of reform' had officially begun in 1978, there was still a state-planned economy. There were very few private markets on the streets and few private enterprises. You could get vegetables, peanuts - some kinds of food and clothes, especially in the embassy district. That was about it. I don't think there were any privately run Beijing restaurants in 1985-86. Going outside of campus for a meal was really quite an endeavor. All the public restaurants closed at 7:00 or 7:30 in the evening. We'd go out early and even then the restaurants would always be full. The service was bad. The food was bad. The standard of living was also much lower than it is in Beijing today. In the foreign students' dorms at Bei Da we had hot water for two hours in the morning and in the evening each day. The Chinese dorms didn't have any hot water. I learned how to take cold showers that year.

There were specific places to buy stuff with foreign currency. When you changed your American dollars into Chinese currency you didn't get 'People's money' - renminbi. You got 'foreigners' money' (FEC - Foreign Exchange Currency). With foreigners' money, you could buy things that renminbi couldn't buy. A black market developed. The rate was one U.S. dollar - to three bills of foreigners' currency - to eight renminbi. So we foreign students all went to the black market and changed our U.S. dollars into renminbi. The Uyghurs (a predominantly Muslim Chinese ethnic minority) were mostly the ones handling those transactions. Anyway, it was just this whole way of being a foreigner in Beijing that's gone now. Now you have to elbow out the Chinese businessmen at the five-star hotels - they're everywhere and they aren't very respectful of foreigners.

At that time there was also a job assignment system. You were assigned your job by the Labor Bureau. You weren't allowed to choose on your own. And it was pretty much a lifetime assignment, so people had very little hope for the future. College students, for example, were really pessimistic. It was depressing. I remember meeting very few, if any, happy people. My Chinese friends all wanted to leave China - get graduate degrees in the U.S. They mostly live abroad now. Of course, they were the cream of the cream of the crop. It's different today. There isn't the same desperate desire on the part of China's top students to get out. Now people here have so much hope for the future. Whereas this generation of young Americans are, for the first time in U.S. history, doubting that their standard of living will be higher than their parents' standard, Chinese students seem sure of it.

What about China's sports scene? What was it like in 1986?

I felt that my coaches at Bei Da were very well trained - probably better than the average American coach. There was a centralized training system in China. Presumably, all my coaches had graduated from Beijing Sport University. They were extremely professional. In that sense, their view of sports was not really that different from that held by American coaches.

However, 1985-1986 was the height of women's volleyball fever here. So that was a phenomenon unlike anything I'd ever seen in the U.S. The Chinese national team had won its fourth straight world championship. Their victories kicked off this huge wave of patriotic fever. They were national heroes. There were regular campaigns to "learn from women's volleyball." Back then everyone still had to attend weekly political study sessions. So, in your politics class, for example, you might have "learned from women’s volleyball." You were taught to "eat bitterness" and "struggle" like them.

The team visited Bei Da in 1985 and I was there. There was a mob on the sports field. Actually, that's something I really remember from my first year here - the mobs. You don't see those as much now. I was caught in crowds multiple times. It was scary, especially that day. There were 3,000 students on the field to watch the volleyball players give speeches. I was on the periphery and the mob was undulating back and forth. The people on the outside would press in until the people on the inside were getting crushed. Then the people on the inside of the crowd would press back. If you were in the middle, it was potentially dangerous. Whenever Bei Da held a function like that people would get hurt. I remember a Chinese friend asking me matter-of-factly later that day how many people had gotten hurt. Nevertheless, there was this general feeling that China had rejoined the world, and that Chinese athletes had led the way.

What is the relationship between the 2008 Olympics and Chinese politics?

In general, I think the outside world doesn't realize that the 2008 Olympics are being used to press China's government to do things for the Chinese people. Change usually occurs slowly here, but the Games have sped Beijing's political process up. There has been a huge push to clean up the city, for example.

There is a lot of inertia in Chinese government. A big reason for that is China's enormous population. The country is so big - it takes a lot of effort to accomplish anything. And the nature of Chinese politics contributes to that inertia as well. In Beijing, government consists entirely of guanxi wang ('webs of personal relations'). When you do something, as an official, you must consider how that something will affect everyone connected to you and everyone connected to them - ad infinitum. So political actions are like stones dropped into ponds. They send ripples moving outwards. No one particularly wants to make waves, and so only very slowly do things normally get done.

Consequently, Chinese leaders have, for decades now, used big events to accelerate change and get things accomplished. This is not just true for the 2008 Olympics - it's been done for years and years. Foreign reporters keep making a big deal of Beijing's Olympics-related politeness and anti-spitting campaigns. But those campaigns are decades old. They were certainly around in the 1980s. I was here right before the United Nations' Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 and at that time Beijing was doing similar things - there were campaigns to improve the politeness of taxi drivers, to curb spitting and to improve public health and hygiene. Just before the 1990 Asian Games, disposable chopsticks were finally adopted citywide in Beijing restaurants. In China, events are often agents for change. It's just that the Olympics are bigger.

If China's leaders are using the 2008 Olympics to get things done, what have been their objectives?

The government has really pushed forward both environmental protection and Olympic education. In the context of Beijing, Olympic education has meant training China's next generation to be 'international.' Many young Chinese have been trained via Beijing's Olympic volunteer programs.

But what does 'international' mean? Good question. 'Becoming more international' is a great all-encompassing slogan, but to realize it is a bit more of a problem. If you list what is being emphasized to these college students in Beijing, who account for most of the volunteers, the main thing is 'you need to learn to dare to talk to foreigners.' It's 'don't be afraid of them - go up to them - speak English with them - open your mouth.' The IOC pinpointed Chinese volunteers' English abilities as an area of concern a few months ago. But investigations here have showed that language isn't what's wrong. What's causing trouble is intimidation. Those volunteers observed by the IOC were afraid to open their mouths. In the end, young peoples' language abilities and attitudes are getting a lot of government attention.

Besides 'internationalism,' the Olympic ideals most emphasized in China with respect to the 2008 Games have been friendship, understanding, unity and peace. Olympic education here has been aimed at two distinct groups - volunteer college students and schoolchildren. The government has invested a lot in the teaching of the Games in Beijing primary and secondary schools. Basically, the idea is to teach international friendship and world peace through the Olympic Games, while also preparing young Chinese people for the world. Here in Beijing, the history of the Olympics is taught in a way that emphasizes first the Games' western origins, then China's slow incorporation into the Olympic movement, and finally China's ascendance to its place as an equal partner in that movement with these 2008 Games. It's not only Olympic history - it's a narrative of China's relationship with the outside world as well.

A clear day at Beijing's Beihai (North Lake) Park - 'I participate, I serve, I am happy.'

How did you become interested in sports? In the Olympics? In anthropology? In China?

Actually, I think my interests in anthropology and sports stemmed from the same basic motivation: I wanted to be a citizen of the world. That was what drew me to Olympic sports as an athlete. I grew up during the cold war. I competed in track & field. The big meet every year was the USA-USSR dual meet. It was a way of meeting Soviets you couldn't otherwise meet. For my generation, Olympic sports were really one of the few channels for international understanding - one of the few channels for communication with the 'Eastern Bloc.' I gravitated towards anthropology for the same reason. I wanted to understand people unlike myself. Anthropologists study those people who are most unlike them - western anthropologists typically focus on the non-western world. So I was first drawn to anthropology, and later to China.

I'd always been interested in China. My grandmother grew up in the Mississippi delta - her father was a prominent politician in, and at one point the governor of, Mississippi. He was known as a fair-minded lawyer and at that time there were a number of Chinese in the state. The Mississippi Chinese Association invited him to be their lawyer because they knew he'd defend their rights. So my grandmother grew up close to the Chinese community. Every Christmas Eve, they would knock on the door of her father's mansion and present him with a present. My grandmother kept the presents and gave one to me fifty years later - a woven silk tapestry with garden and pavilion scenes.

I decided to work here in China when I was at UC Santa Barbara. A classmate of mine was one of the first scholars to visit the mainland after diplomacy was restored in 1979. I settled on sports because things were really tightly controlled in China when I arrived here. You couldn't necessarily do fieldwork on most things. Sports were less politically sensitive than other areas of study - I suspected they might be my entree into Chinese society and that turned out to be true. I never encountered the problems and restrictions others did. In fact, I've never had trouble at all. I've been amazed at my access to top officials through the years. Sports have really been a leading realm - the leading realm - in China's 'opening up,' China's 'internationalization,' if that's a word you like.

How so? What role have sports played in China's 'opening up'?

Well, the main thing to realize is that the Chinese government is not stupid - you can't supervise rapid economic growth alongside an amazing level of social order and be stupid. People in the Chinese government know what they're doing. And one way they've always operated is to experiment.

They target certain areas with which to test out ideas and later implement those ideas throughout. That's what they did with the Special Economic Zones in Shenzhen and Xiamen, for example.

Sports have been a major experimental area. China's Sports Ministry was its first to do away with 'eating from the big pot' when it initiated an incentive system in the 1980s. Other ministries look to the Sports Ministry as a model. Why choose sports with which to implement the incentive system? Two reasons. First, in sports there is a clear winner and a clear loser. Performance may be judged on the field - where guanxi ('personal relations') doesn't matter. Second, sports are entertainment. They attract media attention. There is a level of transparency associated with sports that other realms of Chinese society don't naturally enjoy. If someone fails on the field, it's easier to hold them accountable.

In a way, sports have served as a model for how some of China's leaders would prefer Chinese society to function as a whole - transparent, emphasizing efficiency and performance. They want to get away from guanxi and zou houmen ('going through the back door' - relying on bribes, favors and guanxi). Sports have come to represent a non-corrupt, fair and upright society.

In the West, we tend to associate sports like basketball, tennis, track etc. with 'fair play.' Is that what you mean?

Not quite. The YMCA missionaries and administrators who introduced (western) sports to China were clearly hoping to teach Chinese people democracy and fair play. But they were naïve. Things didn't play out how they expected. Even today, I don't think Chinese people have the same notion of fairness that we have. It's not that they lack the notion - it's just that our notion of fairness is different from theirs.

Basketball, tennis, track and the rest - western sports have been domesticated here. They've been modified to fit Chinese culture. Look at Olympic education in Canada and Germany - fair play is stressed more than anything. Yet fair play comes second for Beijing. In the U.S., we teach our children to share - 'I give you my toy and you give me yours.' That's fair play. In China, humility is emphasized from the beginning and, consequently, Chinese teach their children self-confidence. American kids are raised to excel and taught to share. Chinese kids are raised to share and taught to excel. 'Faster, higher, stronger' - that’s been a focus of Olympic education here.

Who is He Zhenliang and why does he matter?

He Zhenliang is China’s 'Mr. Olympics.' He was born in 1929 and educated at a French Jesuit school in Shanghai. He joined the communist student underground during the period just before Liberation (1949) and met his wife. When the new (communist) government was formed, he was brought to Beijing. By 1950 he was working with the Chinese Democratic Youth League and soon became a high-level French interpreter. Mr. He assisted both (Premier) Zhou Enlai and (Chairman) Mao Zedong. That's how he got into diplomacy.

His first major assignment was the 1952 Olympics at Helsinki. These were the first Games China had ever taken part in - and the last for years to come. The Chinese didn't participate in the Olympics again until 1980 and 1984. The cause of that drought was a conflict involving China, the IOC and Taiwan. Mr. He spent 30 years trying to get China recognized by the IOC as the sole legitimate government of mainland China. He was co-opted as a member in 1981, which seems kind of amazing after you've read the letters he drafted to then-IOC president Avery Brundage back in 1958 - their correspondences were amusingly rude.

(Note: The Chinese withdrew from the IOC after pulling out of the 1956 Melbourne Games when the IOC allowed Taiwan to participate.)

A few years ago, I started to feel that the story of China's relationship with the Olympic Games during the Cold War needed to be told in English. What had been written in English at the time barely included Chinese sources and Chinese points of view. The English literature presented China's absence from the Games in the 1960s and 1970s as a boycott - which it wasn't. The West was shutting off mainstream diplomatic channels to and from China. At that time, China reached out to the 'Third World.' The Chinese built lots of sports stadiums during the 1950s and 1960s in Africa, for example. These days, people are upset about China's role in Darfur, in Sudan. But if the West is upset, it's the West's own fault. We drove China there. I really feel that China wanted to be a player and be part of the international community. They were excluded.

If the Chinese had agreed to co-exist with Taiwan, would China have been excluded from the IOC?

No, I don’t think they would have. But, to me, it's important to look at the situation from the Chinese point of view. People like Mr. He remember life in the communist underground. They were in danger of being grabbed by nationalists and executed at any time. Some of Mr. He's friends were killed.

Back before Liberation they had a keen sense of social justice. They looked around and saw Chinese society falling apart. The nationalists were corrupt. So Mr. He and his friends fought back. Years later, after a bloody civil war, they emerged victorious. They'd risked their lives to win it. They thought they had finally gained control of their own fate. And then the nationalists withdrew to Taiwan, claiming to be the sole legitimate government of China. And the rest of the world supported that claim. You can understand Mr. He's predicament. They'd fought a long, hard battle and they wanted their victory to be recognized.

How did you end up translating Mr. He's biography? What was that like?

Initially, I was going to try and write the story of China's relationship with the Olympic Games myself. I contacted Mr. He for an interview. The day before we met, I saw his biography on a bookshelf (Mr. He's biography was penned by his wife). I assumed it would be another boring piece of propaganda about a Chinese official. But I bought it and when I started reading it I was amazed. Here was a real insider's account.

I hadn't known it was possible to be so candid in China. That's when I realized I didn't need to do the research myself - my story had already been written. The next day, I asked Mr. He if he had plans to translate the book and he said I could do it. That was in 2002. I spent four years of my free time working on the translation. The book launched in April 2006 with a celebration at the Great Hall of the People in Tian'anmen Square attended by current IOC president Jacques Rogge.

Dr. Susan Brownell and China's Mr. Olympics - He Zhenliang. (Xinhua photo)

In terms of Chinese Olympic history, where do we stand today?

In 1993, Mr. He and China made a bid for the 2000 Games to be held in Beijing. They failed. Why? There was a huge amount of anti-Chinese sentiment in the world at that time, of course - but today there is probably more. The real reason may have been the money that Australia gave two African IOC members the night before the vote. At that time, what they did was quasi-legitimate - they accepted money for their national committees' sports development programs. However, it wouldn't be considered legitimate now. China lost by two votes.

What people don't understand is that a huge number of IOC members are African. A huge number are from the Third World. Those men and women don't care much about pollution or human rights violations in China. In 1993, a western bloc voted for Sydney. It was solidly against China. And still, Beijing nearly won.

What made the difference in 2001 was eight years of steady economic growth. In 1993, China wasn't ready to host the Olympics. By 2001, it unquestionably was. In 1993 no one knew whether the country's economic growth would continue and there were questions about political stability. By 2001 those weren't really issues. Organizationally, Beijing had the ability. It had hosted many international competitions by then.

So, what do the Olympics mean to China? How do various sorts of Chinese people view the 2008 Games?

Well, the first written record of a call for an Olympic Games in China dates from 1907. So, for Chinese patriots, the idea of hosting the Games has been a fixation for 100 years now. In that time, the U.S. has hosted eight Olympics, starting in 1904. It's hard for Americans to understand what the Games mean to China.

I think that for all Chinese people - officials, intellectuals, common people - hosting the Olympics is the culmination of a 100-year desire to see China take its place as a major player in world politics. Because of that, people here who may have specific complaints about aspects of the Olympic Games differentiate between personal interest and national interest. National pride and support is so widespread. And that's not just true of Chinese people living in mainland China. It's also true of those living in Taiwan and overseas.

Why the Olympics? How will the 2008 Games confirm China in its new role as a global heavyweight?

How do you know that you have become a major actor on the world stage? That's tough. There aren't a whole lot of symbolic markers. Where's the proof? In many ways, the Olympic Games can serve as the proof. Tokyo marked Japan's emergence by hosting the Games in 1964 and Seoul did the same for Korea in 1988. Now it's Beijing's turn in the Far East.

If you take a look at the U.S.'s first Olympics - St. Louis in 1904 - you'll find a lot of the same rhetoric being used in Beijing today. The U.S. had just acquired its first colonies, including the Philippines (in 1898) following the Spanish-American War. The Games were held in conjunction with a World's Fair, which featured a display on the people of the Philippines. 'We are a major civilizing force in the world,' the Americans were saying at their first Olympics. 'Look at us.'

And the U.S. hadn't been nationally humiliated. We still haven't been. The Chinese have. Their understanding of modern history is that China, a great empire, was brought to its knees by the West and by Japan in the mid-19th century. At that time, we called China 'the sick man of East Asia.' That label has loomed large in the Chinese imagination for over 200 years. 'The West and Japan do not respect us,' the thinking goes. 'They don't respect Chinese culture.'

This is a big deal because, for the Chinese, symbolic respect between nations has always been extremely important. In China there have long been highly ritualized ways for polities to express respect to each other, and the West lacks those traditions. The Olympic Games have a meaning here they don't have in western culture. Here the Games are like a big party. You're inviting people into your home. You are showing them hospitality. You are gaining 'face.' Mr. He argued this to his fellow IOC members a long time ago. 'You have hosted us many times,' he said, 'and we haven't yet hosted you. This has embarrassed us. We want to repay our debt to you. We want the chance to invite you to our home.'

This is China's moment to be the host and to express its respect for other nations. China will do this very well. But guests are also supposed to express respect to their host. When the western press comes and criticizes China on human rights or Tibet, the Chinese become angry. From their perspective, a big party is not the occasion to express those kinds of feelings.

What about regular people here in Beijing?

Common people here don't think the Olympics affect them too much. They feel rather distant from the whole process. Most anticipate that they may not be able to buy tickets, for example. But recently the Games have served as impetus for improving the environment and local infrastructure. You can look around and see the energy and optimism the Olympics have encouraged in people here, and you can see the construction.

What is one crucial misconception held by most Americans when it comes to the 2008 Olympics, Beijing and China?

The stereotype Americans have is that China is a dictatorship - that Chinese leaders don't have a lot of popular support and are therefore using the Olympic Games to legitimize themselves. None of that is true. It's not a dictatorship - it's a pretty well-run, open society. In some ways, the Chinese are more open than we are in the West. China's government has a lot of popular support. I think that Chinese people believe in government more than we do in the U.S. The government's primary goal here is not to legitimize itself. I think it is trying to shape the next generation of Chinese people to be international - which will benefit China economically and politically.


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January 18, 2008 6:45 AM

A walk in the park

Posted by Daniel Beekman

Beijing bustles.

There are ducks to roast, cell phones to sell, bumpkins to fleece and towers to build. Taxis swerve past SUVs, buses cut off motor-carts. Pedestrians scatter. It's overwhelming - the manic pace of Chinese development.

When people here tire of racing and honking and drilling, they chat and they cook and they eat. Sometimes, they also escape - into Beijing's neighborhood parks.

Parks here are quiet. During the week, it's grandparents and grandbabies who visit. On the weekend, families and couples come too. Tai Chi is a popular park activity. Its devotees' slow, measured movements hint at what Beijing used to be - a city wrapped tight in tradition.

The 'new' capital's buses and subways are chronically crowded, its dance clubs and fast food restaurants packed through the night. Amidst much social and physical change, neighborhood parks offer Beijingers something Wo Er Ma (Wal-Mart) can't: peace of mind.

Tai Chi is just the beginning. There's plenty to see and to do. Every morning in Yuyuantan (Deep Jade Pool) Park, off Beijing's West Third Ring Road, rambunctious middle-aged men strip on the banks of a half-frozen lake and plunge in. Scores of seniors, grasping what look like over-sized ping-pong paddles, dance, guiding small rubber balls through the air.

Calligraphers paint Chinese characters on the park's stone-cobbled paths - dipping their brushes in buckets of water and squatting to lecture a crowd. Couples launch into a waltz nearby.

'Park Sounds' - leave Beijing's busy streets behind and pick out the noises listed below (please allow time for audio to load):

'Park Sounds': construction - the radio - birds chirping - choral practice - a friendly quarrel
- jianzi (similar to hacky-sack) - creaky exercise machines - a string quartet

Yuyuantan isn't Beijing's most famous park - that's Beihai (North Lake) Park - but it boasts a colorful history all the same. Located east of Yuetan (Temple of the Moon), Yuyuantan was once known as Diaoyutai (Anglers' Terrace). During China's Jin dynasty (1113-1234) an official hid there disguised as a fisherman. The Jin emperor Zhangzong may have fished at Diaoyutai as well.

"Grass grows lushly on Yuyuantan/
The gurgling spring flows into distant streams/
Weeping willows line the dykes before darkening hills/
Peach blossoms float on the water at sunset."

So a poet wrote, eight centuries ago.

A number of ornate, imperial structures once graced Diaoyutai; by 1949 and the Communist take-over, most had been destroyed. Today, a bus stop, a neighborhood and a government guest-house - where Mao Zedong's wife watched American films and sat out the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) - bear the name.

Built in 1959, the 15-villa guesthouse has hosted Mikhail Gorbachev and Princess Diana. Richard Nixon met Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai there in 1972. A villa (including 40 private attendants) runs about US$20,000 - per night.

When Diaoyutai/Yuyuantan's original lake was expanded in 1956, city workers planted poplars and willows on its banks. Today, bridges, rock gardens and small picture-book hills can be also found. Peaceful during the winter, Yuyuantan attracts hordes of Beijingers every spring. In April, they swarm to the park with cameras and parasols to enjoy blossoming fruit trees (diplomatic gifts from Japan).

Like much of Beijing, Yuyuantan is currently under construction. Banners posted along the lake promise stunning new vistas, paid for with Olympic money.

I spent an afternoon in the park, chatting up locals with the help of a Chinese friend.

"Recently there have been lots of improvements," an elderly man on a walk with his wife told us. "We're proud of how the Games are bettering Beijing's environment - even parks like this one are under renovation. They added stone steps to that hill. With the steps, it's much safer."

"We're old, so we plan to watch the competitions at home - we won't go to the Games," his wife said. "We know very little about the Olympics."

Not true. Like most Beijingers, these two were clearly informed.

"The air is better these days," said the man. "We now have more than 260 clean days a year. Unfortunately, it's impossible for the government to eliminate all of Beijing's pollution right away. We have to be patient - our environment is slowly improving."

My friend and I interviewed a young couple as well.

"We applied for Olympics tickets on the Internet months ago," said the young woman, a 25 year old banker. "But the Games are so popular here - there aren't enough tickets. Beijing's organizing committee must select applicants randomly. We probably won't be selected, even though we booked tickets for every event."

One and a half million tickets for the 2008 Olympics were allocated during a first round of sales last summer. Applicants were awarded tickets by lottery.

Phase Two was supposed to be different - 'first come, first served' - starting October 30, 2007. But the organizing committee's online ticketing system, designed to handle 150,000 applications per hour, had - three hours in - received 20 million hits. It crashed, Phase Two was postponed and Beijing's head of ticket sales, Rong Jun, was chastised, then fired. Only 9,000 tickets were sold.

Rong's fellow officials regrouped. They collected 340,000 Phase Two applications, accounting for two million Olympics tickets, between December 10 and December 30, 2007. As with Phase One, applicants will be awarded tickets by lottery. Rhythmic gymnastics, table tennis and diving have proven especially popular.

"Overall, we believe that the Games have been good to Beijing," said the young man, a publishing house editor. "Tickets or no tickets, the Olympics are still beneficial. But I wish we'd had more time to prepare. The stadiums and athletic facilities will be fine, but our new subways are being built hastily. Their quality can't be guaranteed."

In terms of hosting the Olympics, I asked, are Beijing's officials doing a good job?

"It's very unlikely that there will be problems during the Games," he replied. "But the government hasn't given enough thought to what will happen after the Olympics. They've been focused on this single event. In the future there will be problems, perhaps."

We stopped to chat with three 10 year olds skipping home - two pig-tailed girls and a shy chunk of a boy.

"We love the Olympic Games!" they cheered.


"Because we'll go on holiday!"

"He's the Olympics newsboy for our school," one of the girls told me.

"Yes, I read the news to my classmates five days a week," said the boy.

What kind of Olympic news do you read? I inquired.

"Just news about athletes, the environment and the ancient Olympics in Greece. Stuff about the Games. Like, why is there an Olympic torch? I know a lot about the Bird's Nest and Watercube (Beijing's brand-new National Stadium and National Aquatics Center)."

For example?

"Well, the Watercube is designed to look like it was built out of bubbles."

How have the Olympic Games changed your life? I asked him.

"Before we started preparing for 2008, I didn't care about sports very much. But now we learn about the Games in school and I watch Olympics cartoons on T.V.," he replied. "We're very proud that the Games will be held in Beijing. If China wins many gold medals, we'll applaud. Actually, I want to become a soccer player."

"You can't, fatty," the girls chimed in.

My friend and I also spoke with a husband and wife who grew up in Beijing.

"This is a popular park," the husband said. "People come here to exercise and to play. The Olympics have improved the peoples' awareness with regard to personal health. Our physical vigor has reached a new level."

And outside the park?

"The government's public education campaigns are great - the line-up and anti-smoking campaigns. They are improving the people. Native Beijingers are okay, but many people who come here from other places have bad habits. Now that we're hosting the Games, they are better."

"The Olympics have raised our standard of living here in Beijing," he continued. "We love the Games. Although Beijing is becoming an international city, the Games will allow us to introduce our local culture to the rest of the world."

We caught up with a 52 year old man moving gingerly down a dirt path. He turned out to be a retired city official.

"I walk every day," he remarked. "But I have a blood disease and my body is deteriorating fast. It's hard - all my kids are living abroad. They won't come back. They say they want to be 'free.'"

"These Olympics are primarily the business of the younger generation. But, if they asked for my help it would be my pleasure to serve."

"I'm happy when China wins gold. I always watch the Olympics. Of course, international friendships are more important than medals. The Games will showcase our food, our culture and our historic buildings. Old Beijing is getting a boost from these Olympics," he assured us.

"There will be air pollution during the Games - that's inevitable," a snack-vendor explained. "Beijing's government is doing everything it can - they'll pull cars off the road, etc. But there will be pollution. In that sense, the Games symbolize Chinese development."

My friend and I approached two elderly women. They sat on a bench, watching the water.

"We're just old wives," one of them told me. "But we do our part nonetheless. We come here to dance and sing Olympic songs. We're so happy for China - in fact, it's hard not to be happy these days. Before 1949 we were poor. We didn't have food, clothing or shelter. Now we'll host the Olympics, and it's all thanks to Chairman Mao. We admire him very much."

"You're an American," her friend said kindly. "China's old wives welcome you and your sportsmen."

If he were alive in 2008, I wondered aloud, what would Chairman Mao think of Beijing's Games?

"He would love them, of course! In 2001, when it was announced that China had won the right to host the Olympics, we all cried. Many people filled up Tian'anmen Square. President Hu and Prime Minister Wen gave wonderful speeches. They care about us - the common people. That's why we support them."

A retired pilot jogging around Yuyuantan agreed with the park's 'old wives.'

"If it weren't for the Games, our children would be abandoning Chinese traditions much faster," he said. "We're behind our leaders. Beijing will - without question - hold a successful Games."

Observations, suggestions, park experiences to share? See Blogging Beijing's comments feature below.

A tired, old boat rocks gently in the canal just west of Yuyuantan/Diaoyutai. Emperors once rowed past here on their way to Beijing's luxurious 'Summer Palace.'

Dancing might be the number one activity in Beijing parks. Sometimes people hop to live music - more often they spin records.

An elderly man and young boy examine a map of Yuyuantan. The park is huge - I've spent hours there and still haven't seen all of it.

From a bridge spanning the lake at Yuyuantan: a view of Beijing's CCTV (Chinese Central Television) Tower. The tower, located just west of Yuyuantan is 238 meters high (405 meters with antenna). It was built in 1992.

Most parks in Beijing contain free, outdoor weight machines and exercise equipment. I recognized some of the contraptions at Yuyuantan. In order to try out others, I had to use my imagination.

Beijing isn't known for its green spaces, making Yuyuantan's wooded hills all the more special.

Garbage piles up in between old houses just outside the park.

When the lake at Yuyuantan freezes over, there's skating and sliding galore.

It wasn't originally named "Angler's Terrace" for nothing - many Beijingers still ice-fish here. "We catch about one small fish - about this big - each day," one angler told me, holding his hands just a few inches apart. "This actually isn't the historical Daioyutai - that's to our east. Now it's a government guesthouse and we aren't allowed in. China's leaders fish there."

Beijing park goers enjoy jianzi ('featherball'), a Chinese folk game also known as 'shuttlecock.' Although jianzi involves kicking a stack of feathered coins instead of a ball, it's similar to hacky sack.

Not even a thick coating of ice stops Yuyuantan's 'polar bears' from hitting the water.

Before diving into the water and while drying off, these brave Beijingers let loose thunderous, good-natured yells. "OhOhOHHHHHHHH!"

Free time on a Sunday afternoon? Why not carve a swimming pool out of Yuyuantan's ice?

He may not be an Olympian, but this gymnast had picked up a following.

A park-goer treats herself to a post-workout massage.

An elderly Beijinger checks up on Yuyuantan's ongoing Olympic restoration.

'Park Scenes' (please allow time for video to load):

Interactive map of Beijing - follow up on posts and get oriented (please allow time for map's features to load):

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January 18, 2008 2:08 AM

Parachuting into Beijing - revisited

Posted by Daniel Beekman

Ryan Blethen of the Seattle Times recently visited China as part of a journalist exchange organized by the Honolulu-based East-West Center. His experience in Beijing as a much-handled 'media friend' opened Blethen's eyes to the challenges faced by 'parachuting reporters.'

This from Blethen's blog - Daily Democracy (Journalism and the Olympics, 1/17):

"I have been reading stories from China with a much more skeptical eye since returning from a work related trip there in September. It did not take me long to understand the Chinese government's obsession with controlling the message."

Click "here" to read more.

Blethen also wrote a column about his time in China and about Chinese press freedoms, which ran Sunday, January 13 online and in the newspaper. To read that column, click "here".

Once again, feel free to share your own opinion via Blogging Beijing's comments feature.

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January 15, 2008 2:57 PM

Parachuting into Beijing

Posted by Daniel Beekman

Now that the 2008 Olympic Games are less than one year away, foreign reporters are beginning to descend on Beijing (more than 20,000 will cover the events in August).

Only the world's largest, wealthiest media outlets maintain permanent bureaus here. The New York Times, the Washington Post, Agence France-Presse, the Times of London, etc. Aside from the men and women who run those bureaus - known as 'China hands' for their intimate knowledge of Sino affairs - foreign reporters assigned to Beijing must 'parachute' in and quickly take stock of the capital's Olympic preparations.

Their stories, which appear in newspapers daily, follow a certain formula: cab ride into Beijing - high-level interview - night at a four-star hotel - trip to Tian'anmen Square. On the one hand, these are experienced, talented newshounds - they deliver the facts and figures we readers crave, and the bare-bones news we need to know.

But, in terms of real truth-seeking, 48 hours is not enough - it's a whirlwind tour. Lacking both depth and context, the quick-hit narratives penned by parachuting foreign reporters may lead readers astray. Some sensationalize Beijing's air pollution problem, for example.

"During a recent visit to Beijing," one American journalist recalled, "I was struck by how gray and dark it was in the morning when I opened the draperies in my hotel room. It must be raining, I thought. But there was no moisture on the pavement. Those were not rain clouds. That was pollution. You feel it in your throat as you hail a taxi upon arriving at the airport; you smell it on your clothes at the end of a long day in Beijing."

Most newcomers (foreign and Chinese) react to the city's smog that way - I know I did. Beijingers don't. By and large, they wake up ready to face pollution. By and large, they believe the quality of Beijing's air is improving. By and large, they're confident gritty skies won't ruin the 2008 Olympics.

Beijingers' comparative indifference to smog hasn't blown it away. The city must continue coming to grips with a serious pollution problem. However, local attitudes and perspectives deserve 'western' readers' attention. Foreign journalists need only to listen.

Many visiting reporters blaze trails for tourists. 'Headed to Beijing in August 2008?' they ask. 'Here's what to expect.'

"The smog and traffic are what get to you on a first drive into Beijing. That, and a suspicion that the international airport's foreign exchange counter has given you a raw deal and that the man who has talked you into taking his limousine taxi is going to rip you off. On a good day, it might take up to an hour to get into the heart of the city at Tiananmen Square along the Avenue of Everlasting Peace," another American journalist warned.

Such descriptions are relatively harmless. The journalist quoted above, for example, neither understands nor purports to understand the myriad social and economic currents coursing through Olympic Beijing. Neither does this Bay-Area T.V. news reporter (excerpt from her blog):

"June 26th - Up at 5 a.m. Off to the Forbidden City. It already has to be 80 or 90 degrees outside. No breeze. Humid and completely smogged in. No one was at the gates to the Forbidden City when we arrived and it was a quite an experience to have the huge plaza to ourselves. By 7 a.m. the Chinese tourists start to arrive. We had a great time trying to do interviews with our interpreter. Lots of laughs and a lot of people who were very shy of the camera. On the other hand, a lot of people asked to take their picture with me. I think the combination of my blonde hair and the NBC microphone made me a tourist attraction as well. I felt a bit like the Giant Panda at the Zoo."

It's when 'parachuting' journalists stray from hands-on reporting that formulaic rhetoric and questionable punch-lines sneak in.

"There may be times next year when China will appear like a nervous host who hopes party guests will leave without staying too late or causing trouble," opined a Canadian sports-writer last year, offering little evidence to back up that claim.

Although 2008 will bring some of the world's best reporters to China, I've read stories dispatched by journalists here that read as if they were composed on airplane tray tables half-way to Beijing - 'city sweeps human rights and environmental abuses under the proverbial carpet as chivalrous western media arrive to cover civilizing Olympic Games.'

According to USA Today, Chinese officials are "evicting tenants to make room for visitors, shutting down factories to reduce pollution, plotting to control weather, staging rallies to teach English and ordering Beijing's brusque citizens to mind their manners. Whatever it takes, the organizers of the Beijing Olympics are determined to put on the grandest Games ever...and make them a symbol of the communist nation's arrival as a global economic power."

The newspaper's assessment may be dead on - less than a 'China hand' myself, I'm not one to argue. But loaded phrasing ('plotting,' 'staging,' 'ordering,' 'whatever it takes') - repeated across publications - bespeaks lazy reporting.

With regard to the Chinese government, in particular, one quick-hit narrative struck a decidedly patronizing tone.

"China and its 1.3 billion prospective soft-drink and credit-card consumers will open themselves to the world in a way that the Chinese government might not yet fully comprehend," a visiting American journalist wrote. "International corporations are salivating at the thought, which is, of course, the main reason China won the right to host these Olympics. For perhaps the first time in its history...Chinese leaders will be unable to control the message being sent from their borders. Until now, various Western news bureaus have butted heads with the Chinese thought police. But this summer, thousands of foreign journalists from every spot on the globe will demand to play by their rules, not China's."

The August arrival of a feisty world press may give Beijing some trouble. Still, I'd call the argument quoted above naive. China may be a developing country, but the men and women running Beijing's Olympics aren't dumb. They've been prepping for nearly a decade.

As the Games approach, more reporters will 'parachute' into Beijing. Weighed downed by interpreters, jet-lag and deadlines, they'll be hard-pressed to deliver cutting cultural commentary. One U.S. journalist assigned to cover August's Olympics put it this way:

"If the Games are a facade, a Potemkin village, how would I know? If I had gone to the Olympics in Mexico City, I might not have known about the students shot in the Tlatelolco protests 10 days earlier until I read about them in a history book. People still don't agree on whether a few hundred or thousands of people were killed. I doubt I could have sorted out the details in the hours between the 100-butterfly heats and the balance-beam finals."

It's not only visiting reporters who find themselves hemmed in by constraints and restrictions. Even the 'free world's' Beijing bureaus will have their 'China hands' full this summer. Already, admirable but time-strapped foreign correspondents ditch out on neighborhood interviews to cover important press conferences. When your beat is a country 1.3 billion strong...

"Covering China is like trying to drink from a fire hose gushing at full blast," said Tim Johnson, China correspondent for the McClatchy Company, which owns newspapers like the Kansas City Star, Sacramento Bee and Tacoma's News Tribune. "I simply can't keep up with all that I would like to. And I'm just speaking about the combination of English language media, press conferences, academic seminars and other events around town."

Then there are government-imposed press regulations. Since December 2006, foreign correspondents have been free to interview any and all persons or organizations inside the country. Nevertheless, more than 180 reporters working here say they've faced interference, according to a survey recently conducted by the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China.

All this is not to say that stories and columns flowing back to Seattle from Beijing are in general phony, or incomplete. Only that affairs here ahead of the Olympics - economic, cultural, environmental, athletic - are complex.

You already turn a critical eye on Xinhua (government-sponsored) news reports. Why? Because Chinese reporters are censored. Because Xinhua media may bow before a political agenda. So the next time you read a snappy 'western' story with a Beijing byline, proceed with caution. Foreign journalists face obstacles as well. Foreign journalists are capable of formulaic prose too.

(Note: Compare "Face-lifting Beijing stops to retrieve its ancient flavor" (Xinhua) and "A new Beijing is rising" (Vancouver Sun) . Both stories concern residential construction and demolition here. Neither author seems to have fabricated statistics. Neither seems to have faked interviews. And yet, the two stories convey very different messages. It just goes to show - there's room for multiple perspectives in Olympic Beijing.)

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January 12, 2008 1:06 PM

Olympic films - part one

Posted by Daniel Beekman

Ask most people here what they think about the Olympics and you'll receive a stock response: "Important for China!" "Great!" "Fun!"

Ask them for three minutes of video and you'll gawk at what you get.

Last month, the Humanistic Olympic Studies Center at People's University in Beijing launched its third annual amateur film competition.

"In order to build a better platform for masses' involvement in Olympic, carry forward the idea of Humanistic Olympic, and leave more abundant cultural legacy with digital contents," the HOSC's English website reads, "the organizing committee of the competition welcomes digital video & cartoon fans from all over the world to join in 3-minute Olympic DV & Cartoon production team. Beijing Olympic Games will be more marvelous because of your participation!"

I attended an awards ceremony for the second competition this fall - a wild affair (confetti, models, power ballads etc.), and I've seen most of the top films from 2006 and 2005. They don't quite run the gamut of Chinese public opinion, but compared to the stuff you see on CCTV 5 (Chinese Central Television's main sports channel, relaunched December 31 as a 24-hour 'Olympics Channel'), these videos are unfiltered, personal and authentic.

In one film, a high school student battles his robot. In another, primitive man meets modern Beijing.

Here's one from the HOSC's first competition, called Wo zui xihuan... - 'I most like...' (please allow time for the video to load):

What do the kids most like? 'Basketball,' 'playing,' 'computers,' 'China's Yao Ming,' 'little white rabbits,' 'cartoons,' 'eating cake,' 'doing homework,' 'beautiful dancers,' 'eating barbequed chicken,' 'fast food,' 'friends,' 'playing in the park,' 'best friends,' 'astronauts,' 'second grade boys,' 'singing songs,' 'Happy New Year,' 'all the teachers,' 'my dad and mom,' 'getting good grades,' 'little animals,' 'little birds,' 'fresh flowers,' 'pretty butterflies,' 'beautiful cities,' 'Tian'anmen,' 'the Great Wall,' 'Beijing' and 'THE 2008 OLYMPIC GAMES!'

A similar entry won the HOSC's second annual competition this fall. Gang Zi, a video technician, filmed "One Dream, One Olympics" at a school for disabled children in Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei Province.

Some of the children featured in "One Dream, One Olympics" are deaf. Some are mute. One boy is an amputee. Gang's opening credits read:

"We live on the same Earth /
We share the same sky and the same sea /
We harbor similar convictions and emotions /
And so... /
We share a common dream"

"The standard of living in China is rising," Gang said following the awards ceremony in November. "But we must not forget our disabled kids. I believe that, with the Olympics, we have an opportunity to bring all kinds of Chinese people into the fold."

Although he spent years working in Wuhan, Gang is from Xi'an - a city in central China famous for its entombed terracotta warriors. He found out about the film competition while surfing the Internet. Gang began work immediately - excited to show his young friends in Wuhan that 2008 belonged to them to.

I asked Gang if there was anything he'd like to tell interested Seattleites. "Come to China, see Beijing, experience our culture and meet our wonderful children," he said.

In Gang's film, one boy in particular all but steals the show. He plays basketball and ping-pong. He laughs and smiles. His arms have been amputated above the elbows.

As the video draws to a close, he grips a long black calligraphy brush between his stumps and starts to write. Elegant, flowing strokes fill up a notebook page: Tong yige shijie, Tong yige mengxiang - 'One world, One dream.'

(Note: I have been trying hard to get a hold of Gang's video. Unfortunately, he's had trouble emailing it to me. If "One Dream, One Olympics" shows up in my inbox, I'll post it on Blogging Beijing right away.)

Instead, here's another from the HOSC's second competition, called Minzu feng - 'Nationality Wind.' It blends traditional Chinese imagery with Olympic themes (please allow time for the video to load):

Here's a less-conventional entry, also from the HOSC's second competition. Zhu meng - 'Dreaming' features a dancer from China's past. He encounters modern Beijing (please allow time for the video to load):

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January 10, 2008 2:03 PM

Jump for development

Posted by Daniel Beekman

In west-central Beijing, near the city's cavernous Military Museum, fifth and sixth graders gather round a room-length (faux) mahagony table. They've skipped out on class to sit with a researcher from Beijing Sports University. Talk quickly turns to the 2008 Olympics.

"We have learned that the Beijing Olympic Games are the 'Green Olympics,' the 'People's Olympics' and the 'Humanistic Olympics,' a tall girl with braces intones. "We should protect our city's environment. We should improve our city's manners. When our foreign friends arrive for the Olympic Games, we should help them and give them directions."

Finished, she flashes a confident smile - 11 years old, a volleyball fan and an aspiring journalist. Yangfangdian Center Primary School was Beijing's first to implement Olympic education. Now the city boasts 200 such 'demonstration' schools.

Since 2003, Yangfangdian's students have attended Olympics classes. They've also spent extra time in the yard, where teachers lead group calesthenics. Four years ago, the school held a mini-pentatholon. German students have visited Yangfangdian as part of an Olympic exchange.

You might be wondering - what does the world's biggest athletic event have to do with school? According to the International Olympic Charter, last updated in 2004:

"Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy found in effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles."

Pierre de Coubertin, who revived Greece's ancient Olympics in 1894, thought of himself as an educator. He wrote:

"Why have I re-established the Olympic Games? To enoble and stregthen sports, to ensure their independence and endurance, and thus place them in a better position to fufill the educational role which is incumbent upon them in the modern world."

Many cities and countries have pursued educational initiatives in conjunction with their hosting of the Olympics - but none on a scale so grand as Beijing and China. Thousands of students here are learning to value cultural tolerance, hard work and exercise with the Games as their guide. Last year, 556 schools across China were listed as models for childhood Olympic education.

At Yangfangdian, some classes have published amateur newspapers focused around the Olympic Games. They've also boned up on foriegn countries' Olympic histories - Holland's, for example.

"I like the Olympics because they are all about communication and peace," a freckled boy with glasses explains. "Most of all, I'm excited for our foriegn friends to visit China, so we can teach them our history and culture."

For instance? I ask.

"Do you know the story of China's first female emperor?"

Recalling past Olympics-themed projects, Yangfangdian's students heap praise on one in particular. Last year, they fashioned balls out of old newspaper, painted the balls with bright colors and played. To give their games rythym, the kids came up with a chant:

"East, West, South, North, Middle /
Olympic Games in our hearts /
Jump for development /
Discover so much happiness"

(Note: quotes, chant not verbatim translations.)

Check out "Teaching about the Beijing Olympics reaches deep into China's schools" (Associated Press) for more about Yangfangdian and other demonstration schools.

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January 10, 2008 7:01 AM

Not so blue after all?

Posted by Daniel Beekman

I thought I'd better direct Blogging Beijing readers to a Wall Street Journal opinion piece written by Steven Q. Andrews - "Beijing's Sky Blues." Andrews is an independent environmental consultant based in Washington D.C. and was a 2006 Princeton in Asia fellow at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Beijing.

According to Andrews, only altered collection methods allowed the Chinese government and Beijing's Olympic organizers to achieve their goal of 245 'blue sky' days in 2007. If not for the change, he says, 2007 would have registered 190 'blue sky' days - fewer than were recorded in 2002.

Andrews suggests that Beijing air scientists (or at least their press secretaries) are engaging in 'fuzzy math' and calls for increased transparency. He cites a sobering Beijing University study conducted by environmental science professors that blames particulate pollution for 25,000 deaths here in 2002.

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January 7, 2008 7:58 AM

Ten dos, ten don'ts

Posted by Daniel Beekman

This blog's first entry introduced a Beijing public education campaign called "Embrace the Olympics - study the 'ten dos and ten don'ts.'" Below I've posted all 20 'dos and don'ts' - gathered from a subway poster.

Do protect Olympic intellectual property rights - don't buy or sell pirated imitations.

Do observe regulations regarding the use of Olympic symbols - don't abuse the Olympic flag or songs.

Do defend traffic safety - don't jump guard-rails or barge through red lights.

Do line up according to the rules - don't push and shove.

Do beautify the city - don't spit all over the road.

Do treasure the capital's ancient cultural sites - don't post messy advertisments everywhere.

Do cherish the sport stadiums and facilities - don't stir up trouble or create a scene.

Do safeguard security and order - don't bring your own beverages to competitions.

Do struggle to be a civilized, lawful audience - don't threaten the peace by gambling.

Do improve others' awareness of Olympic law - don't let illegal activities ruin the whole thing.

(Note: not a word-for-word translation.)

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January 3, 2008 5:20 PM

Blue sky over Beijing?

Posted by Daniel Beekman

A week ago, I woke up to smog - thick, low, lung-arresting smog.

When 15 of its 16 monitoring stations rated last Thursday's air pollution 'worst,' Beijing's environmental protection bureau asked children and elderly people to remain inside. Few Beijingers blinked. Life here - from bricklaying to badminton - went on as usual, smog notwithstanding.

December 27 received a pollution rating of 421 (micrograms of particulate air matter per cubic meter). December 28, last Friday, rated 500 - 50 times the level deemed safe by the World Health Organization. (New York Times)

Biking between errands in west Beijing, I saw specks of gray in the air. Thursday's main pollutant was particulate matter - attributed primarily to construction, automotive exhaust and coal burning.

A toddler and his grandmother check out a construction site last Thursday, near Beijing's Fifth Ring Road.

For months now, Beijing's officials and Olympic organizers have been beating the drum of environmental improvement - attempting to reassure anxious athletes, a skeptical press and the International Olympic Committee.

The city, which has already spent US$16.4 billion to combat pollution - roughly 3 percent of China's national gross domestic product - is planning to pull a million cars off its streets and close (temporarily) some smoke-spewing factories during the Games. (Eastday)

"We are determined to ensure that air conditions meet the necessary standards in August 2008," Liu Qi, president of the Beijing's Olympic organizing committee, told IOC chief Jacques Rogge on December 11. (New York Times)

Liu's vice-president, Jiang Xiaoyu, agreed.

"I believe that we can overcome all difficulties, all risks, and run a very sound and successful Olympic Games next year." (Times of London)

Rogge has warned Beijing's organizers that the IOC may postpone or delay endurance-based events like cycling to protect athletes from air pollution.

This fall, two Ethiopian runners, Kenesia Bekele and Meseret Defar, announced plans to scale down their Olympic ambitions and referred to environmental conditions in Beijing as 'disgusting.' (London Telegraph)

The United States' Olympic committee has announced it will give every U.S. Olympian a carbon-filter mask to use in Beijing - for shopping, touring and training. Athletes won't wear the masks to compete. (USA Today)

"Of course I noticed the pollution last Thursday," a Beijinger recently told me. "The sky was yellow, and between 5-6pm you couldn't see the road clearly. But, generally, the air here is ok. We're used to it."

"Beijing's air pollution shouldn't give the Olympic athletes too many problems," he said. "It will be hot and humid in August, but other than that I don't think the conditions will hurt their performance."

Promises to reduce air pollution helped Beijing win the right to host the 2008 Games and environmental initiatives have headlined the city's Olympic preparations. Now some scientists are questioning whether the Beijing will truly achieve a "Green Olympics."

(Note: China pledged to follow a 'Green Olympics Protocol' in preparing for Beijing 2008, and enlisted help from the United States Department of Energy.)

Thursday's smog particularly alarmed Olympic organizers because Beijing had yet to fufill its 'blue sky' target for 2007. Not until Monday - New Year’s Eve Day - did Beijingers enjoy the year's 246th 'blue sky' day. Organizers say they are shooting for 256 'blue sky' days this year. (Xinhua)

'Blue sky' days, according to Beijing's environmental protection bureau, are those boasting less than 100 micrograms of particulate air matter per cubic meter. The city launched its 'blue sky' project in 1998, and saw just 100 'blue sky' days that year. (Xinhua)

Contrary to popular foreign opinion, Beijing sparkles on truly clear afternoons – I swear. But most of the city's 'blue sky' days are, by international standards, highly polluted.

"We anticipated the last 'blue sky' day more than 10 days ago, but lingering fog and sandstorms frustrated us in the past week," explained Du Shaozhong, deputy director-general of the city's environmental protection bureau. (Xinhua)

The number of 'blue sky' days per year in Beijing has increased steadily for nearly a decade - which seems to suggest that real progress has been made. Sulfur dioxide emissions have dropped more than 25 percent since 2001 - tougher regulations now require Beijing's factories and power plants to burn cleaner coal.

Olympic organizers have also overseen the planting of millions of trees - on the Olympic Green (including a 580-hectacre Olympic Forest Park), as part of an enormous greenbelt northeast of the city (designed to shelter China's capital from desertification and polluted winds) and around Beijing. When complete, the Olympic Green will be 2.5 times larger than New York's Central Park.

Beijing has also launched major environmental initiatives in the areas of education, energy, waste/water and transportation – "visit the United Nations Environmental Programme's website for that organization’s 2007 Beijing report."

Yet air pollution remains a serious problem, because Beijing continues to grow. The same United Nations study referenced above called it "the single largest environmental and public health issue affecting the city." (New York Times)

Since 2001, the city's gross domestic product has leaped 144 percent. More than 1.7 billion square feet of new real estate has gone under construction since 2002, and the Beijing now supports roughly 10,000 building sites. The city's coal consumption actually peaked in 2006 - at 30 million tons. (New York Times and Agence France-Presse)

Construction workers struggle with metal rods atop a partially completed elevated expressway in west Beijing.

Add to Beijing's construction fumes the exhaust from 3 million motor vehicles - 40,000 more each month - and you've got a whole lot of dangerous, airborne particulate matter. Last week's smog-storm was a case in-point.

On Monday, I went in search of locals' reactions.

"Before last week, I would have said that it's been pretty good," remarked a young woman, on her way home from the grocery store. "But last week, there was something bad in the air."

About 40 to 50 percent of the major pollutants in Beijing's air – nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and particulate matter - come from vehicle exhaust, according to a professor of environmental science at Beijing University (Xinhua).

"Last Thursday was awful, and very uncomfortable," a middle-aged woman standing outside McDonald's told me. "Obviously!"

She owns a car but doesn't drive very often - only when she needs to travel long distances.

"Because of the Olympics, the government has invested a lot of money in Beijing's air," the native Beijinger said. "They (the government) are really making an effort. But it's a hard problem to solve. We have too many cars."

Based on a government-sponsored survey released March last year involving 1,520 interviews, more than 90 percent of Beijingers attribute air pollution to auto-exhaust fumes and 87 are fed up with traffic noise. (Xinhua)

"Although last Thursday was bad, the air here is getting better," said a man waiting in line for a movie. "There shouldn't be a problem with the athletes - it's not as serious as the newspapers say. When I was a child in Beijing there was much more coal burning. That was worse. Back then there were no cars."

In 2007, scores of auto-emissions testing centers had been set up across Beijing and, on Tuesday (January 1), the city announced stricter fuel standards. Retailers are now required to supply gasoline and diesel clean enough to meet the Euro IV standard - currently observed in the European Union.

Before Tuesday, Beijing retailers were held to the Euro III standard, introduced to the city in late 2005. According to Chinese officials, the earlier move cut sulfur dioxide emissions (which cause acid rain) by almost 2,500 tons per year. They expect the new standards lop off another 1,840 tons.

It appears that the higher cost of Euro IV fuel will not affect Beijing consumers - the government plans to shoulder that cost. (Reuters, Xinhua) In the United States, California has passed the world's most stringent fuel/emissions legislation.

"I didn't even notice it," a young man told me when I asked him about the air pollution last Thursday. "I drove to work, spent all day there and drove home. The traffic was bad, though."

Since 1999, Beijing has deployed more than 1,900 buses running on compressed natural gas - the largest fleet of its kind in the world. By August, it may boast as many as 18,000. Nearly 79,000 new low-emissions taxis (Volkswagens and Hyundais) replaced older, dirtier models in 2003. (Business Week)

Over the summer, the city also cut public transport prices. A ride on Beijing's subway costs only 2 Yuan (just over 25 US cents), and now, with a swipe-card introduced in 2006 (yitongka), most buses are 4 Mao (5 US cents).

But China's capital hasn't adopted high car ownership fees. In Shanghai, by contrast, license plates can cost up to US$7,000 and that city adds roughly one-fourth as many vehicles per year as Beijing.

Three college-aged girls weren't miffed by the recent air pollution.

"Whatever," one told me. "Just a little fog. Although I heard there was a problem on Zhongguancun (a large street). They had to turn on the traffic lights (on Thursday afternoon)."

"Last Thursday? Really bad? The newspaper said that?" chuckled a perfume peddler. "It's much nicer than before, anyway. The government is managing it. When they restricted the odd, then even license plate numbered cars, the air was great. Don't worry - we have many 'blue sky' days now. The government is taking care of it."

From August 17-20, 2007, Beijing's urban districts conducted a mass experiment, restricting (in theory) vehicles with odd-numbered, then even-numbered license plates. According to one of the city's vice-mayors, the experiment took 1.31-1.36 million cars off the road. (Wall Street Journal)

Beijing will likely employ similar restrictions during this August's Games - a plan most Beijingers are enthusiastic about.

"I think it's a good idea," a tricycle trash collector, originally from Henan province, told me. "I ride my cart 30 minutes to work everyday, and the traffic can be horrible."

"It's hard to earn money here - there isn't enough garbage to collect," he said. "There are too many others like me. We're competitive. Will the government stick to its new traffic plan after the Games? It's hard to say. I kind of doubt it."

Coal consumption has played an important role in Beijing's Olympic/environmental drama. Most houses here are heated by coal, and coal powers nearly all factories. The city has refitted hundreds of thousands of coal burners after banning the use of coal inside its Third Ring Road.

Many of Beijing's dirtiest factories have been moved outside the city in recent years, and officials have discussed halting production at those that remain during the 16-day Games. China’s flagship corporation and Beijing’s biggest polluter - Capital Steel (Shougang) - has announced it will continue to operate during the 2008 Olympics, at a minimum level. This year, the industrial giant plans to cut production from eight to four million tons. (Xinhua)

"Beijing's pollution is really bad," said a glove peddler. "But it's getting better. Last year, after work, I always had dirt on my face. This year, the sandstorms haven't been so bad."

The city has dealt with sandstorms for centuries - when winds whip down from the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, to Beijing's northwest. Beijing is protected by a mountain range and 40 billion recently planted trees. But damaging use all over north China has, in the last 50 years, caused the desert to creep closer.

"The sandstorms are way fewer than before," an elderly man told me. "I was 'sent down' from Beijing to the countryside in 1958. Besides being 're-educated,' we planted lots of trees near Zhengjiakou, in Inner Mongolia. I was 22 years old then. I guess people are glad hosting the Olympics has improved the weather here. But we started it."

"I read the newspaper and I have my theories," he said, before leaving to buy ice cream for his grandson. "Last Friday, I read a few different articles and put them together. There was an accident at a factory in southern Beijing - releasing a lot of sodium dioxide. Also, a big coal-burning factory opened in Shaanxi (province) - and they dynamited a mountain."

"But I think you people in the 'western' countries ask too China for too much, too fast. China is a developing country. You made waste for 200 years and now you're asking us to quit after 30."

Come August, Beijing's Olympic organizers will pray for strong winds. That's what drove the smog away last Friday. Curiously, two security guards I spoke with weren't pleased.

"First of all, there wasn't even any pollution," one told me. "Second of all, I hate this wind. I'd much rather deal with bad air than cold wind."

A young couple pedal into the smog last Thursday.

"I'm worried," said a middle-aged man, also waiting to see a movie. "Last week was pretty bad. We shouldn't try to improve our environment because of the Olympics. We should try to improve our environment because it's the right thing to do. I don't think that, after the Games, our government will continue to protect the environment of Beijing."

If no winds blow, the city's Olympic organizers may resort to Plan B - cloud seeding. Officials say they will have a fleet of aircraft ready to bomb the sky with silver iodide. Supposedly, this would clear clouds and bring down cleansing rain.

"The air might get bad, but it doesn't last long," said a policeman Monday. He smiled proudly. "I work outside, but I'm totally accustomed to the pollution."

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January 1, 2008 5:04 PM

More news, an addendum

Posted by Daniel Beekman

Controversy continues to swirl around Beijing's historic neighborhood south of Tian'anmen Square (see 'Heart of the city - part two).

For some time, the uproar concerned forced evictions and gentrification. Recently, much ink was spilt over the demolition of an old opera house; its egg-like, glowing replacement (China's new National Theater), opened last week. Some Beijingers have also protested the construction of a swanky commercial development in Qianmen where hutongs once stood.

According to Susan Spano of the Los Angeles Times, Qianmen will soon feature "a pedestrian mall, complete with a free tourist trolley and underground parking garage. When work is completed, visitors will be able to stroll along the tree-lined, marble-paved thoroughfare and visit more than 80 renovated shops selling a variety of wares -- steamed buns as well as antique porcelain."

The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) themed development has provoked equal doses of high praise and venom. Some Beijingers refer to the street as a 'hutong Disneyland.' The project's sponsors, eager to attract wealthy tourists, are calling it 'cash.'

Meanwhile, a number of interesting stories - big and small - have trickled out of Beijing.

Two weeks ago, a Beijing municipal court stuck computer Liu Peigui with a US$271 fine and six months in jail for operating a phony Olympics ticketing website. (China Economic Review) Police arrested a prominent political activist, social critic and blogger last Thursday, prompting swift condemnation from advocacy groups like the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders. The 34 year old dissident had been under house arrest in Beijing.

"We are against anyone politicizing the Olympic movement and the Olympic Games," Jiang Xiaoyu, the Executive Vice President of Beijing's Olympic organizing committee, remarked Friday to journalists. "If anyone is to try to violate the Olympic spirit, they will not succeed." (Los Angeles Times)

On New Year's Eve, Chinese hurdler and media darling Liu Xiang greeted well-wishers at Beijing's Millenium Monument. A large crowd enjoyed fireworks, singing and dancing to commemorate 2008 - China's big Olympic year. (International Herald Tribune)

The same night, Chinese television's top sports anchor was embarrassed during a special Olympic broadcast. As Zhang Bin, CCTV 5's news director, hosted a ceremony marking the launch of a 24-hour 'Olympics Channel,' his wife Hu Ziwei, also a famous sports anchor, burst onto stage and accussed him of conducting an extra-marital affair. (London Telegraph)

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