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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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March 27, 2008 12:48 AM

International furor, domestic solidarity

Posted by Daniel Beekman

Beijingers don't read the Seattle Times.

Few subscribe to Newsweek, Spiegel, Asahi Shimbun or the Washington Post - publications competing to cover a suddenly holy headline: the 2008 Olympics, Darfur and Tibet.

Riots in Tibet's capital, Lhasa, set the world's top presses a-churn on March 14. Counter-protests and arrests kept them churning.

Last month, American film-guru Stephen Spielberg resigned as artistic advisor for August's Opening Ceremonies, linking Sino-Sudanese relations to violence in Darfur (a region of western Sudan). While angry Tibetans spoke out, their exiled spiritual leader - he of the crimson robes and grandfather spectacles - reaffirmed China's Olympics and rallied Western leaders to his cause: open talks with Beijing.

On Monday, members of activists broke up a flame-lighting ceremony and a torchbearer withdrew from the Olympic relay in sympathy with Tibet. Meanwhile, the European Union's president told a German newspaper that EU nations should consider a boycott. Scores, possibly hundreds, of Tibetans and Chinese have died.

All news considered, the 2008 Games are veering toward scandal abroad. Here in Beijing, however, anxious government media have released soothing reports and a plebeian Olympic passion burns on.

'Local spring harvests smoothly carry on - Tibet overcomes adversity and makes way for the plow' testified one headline atop the March 24 edition of China's biggest newspaper - the People's Daily. 'Longing for the flame, welcoming the Olympics' read another.*

"This mess in Tibet, it's insignificant," said a young woman, resting between weight machines in a north Beijing park. "We Chinese just want to participate in the Olympics."

The Darfur-Olympic connection hasn't received much publicity in China, where Sudan ships two thirds of its exported oil. Spielberg's move attracted attention, of course. But Beijingers may regard Africa's wars as mysterious and irrelevant.

"We Chinese love peace," a young man explained. "And what about the U.S.A.? You Americans invaded Iraq and killed many people for oil. All countries need oil. Yes, China deals with Sudan - this is the nature of global trade."

For more than a year, activists and politicians - Hollywood actress Mia Farrow included - have demonstrated against the 2008 Beijing Games on behalf of Darfur, where government forces and a militia known as the Janjaweed have killed or displaced hundreds of thousands.

Farrow and others want Beijing to power United Nations peacekeeping efforts. According to Human Rights First, a U.S. nonprofit, China sold Sudan US$55 million worth of weapons from 2003-2006 and has provided 90 percent of that country's small arms since 2004, when a U.N. embargo took effect.

Beijing has objected to criticism on Darfur - claiming impartiality when it comes to trading partners' internal affairs. Liu Guijin, China's special envoy to Darfur, has praised a Chinese engineering unit - in Sudan for a year, installing a water system for U.N. peacekeepers.

"What's happening in Darfur is not our fault," an elderly woman walking through Beijing Academy of Agriculture Science said. "In fact, we've helped keep the peace in Sudan. It's just that the world likes to blame China."

Civil unrest in the Tibet Autonomous Region, as well as in the provinces of Gansu and Sichuan, sustained a weeklong media frenzy here. Whereas most reports abroad tied Lhasa's riots/protests to the 2008 Olympics, domestic coverage and online forums stressed Tibetan attacks on Han Chinese.

On March 18, the Beijing Morning Post ran a story titled 'Presently, the Tibet situation remains steady.'

"The government has taken effective action and restored law - Xinhua News Agency," the report began. "In Lhasa, capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, a small number of people have smashed, looted, burned etc. They have sabotaged and harassed the social order, jeopardizing the personal safety and property of others. Departments of the Autonomous Region involved have taken effective, lawful action to maintain Tibet's social stability, defend the sanctity of the legal system and protect the broad masses' fundamental interests. The situation is already under control."

Next, the Morning Post story recapped the events of March 10 and March 14 in Lhasa.

"On the afternoon of March 10, 300 Buddhist priests of the Lhasa Zhaibung Monastery, showing disregard for national law and temple regulations, attempted to enter the city's urban district and create disturbances. They dashed at and verbally abused police officers on duty, showing complete arrogance.

Also on March 10, student priests from the Sera Monastery unfurled a 'snow lion' flag outside of the Jokhang Monastery square and shouted 'Independence for Tibet' and similar slogans. From March 11 to 13, individual Buddhist priests continued to gather, shout reactionary slogans, try officers' restraint, throw stones, splash lime with boiling water and injure several dozen on-duty police officers severely. Three Zhaibung Monastery Buddhist priests also took photographs of each other after performing self-mutilation in an attempt to cover the truth and mislead the public.

On March 14, more trouble was stirred up. Hoodlums gathered at Lhasa's Bakuo Street to shout separatist slogans and carry on beating, smash, looting and burning wantonly. They also assaulted the local Public Security police stations, governmental agencies, banks, stores, gas stations etc. According to preliminary statistics, these hoodlums burned three elementary and middle schools, 22 buildings in all. They also burned dozens of police and civilian vehicles, killing ten innocent people and wounded 12 police officers, two of who are in critical condition. Overall, both national and personal property suffered great losses."*

Various Chinese interviewed for Blogging Beijing reacted strongly to video footage of riots/protests in Tibet and Sichuan broadcast on television and online.

"On T.V. you can see how all the foreigners in Lhasa ran for their embassies," an older man working out near his apartment complex said. "They were afraid of the Tibetans.

"Have Tibetans died? No way. We've all been watching T.V. If they had, we'd know. Just turn on your T.V. - see for yourself. This stuff is on all day."

That Tibet's instability could overshadow or perhaps ruin the 2008 Olympics is an argument made frequently in Europe and the U.S. - and an argument many Beijingers oppose.

"All countries deal with these kind of disturbances," declared the young woman. "Our Tibetans want to kill many people and their ambitions aren't right - independence and disruption. The Dalai Lama is not a spiritual leader - he is a fugitive who directly interferes in Tibet.

"There is no relationship between the Beijing Games and unrest in Tibet. The Olympics are the Olympics."

State-sponsored Chinese media have asserted that Tibet's most famous Lama secretly orchestrated the violence in Lhasa last week. Yesterday, Xinhua released a report called 'Questions and answers about the course of the recent Dalai-backed riots.'

This background, courtesy of the Beijing Morning Post:

  • The Dalai-group rebelled in 1959...unwilling to see new Tibet flourish more and more every day.
  • In the 1960s, the Dalai-group reorganized and rearmed, launching harassing attacks at the border.
  • In the 1980s, the Dalai-group planned a disturbance in Lhasa, attempting to split Tibet from the motherland.
  • In recent years, the Dalai-group has promised orally that it has given up 'Tibetan independence,' but in fact has not stopped its separatist sabotage. During visits to Europe and America last year, Dalai declared many times: "Perhaps 2008 is the essential year, these Olympic Games are the Tibetans' last chance." He also appealed to foreign countries, relating the 'Tibet question' to Beijing's Olympics.*

"I've heard about the boycotts - on T.V. and in the newspaper," the older woman said. "The people campaigning for a boycott think China is a bad country. They think our government treats minorities poorly.

"We are just as moral as the next country. The Dalai Lama has petitioned foreigners to join a boycott, but his program will not succeed. It will fail. The 2008 Games are un-boycottable."

Not all Beijingers follow international sentiment so closely. Yet every person interviewed for Blogging Beijing toed the Party line.

"Boycott? I don't know about that," said a puzzled Beijing Institute of Technology student. "Is it really true? This is just business as usual in Tibet, mere politics. It shouldn't affect the Olympics.

"There's a small war between the government and the Tibetans. Maybe people will protest the torch relay near Mount Everest. Protest or no, the torch will pass through Tibet."

"I haven't heard anything recently about Tibet," a 19-year old restaurant worker mopping up said. "Don't boycott the Games. Human rights in China are pretty good."

On March 24, the flame-lighting ceremony in Olympia was awarded top billing by both the Beijing Morning Post and the Beijing Star Daily - a light, subway newspaper.

A half-page photo of the ceremony accompanied the Morning Post's headline - 'Sacred flame to be lit today.' 'Flame-lighting ceremony moved ahead one hour' ran the Star Daily's bold-faced alert. Tibet didn't make the Star Daily's front page. That newspaper's editors pushed '33 museums now offering free admission' and 'Small ads send real estate business a warning' instead.*

"What a chaotic place," another young woman commented of Tibet. "We Chinese give the Tibetans so much. They shouldn't make trouble like this."

"I've read about these potential boycotts," laughed a sportswear clerk. "It's the Americans and...well, I forget. At any rate, too many people are considering this. They don't understand China. If they did, they wouldn't want to boycott our Olympics.

"Tibet's like Taiwan - it's always been a part of China. So don't boycott the Games. If you do, it's your own loss."

Beijingers don't read the Seattle Times. Like Lhasa's Tibetans, Han Chinese see in these 2008 Games a chance. They're hoping to banish forever that infamous colonial image - China, 'Sick Man of East Asia.'

"I hope the Olympics aren't boycotted," another older man said, shaking his head. "We've waited a hundred years for these Games, and we need them."

* Amateur translation by Blogging Beijing


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

LINK HERE

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March 21, 2008 8:07 AM

Aerobic Olympics

Posted by Daniel Beekman

According to Technogym, fitness equipment supplier for Beijing 2008, 300 million Chinese can afford to work out in private gyms. Only 0.6 percent do.

"We old Beijingers prefer to exercise outside," said a 72-year old man stringing his kite for a flight above Ditan Park, near the city's largest Buddhist temple. It was afternoon and the sky a dingy gray. "The air is better out here. And look at all these trees. It's great."

Technogym, an Italian company founded in 1983 (Technogym USA is located in Seattle), owes its global success to a series of stylish hi-tech machines. Favored by sports and Hollywood celebrities including (Forumula 1 race-car driver) Michael Shumacher, (European soccer star) Paolo Maldini, Madonna and Brad Pitt, Technogym previously equipped the Sydney 2000, Athens 2004 and Turino 2006 Olympics.

On account of China's enormous population, significant fitness culture and overwhelming support for the Games - these 2008 Beijing Olympics represent Technogym's biggest break to date. The company will install and operate 12 training centers at locations convenient to athletes and reporters.

"China is a really important market for Technogym. We see the Games as a starting point for growth," Federica Cortezzi of Technogym said. "We're hoping that after the Olympics many new gyms will open in China and more people will buy fitness equipment. In fact, we expect an explosion."

Around the world, practices related to physical and mental fitness are among the best-known aspects of Chinese traditional culture. Each morning, Beijingers stream into the city's leafy parks for calisthenics, meditation and song (see 'A walk in the park' - January 18).

Time-tested Chinese exercises employ patterned movements and are considered health building. People here understand fitness as part of a comprehensive philosophy.

"I exercise a lot - perform taijichuan (tai chi) and hike," said a middle-aged woman resting in Ditan Park. "But we approach fitness from a different angle than you in the West. We exercise in order to maintain balance. Your body, my body - all human bodies are of two qualities: yin and yang. So when we exercise, we attend to both.

"I can't say that you Westerners are wrong, but you pursue a different objective. Whereas we aspire to health, you aspire to size, speed and strength."

According to Cortezzi, Technogym promotes a 'wellness philosophy' that's congruent with traditional Chinese fitness values. Yet the company harbors no false illusions when it comes to China’s older generation.

"The Chinese know wellness - the elderly know," Cortezzi said. "They prefer exercising outside, for free. They've made up their minds. And for them, that is beautiful. However, we have a new generation in China."

Technogym is excited about the Chinese fitness market for a number of reasons. The country's post-reform economic surge has driven up salaries. People here are searching out luxury products and services - like trendy gyms - more than ever before. They're also eating Big Macs and working longer hours than under Mao.

"Our kids and young adults don't watch their health so well," said a 56-year old retiree who swims and stretches at her neighborhood gym twice a week. "All those burgers are bad for them. They spend too much time at the computer. Even as students, their lives are pressure-packed and painful."

Changing Chinese lifestyles aren't Technogym's only cause for optimism. In 1995, Beijing enacted a nation-wide 'Physical Culture Law' proposing that all citizens, particularly children, engage in at least one sports activity each day.

By the end of last year, a National Fitness Program targeted 37 percent of all Chinese (481 million people) were to be participating in physical exercise daily. As of 2000, there were 100,000 part-time sports instructors and 620,000-plus sports facilities in China.

Of course, the country's sports scene remains restricted - by design. Since 1949, China has funneled its most promising athletes and coaches into an elite, centralized system. Most Chinese people enjoy limited access to fields, gyms and courts.

There, from Technogym's perspective, is where the 2008 Olympics come in. From government spending to product placement, the Games have spread a sport gospel throughout China.

"We care little for the Olympics," Ditan’s kite-master said. "But young people are different. Very few of them play traditional sports. They're ashamed of us old guys. And because of the Games, many facilities have been opened to them."

"Everyone wants to participate in the Olympics," explained a 25-year old Beijing gym attendant. "More and more people are joining our gym, because they want to improve their body civilization. They participate in swimming and kickboxing."

"Everyone knows about the Games," said one woman reading at a McDonald's in Beijing. "So everyone's physical health is improving. We're motivated to exercise because we want to help China win many golds."

Beyond Beijing, huge numbers of Chinese still live in poverty. Technogym, Cortezzi said, is not for them. Olympics or not, China's peasants don't possess the necessary money or time.

"I like to play basketball, but these days I can't," a 20-year old security guard from Yunnan province said sadly. "I've worked a 13-hour night shift since November, when I moved to Beijing."

"Our economy is developing and life is better than before," began Ditan's tai chi enthusiast. "And for those who can afford such unusual sports, perhaps the Olympics Games are affecting their exercise patterns.

"But gyms aren't so popular - it's a question of cost. We poor people have different priorities. If your salary is 25,000 Yuan a month - then maybe you'll buy a 10,000 Yuan fitness machine. Otherwise…"

Technogym is looking to white-collar professionals - aged 25-40 - for the bulk of its China business. The company has launched advertising campaigns in upscale Shanghai office buildings and has embarked on a 10-city tour of China's glitziest shopping malls.

"We want to connect with people who are younger, and who have money," Cortezzi said. "Our signature 'KENESIS' machine runs about 116,000 Yuan. It's expensive because we're committed to high-performance and hi-tech. If you don't earn 600 Euros (6,600 Yuan) a month, it's tough to join a gym."

According to Cortezzi, Technogym hopes to sell not only fitness equipment but also a 'wellness philosophy' in China.

"We're here to bring people to the gym and we're here to support local fitness entrepreneurs," she said. "People should understand that to live well you must be healthy."

Beijing has sprouted a number of health clubs large and small over the past few years, as have other cosmopolitan Chinese cities.

"We have a weight machine, and we go to a gym for ping pong," a 30-year old mother from Sichuan province said. "We don't have a treadmill, but our friends do."

China's market will challenge Technogym, however. To date, more working Chinese fantasize about kicking back than running in place.

"Some Western companies in Beijing make their employees work out," another park-goer said. "But Western style exercise is dangerous. I've read about CEOs in their 40s dying from heart attacks. If you want to run and become very strong, that's okay. But you could get injured."

Beijing's Olympic organizing committee was of a different mind when it invited Technogym to design an Olympic Village fitness center. The average Beijinger won't be allowed inside. Fortunately for Technogym, Chinese millionaires are made every day.

"We'd like to work with all of China," Cortezzi said. "But those 299 million people who can afford to join a gym and haven't - they're enough for now."

Newslinks:

"Olympic Torch Still To Go to Everest"

"Winter Olympics hosts oppose Beijing boycott"

"7.2-Magnitude Earthquake Strikes China"

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March 18, 2008 6:42 AM

Odds and ends

Posted by Daniel Beekman

As ethnic conflicts escalate around China and dusty winds rake Beijing, the Olympic Games are becoming more than ever a 'universal signifier' - an event by which we the word's citizens may represent/explain/resolve anything.

The Olympics have always involved competition, dialogue, entertainment, fitness and health - not to mention politics (despite what the International Olympic Committee claims). From Atlanta's pipe-bombings to the Moscow boycott, high drama tends to trail the Games.

But these 2008 Beijing Olympics have busted the bell-curve. Just pick up a newspaper. Athletes and activists, actors and advertisers, Chinese and American - people of all stripes are jostling for position vis-a-vis this year's Games.

Blogging Beijing will follow suit, posting on Olympics/exercise habits, Olympics/Shenzhen and Olympics/local hip hop very soon. Until then, enjoy these 'odds and ends' - fragments of life in Beijing ahead of the 2008 Games.


More Paralympics (See 'Beijing's Paralympics' - March 12):

Below you'll find the Beijing 2008 Paralympics mascot Funui Lele - Lele the Happy Cow. According to the official Beijing 2008 website, Lele's design "derives its inspiration from the farming cultivation culture of ancient Chinese civilization..."

"Cows," the website explains, "symbolic of a down-to-earth, diligent, staunch and never-say-die spirit, are adopted to show the unremitting spirit of athletes with a disability in being the best they can be."

Lele was unveiled by a number of high-ranking Chinese Communist Party officials and Liu Qi - president of the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee - on September 6, 2006 at the Great Wall, exactly two years before the Paralympic Games.

Also below you'll find the Beijing 2008 Paralympics logo.


Snapped around town:

In some ways, Beijing looks like an American city - square blocks, department stores and thundering highways. Upon closer inspection, though, strange/unfamiliar sights abound.

On Chang'an Jie, outside Beijing's cavernous Military Museum - admission 20 Yuan (US$2.75)

"2008-Olympic-Beiijing --- Olympics Cartoon Police Display --- Please install window protection net in first floor. Please be alarm of breaking into the second floor (upper-left). Park with the bicycle in the parking lot that somebody keeps watch on, please (upper-right). Please lock your door and close your window when going out or sleep at night to prevent from breaking into your house (lower-left). Prevent the bicycle from being robbed" (lower-right).

Migrant laborers from China's countryside sleep in this tent, pitched between two Beijing apartment buildings. They're landscaping a small park.

A Coca-Cola bus stop banner from February - the theme was Chinese New Year's. Notice National Basketball Association star Yao Ming on the left and gold-medalist hurdler Liu Xiang on the right. Coca-Cola is a Beijing 2008 Olympic sponsor.

A community blackboard - "'Development is for the People / Development depends on the Peoplew / Development is the People's shared achievement' - North Neighborhood Residents' Committee"

"Harmonious Olympics water service / Saving water for later starts with me"

"World Water Day / China Water Week / March 22-28 / Develop water conservation / Improve the people / Safe water service / Safe Olympics"


Scraps of news:

Thanks to 'Beijing Olympics Blog' for highlighting an interesting report way back in January. China Daily (the country's biggest English-language newspaper), published the results of a survey asking people what they most wished for from the Games this year.

Among the top ten wishes: 'to become a torchbearer for the Games,' 'to see Liu Xiang (the Chinese hurdler) win Olympic gold in person,' 'to pose for photographs in front of newly built Olympic stadiums' and 'smooth traffic during the Games.'

For a complete 'top ten' list and more commentary, link to Beijing Olympics Blog above.

And then this story, originally published through Xinhua (China's government sponsored media outlet): "No rats for Beijing, even in the 'Year of the Rat'".

Rights activists have decried a (tentative) government plan to forcibly sweep beggars, prostitutes and migrant workers from Beijing in August. So far, no one has rallied behind the city's rats.

Beijing's Olympic organizers are determined to prepare a clean, wholesome city - they will host more than 500,000 overseas guests during the Games. With thousands of foreign reporters soon to arrive, poverty's representatives in Beijing - human and vermin (not to actually compare the two) - may be dealt with severely.

According to Deng Xiaohong, deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Health Bureau, the campaign will begin on February 26, targeting Olympic venues. Rat poison will be employed and distributed around the city at non-Olympic areas including apartments, wet markets and fowl breeders.

"Beijing health workers will send teams to inspect the rats-killing work, and will impose fines on those who failed their job," Deng said.


Newslinks:

"IOC: Beijing air quality not to harm athletes" (Xinhua)

"IOC: Beijing Air Poses 'Some Risk'" (AP)

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March 15, 2008 6:18 AM

Higher, Faster, Stronger...Commuter?

Posted by Daniel Beekman

For years, China has poured money down Beijing's boulevards, flushed resources through Beijing's subways and cast about for legislation capable of solving Beijing's traffic problems.

Now shiny 'green' buses barrel down freshly paved streets and a new subway line cased in blue/white porcelain is nearly complete. But less than five months ahead of the 2008 Olympic Games, the host city's thoroughfares remain jammed, its subway cars packed.

After losing ground for years, bicycles are suddenly back in fashion - try slipping between lanes in a clunky sedan.

"It takes me about an hour by bus to get from my home to work - I'm an interior decorator," said a young man buying fruit near Beijing's Third Ring Road.

"The bus is crowded and I wake up at 6am. The Olympics should help. 'A positive influence on our society' - that's what all the news programs say. I've heard that by 2010 a subway line will run by my home, in Daxing (District)."

In west Beijing's Gongzhufen subway station, a hurried high-school teacher slowed down to talk.

"I ride the subway something like 10 times a month," she said. "It's convenient - more so recently thanks to the Olympics. No traffic jams down here. I usually ride with my husband to work. He drives our car.

"But I prefer the subway. Take the subway and you won't be late. It's cheaper and safer too. Of course, the subway is very crowded - too crowded."

Following its successful bid for this summer's Games in 2001, Beijing launched an ambitious subway construction program. Seven years ago, the city's light-rail system consisted of just two lines.

A north-south line opened last year in east Beijing and three more will begin operation before August, including an 'Airport Line' and an 'Olympic Spur Line.' Work will begin on yet another new subway line next year.

"My morning commute is only ten minutes, by private car," said a Beijing CEO, who perused a high-end department store trailed by three eager underlings. "It takes me 40 minutes to get home. As the city has built new subway lines, rider-ship has increased.

"In theory, this should alleviate our traffic problems. But we're buying private cars even faster."

"Traffic on the Third Ring isn't getting better - it's getting worse," a young man said. "The city is developing rapidly. Too many people are buying cars. Waiting for the bus takes a long time, and you never know when yours will come. If I leave home for work after 8am, I often arrive late."

With the exception of the Olympic Spur Line, planners have calibrated recent improvements to Beijing's infrastructure for the future. When the subway expansion is done, lines will criss-cross most of the city.

Today, Beijingers hop subways and buses wielding the city's efficient yitongka swipe-card, introduced in 2006. To further promote public transportation ahead of the Games, Beijing cut ticket prices last summer, reducing bus fares to 4 Mao (5 US cents) and subway rides to 2 Yuan (25 US cents).

Beijing has also marched toward stricter fuel standards - requiring local gasoline and diesel retailers to meet the Euro II standard in 2002, the Euro III in 2005 and the Euro IV for 2008.

And since 1999, the city has deployed more than 1,900 buses running on compressed natural gas; at 4,000, Beijing's fleet is the largest of its kind in the world. Meanwhile, nearly 79,000 new low-emission taxis troll the capital for passengers.

Beijingers have in general applauded the city's late transportation initiatives. Any progress - just ask an I-405 or I-5 commuter - beats no progress at all.

"There are fewer people waiting at stops these days," a Beijing bus driver said. "The city has added more lines."

It would be wrong to claim, however, that Beijing's traffic has markedly improved. Try to cross town after 4pm on a weekday and you'll sit forever.

"It takes me two hours to get home from school," said a young woman who studies at Capital Normal University. "I take a bus, then the subway, then another bus. Rush hour is awful. And why? Beijing has too many people."

"Traffic on the Second Ring is deadly," a 65-year old grandfather groaned. "My son bought a car three years ago - he really loves to drive. But he got so tired of Beijing's traffic; he sold it back last year.

"My other son works at the airport, and rents an apartment out there. When the airport subway line opens he'll probably move back into the city. By car, it's an impossible commute."

Bankrolled by China's economic boom, moneyed Beijingers are pursuing 'the good life' - as prescribed by Hollywood America. 'One family, one child,' has given way to 'one family, one child, one car.'

Beijing has yet to impose heavy taxes on vehicle owners, as similarly challenged cities around the globe have done. But staggering gas prices haven't curbed car sales yet.

"It costs more to drive than to take a taxi everywhere, everyday," one Beijinger remarked.

In a city where dust storms buffet bus stops and subway patrons trample each other, Audi and Hyundai are synonymous with sanctuary. Last month, Reuters reported furor over a Beijing subway ad. The ad read: 'Squeezed in? Then go buy a car!'

"Private cars are clogging Beijing and ruining the environment," said a skinny young man. "Still, I'd buy one myself if I could afford it."

Sadly, there's no room in Beijing for another 3 million vehicles. Desperate to pull off an efficient Olympic Games, the city's leaders are resorting to clumsy, short-term tactics.

Like Sydney and Athens, hosts of the 2000 and 2004 Games, Beijing will rope off more than 280 kilometers of road for Olympic use. Beginning in July, certain cars will be banned from the city's streets entirely.

First, vehicles from some government departments and state-owned agencies will face restrictions. Then cars with even and odd-numbered license plates will alternate - one or the other banned every day.

During a test last August 17-20, 1.3 million vehicles were ordered off the road daily, reportedly reducing traffic by 30 percent.

Such measures could certainly transform Beijing into a drivable city for two weeks. Indeed, the traffic ban has become a hot conversation topic among Beijingers.

"One day odd, one day even - that's a great plan!" said a garbage man who lives by Beijing's Qinghua University. "Will the ban remain in place after the Olympics? That's hard to say."

"During the Games, the government will impose a whole bunch of restrictions," commented an aerospace engineer and Olympics volunteer. "Afterwards, traffic will return to normal."

"The government has tried hard to beat Beijing's traffic and pollution for the Olympics," the Capital Normal student said. "But it's very hard."

A high-school boarder exiting the subway at Gongzhufen was more cynical.

"The Olympics haven't changed my life or my weekend trips home," she said. "We write stuff about the Games on the blackboard, but it doesn't mean much. It's just propaganda."

Four elderly men ambled by, laughing together.

"The traffic is bad, sure," one chuckled. "But we walk everywhere. We're old and we're friends. We don't need to go far."


Newslinks:

"China hands security to likely next president"

"Beijing vice mayor proposes setting up Olympic museum"

"Ambush in Beijing"

"U.S. Delisting of China Upsets Rights Activists"

"Ahead of the Olympics"

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March 12, 2008 6:37 AM

Beijing's Paralympics

Posted by Daniel Beekman

You've probably heard that Beijing will host this summer's 2008 Olympic Games.

For months already, editors - in China and abroad - have splashed the event onto magazine and newspaper pages. Television pundits have picked apart the host city on environmental and political issues. The Internet has buzzed with Olympic scandal.

Thanks to that hype, the Games' sister event has been greatly ignored. After the Olympics end, Beijing will stage the 2008 Paralympic Games (September 6-17).

The Paralympic Games were first held in 1960, in Rome. That year, 400 athletes from 23 countries participated. In Athens in 2004, 3,806 athletes from 136 countries took part.

According to the International Paralympic Committee, the Paralympics are "elite sport events for athletes from six different disability groups." Some Paralympians are wheelchair bound. Some have suffered serious brain damage. Others are amputees. Rather than emphasize the participants' disabilities, the Paralympics are intended to highlight those athletes' athletic achievements.

Of course, the Paralympics have never generated excitment as have the Olympic Games. Operating on a much smaller scale, they've always been an afterthought.

But - here especially - where social commentators have compared Beijing's Olympics to a global dinner party and where people with disabilities receive minimal state support, the Paralympic Games are significant.

Much fuss has been made over China's environmental woes. In fact, the Paralympics could just as well ruin the party.

On the one hand, more than 120 Beijing hotels had nearly completed renovations designed to accommodate people with disabilities as of March 4. According to the Beijing Tourism Commission, those hotels will offer 170 wheelchair friendly rooms this summer. Additionally, the city spent around US$10 million retrofitting sixty-plus popular tourist sites in 2007.

Chinese athletes dominated the 2004 Paralympic Games, capturing 63 gold medals and 141 medals overall to second-place Great Britain's 35 and 95. Beijing's Paralympics will be the largest in history and the city's Olympic organizing committee held a mobilization meeting regarding Paralympics preparations last month. As with the Olympic Games, the Chinese are determined to hold a first-rate Paralympics.

Yet for 2008 Paralympians and their fans, not to mention Beijing's large disabled population, considerable barriers remain. Few banks, buses, malls, shops and subway stations here are wheelchair accessible. The footbridges and overpasses which slice across the city's wide streets are quite steep; most may only be accessed via stairs. Navigating a Beijing sidewalk is dangerous enough on foot, with bicycles and pedestrians cutting past, hefting large loads.

A huge number of people live with disabilities in China - between 60-83 million according to various estimates. In rural areas, where disabled people may lack financial and infrastructural resources, most rely on their families.

In cities like Beijing, blind street muscians and amputee beggars dragging themselves on makeshift carts are fairly common. Reportedly, municipal officials plan to drive/help these people off the city's streets for the Olympic Games.

Additionally, people with disabilities in China often struggle to overcome prejudice and discrimination. In Chinese, as in English, the language of disbability is revealing. The most common word for 'disability' in Mandarin is canji, meaning deficient or deformed. Members of the China Disabled Person's Federation have advocated the use of canzhang (incomplete or obstructed).

Other terms, including canfei (crippled and useless), yaba (mute) and shazi (idiot) remain popular, according to the BBC World Service Trust.

A national law protects Chinese disabled persons, but implementation varies. Some people with disabilities have complained that state support is considered a matter of charity rather than of responsibility. Others say disabled people are often exploited in the context of political publicity.

The city's Olympic organizers will heave a sigh of relief on August 24 when the Games are done. If Beijing is less than barrier free when the 2008 Paralympians arrive, however, criticism over China's human rights record could surface again.


Check out the two signs below. The first photo was taken in May 2006 outside Beijing's Ancient Observatory, a tourist site. The second was taken this month. What important phrase has been changed?


Newslinks:

"Lawmaker proposes monument to honor Beijing Olympic volunteers"

"Beijing tells traffic police to say "please""

"Beijing hotel rooms prices rise 400-1000% for Olympic"

"Olympic terror plot foiled, Beijing says"

"Dalai Lama reiterates support for Beijing Olympics"

Comments | Category: Olympic Countdown |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

March 7, 2008 1:31 AM

Mom and pop shops

Posted by Daniel Beekman

Seven years ago, shopping for clothes in Beijing meant sifting through racks of padded grandma pants and faded Mao hats. Seven years ago, shopping for greens in Beijing meant strolling through ramshackle markets and foggy alleys. Seven years ago, shopping for cheese in Beijing meant a trip to the Friendship Store, a Cold War relic built to keep ex-patraites and Chinese apart.

But Beijing, which won the right to host this summer's Olympic Games in 2001, will emerge in 2008 a consumer's paradise.

Zhongguancun, near Beijing University, has exploded into a hotspot for hi-tech goods and electronics. In Beijing's Central Business District (CBD), foreign luxury retailers like Prada, Gucci and Louis Vitton have set up shop...after shop, after shop. Western-style supermarkets are attracting more customers, foreign and Chinese - stocking peanut butter alongside chicken feet. Wal-Mart has invaded Beijing.

What's good for the jet set hasn't categorically enriched Beijingers, though.

Controversy has stalked housing evictions; activists have protested the construction of shopping malls and Olympic facilities at the expense of 'Old Beijing.' Old-guard cuisines have shed tears to see high-rise apartments strangle the city's best vegetable markets. Foreign newspapers have covered municipal efforts to crack down on un-licensed street peddlers.

Only small-time shopkeepers and their plight vis-a-vis Beijing's commercial boom have received little attention.

These are the Beijingers whose tiny shops cluster below empty buildings, in poorer districts, along shady lanes. They're often sleepy, but chatty enough. They know their customers. Their costumers know them.

They run legitimate businesses - pushing laundry detergent, yogurt, down coats and hair pins.

Most pay rent on their stores.

When Beijing's Olympic organizers send bulldozers and cranes to re-work a piece of land, they compensate whoever owns it. A property's tenants have no choice but to leave empty-handed - never mind how long they've made the doomed site their base of operation.

On Feburary 29, a Xinhua (government-sponsored news agency) headline trumpeted the temporary closure of three high-rolling nightclubs spread beside Workers' Stadium - a 62,000 seat Olympic facility.

The district's small-time shopkeepers - buried, seven paragraphs down. "Almost a dozen sports shops under the stands have been closed and moved out of the stadium since 2006, when the venue started renovation."

Xinhua interviewed just one shop-keeper for the story: Wang Zhongdong.

"At first, I planned to sue...but I gave up after my lawyer's mediation," Wang, who sells golf equipment, told Xinhua. "For a successful Olympics, I'm prepared to make a contribution."

In the shadow of an abandoned stadium across Beijing, a score of sports shops have been shut down with even less fanfare.

"I'm not happy about this," says a middle-aged woman and former tenant, leaning against a rack of hooded sweatshirts rolled onto the street. "I don't know what to do."

Beijing officials snatched her lot last year. Where bargain-hunters roamed, a new subway line is taking shape.

She jabs a thumb at her old stall, until recently packed with soccer jerseys and urban wear. It's nailed over with plywood now. "I rented my place for five years, at 1000 yuan a month." Her gaze shifts to a glassy new office building fifty yards away.

"Some of my fellow shop-keepers have moved into that tower. But they're out of sight. And they're paying 5000 yuan a month. I can't afford that."

Through the new building's swinging side-doors, twenty-odd stalls have been filled. There are badminton specialists, roller-blade purveyors and Sean John boutiqes. One sneaker shop has stocked up on Olympic -edition Air Force Ones.

A moon-faced girl squats facing away from Timberland sweaters stacked four feet high.

"It's more expensive to rent in here, yeah," she says. "But I like the environment. It's clean and bright."

"At any rate, we had no choice but to move."

Business is slow, though. A teenage boy and his mother palm basketballs outside a store down the hall. More than a few stalls are empty - white and bare.

A different scene entirely opens up to the tower's rear, beneath the abandoned stadium. Something like a subterranean city, it buzzes with housewives, businessmen and students skipping school. There are no tidy stalls here, only fiercely defended territories marked out with netting.

Purse-vendors, fabric dealers, tailors and stationers huddle in rows or hug the monstrous structure's wet, concrete walls. Sunlight or no, the market lies out of harm's way. Beijing's Olympic developers haven't ventured down yet.

"Our little kingdom is safe," brags a lamp-hawking couple, ten-years underground. "Of course the tenants up there lose money. They never recieve compensation. It's the landowners who walk away paid."

Beijing will have gained over 4 million square meters of commercial space ahead of the Games - easily doubling what existed in 2001. The city's developers are stacking real estate above CBD - five soaring skycrapers will soon add 1.5 million-plus square meters of office space alone.

All togehter, China has thrown roughly US$40 billion at Beijing - financing subway lines, Olympic arenas and environmental mitigation.

In Haidian District, near the city's foremost foriegn-language cinema, a moldy market recently turned to dust. Smelly, even dank, it had housed butchers, bakers and fishmongers for at least a decade.

"The market just got shut down," confirms a shy chesnut-roaster, who once called rural Henan province home. "It's too bad - there aren't many cheap markets around. Look...he used to sell belts inside. Now he's on the street."

Hereabouts, buildings disappear fast. Beijing Chengguan (city mangers) dropped by on December 20 to break the news. Less than a month later, every tenant had vacated the premises. There was no debate - as their might have been in Ballard or Renton. Nor did the city invite a neighborhood vote.

Hefting pick-axes, a pack of workers climbed the market's roof. More workers launched a frontal assault. By mid-January, scrap collectors had picked the rubble clean.

"Yes, this has to do with Beijing's Olympics," one tenant grumbled - calmly stoking a last-minute fire sale. "It's coming down to make way for a through-street. Our area is close to the Olympic stadiums, and is congested. The new road will beluhua de (forested)."

"We've been here for years," she said. "We're looking for another place in the neighborhood. You know, the Games are good - but they're damaging our business."

Wealthy shoppers in particular will benefit from Beijing's building frenzy. About 300 top-end stores were preparing to open before the Games, as of September 2007. That's 280,000 square meters of virgin luxury space. Here in Beijing, wages are up. So are retail prices and domestic demand for designer goods.

The city's first mega-mall - Oriental Plaza - opened in 2001. Malls in Beijing now cover a total floor area of 6.33 million square meters. One shopping center contains 700 international brands, 90 luxury lines and covers 180,000 square meters. Another boasts the globe's largest LED video-screen.

Beijing's small-time merchants, it seems, are waging a losing battle.

"We used to get foot traffic," said a CD/DVD salesman, gazing down his store's narrow street. "No one window shops here anymore."


Beijing's small-time shops, supermarkets and shopping malls (please allow time for photos to load):


Newslinks:

"Beijing Olympics receives record volunteer applications"

"Yao undergoes successful surgery on foot"

"The Olympics: Chuck the Politics"

"China unveils 'green' Olympic village"

"Beijing says water a "severe test" it can pass"

"Delay hits Beijing Games stadium"

Comments | Category: Exploring Beijing |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

March 2, 2008 3:21 PM

Home away from home

Posted by Daniel Beekman

About 1,000 Chinese households will host foreign tourists during the 2008 Olympic Games. Organizers have suggested that the home-stays could complement Beijing's traditional lodgings - sure to be booked right through August.

"I hope the families can become friends with their guests," Xiong Yumei, deputy director of the Beijing Tourist Bureau, told CNN last month. "They need to introduce the history and culture of Beijing to the foreigners, making them understand and get closer to Beijing and the Olympics."

"China recruits families to act as hosts"
"Beijing families vie to make Olympics guests feel at home"

China's capital expects to accommodate at least 330,000 visitors every day during the Games, more than 500,000 foreigners in all.

None will be staying with Mr. Zhu, however.

Mr. Zhu lives in a poster shop.

So many Beijingers do. Not only poster shops - but beauty parlors, phone booths and convenience stores as well. Real estate prices have soared ahead of the Olympics, pushing city-dwellers into the suburbs and suburbanites onto the streets.

Now that China's New Year celebrations have passed, the search is on for home-stay locations. According to Xiong, each host need provide a well-lit extra room, good ventilation and sanitary conditions. In other words, they must have money. Additionally, each home-stay need include an English-speaker.

Mr. Zhu is friendly, and generous too. He smiles at strangers and bargains half-heartedly. He works in the city. He has a wife and a daughter in school.

Unfortunately, his shop has no space for a German trio or an Argentine couple.

Actually, Mr. Zhu rents a small apartment in Beijing's northern suburbs - a real home. His wife and daughter live there. So does he...one or two days out of seven. He usually treks back, three hours each way, on weekends. Mostly, Mr. Zhu pads down a half flight of wooden stairs at the rear of his shop to a closet-like bed.

He rarely sees his daughter, a high school sophomore. She wakes up every morning at 5am, sleep-walks to class and doesn't return home until 10pm. If she's lucky, the 16-year old spends five hours per night in bed.

She's studying English and testing quite well. Mr. Zhu is quietly proud of his child. Perhaps she'll go to college. Perhaps she'll land a high-paying job, he says. Perhaps she'll move to Shanghai and host a foriegn guest during the 2028 Games.

Or perhaps, a few foreign tourists - sweaty and bothered Olympic fans - will happen upon Mr. Zhu's shop, where they'll dawdle among heaps of black-and-white movie posters and bask in genuine Beijing hospitality.


Newslinks:

"Provinces pay price for green Olympics"

"Beijing airport sets Olympian tone"

"Advertisers will not shy from Beijing -- WPP head"

"Beijing dismisses rights fears"

Comments | Category: Exploring Beijing , Olympic Countdown |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

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