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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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April 6, 2008 4:23 PM

In search of 'China'

Posted by Daniel Beekman

The Olympic Games, like other forms and functions of today's globalization, involve exchange. Ideas, investments, insults, accords - flow from host to guests and guests to host. In 2008, what will or should pass between the two? And to what end?

Most Chinese expect this year's Olympics to further mutual understanding, of a non-topical sort. Lessons in history, language and culture - these are the goods China has hoped to send and receive.

On August 8, any number of pressing realities could block such an exchange: ethnic unrest in Tibet, Saharan skirmishes, acidic skies. But assuming not...even then, will the world leave Beijing 16 days later with a useful perspective on China?

"The 2008 Games can't represent all of China," a Shenzhen migrant worker said. "Our customs and lives are different down here."

Shenzhen, a subtropical metropolis minutes by light-rail north of Hong Kong, won't host an Olympic event this summer (Beijing, Qingdao, Shanghai, Tianjin, Shenyang, Qinhuangdao and Hong Kong will).

"You Americans should know," a 16-year old high schooler said, "that Shenzhen is a beautiful city, a modern city and China's New York for the future."

Shenzhen is legendary - a bubbling monument to post-1978 reform. Thirty years ago, when Mao Zedong's successor Deng Xiaoping named Shenzhen a Special Economic Zone (1980), it was a fishing village. One of five such zones - experiments in free-market capitalism - Shenzhen exploded.

Now home to millions of Chinese - survivors, escapees, dreamers and self-made millionaires - the city may soon join its economic strength to Hong Kong's. Shenzhen boasts the world's ninth-tallest building and a stock exchange of 540 companies and 35 million registered investors.

Unlike nearby cities, where most people speak Guandonghua (Cantonese), Mandarin Chinese is the norm in Shenzhen. That's because the city has slurped up migrants from all over China. Reportedly, 70 percent of 'Shenzheners' lack hukou (permanent residence permits). Most are less than 30 years old.

"Shenzhen is better for migrants than other Chinese cities," said the worker, who keeps a bag and umbrella shop. "It's better because we're all new. There's less discrimination here."

"Our diversity is our economic strength," explained a high school English teacher, originally from Hubei province. "Shenzhen is an miracle - to add 12 million people in just three decades. And Shenzhen is a melting pot, like the United States."

For years, a fence sealed freewheeling Shenzhen away. Inside the fence: construction workers, hypermarkets and Internet cafes. Outside: slums, sweat-shops and crime - what acclaimed American author Peter Hessler dubbed the 'Overnight City.'

Shenzhen's economy grew 28 percent a year (average) between 1980 and 2004 - powered by assembly-line exports like mouse-pads, bra-straps and phony Christmas trees.

China's first SEZ has yet to discard the hukou system - migrant communities still ring Shenzhen. But the city has outgrown its former isolation. Commuters and shoppers cross daily in droves from Hong Kong. Cars and trucks speed freely between Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

The city's developers are gobbling up Guangdong farm land and moving mountains, literally. Shenzhen is expanding so fast suburban roads hadn't reached a newly built school of 1,000 students this winter.

"Many people are worried about the Olympics and Beijing's environment," one of those students, a high-school freshman said. Roughly half of her classmates were born in Shenzhen. "We have air and water pollution too. You notice it walking outside. Just open a window. Shenzhen has many cars and factories."

Known as a manufacturing hub, Shenzhen may be switching gears. A number of domestic hi-tech firms have emerged in the city. There's Tencent, for example. More than 500 million web-surfers here use Tencent's instant messaging platform, QQ. Despite its substantial migrant worker population - nearly 6 million in 2005 - Shenzhen has become one of China's wealthiest, best-educated cities.

"Shenzhen is a developed city," a tourist from Hunan province commented admiring. "Hunan is a farm."

In fact, Shenzhen proper resembles an enormous shopping center. Think pristine white storefronts. Think double-escalators. Think Gucci. Once on Shenzhen's subway - which stops below more than one mall - it's possible to forget the city's suffocating sun.

A self-styled 'City of Joy,', Shenzhen lacks cultural-historical cache. In other words, a Shenzhener's joy has plenty to do with his or her salary.

"Shenzhen is less civilized than Beijing," said a necklace seller from Jiangsu province. "Shenzhen is a city by the sea. Shenzhen is developing too fast."

Away from the SEZ's glitziest avenues, bargain seekers and over-worked youngsters squat beneath palm trees.

"We've been in Shenzhen for three years," said the umbrella seller. "Life here is okay. There were no opportunities at home, for sure.

"On the one hand, the Olympics should benefit our economy. On the other, most people won't see a profit. The Exchange rates are falling. Our salaries are low. There's too many of us, and no job security.

"You Americans complain about poor-quality Chinese goods. But the brand-name products we make earn your companies a lot and us very little."

Back in the classroom at one of Shenzhen's newest schools, Beijing's Games solicited less jaded reactions.

"We all love the Olympics," a smooth-talking freshman said. "After the Games, more foreigners will visit Shenzhen."

"China will win gold medals this year," a demure girl announced proudly, as her friends broke into song. "We are the champions, we are the champions...of the world."

"Why are the Olympic Games important?" the girl continued. "In 2008, China will communicate with other countries, improve its reputation and stand tall before the world."

Beijing is China's Olympic face, and will host 2008's most heralded global exchange. Why?

For the same reason Beijing's Games won't encapsulate all that is 'China.' There's no Chinese city quite like it.

"Beijing is an ancient city," a wedding planner explained. "Shenzhen's only three decades old. If we hosted the Olympic Games, you'd see a different China."

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



"French athletes rally for 'a better world'"

"Arrests Mar London's Olympic Torch Relay"

"Rogge: Beijing Smog May Affect Athletes"

"The Birth and Rebirth of Shenzhen"

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