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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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May 30, 2008 3:18 AM

Back to school

Posted by Daniel Beekman

On May 14, I accompanied six Chinese civil servants on a trip to Tianjin. We took in the sights, strolled down Gu Wenhua Jie ('Ancient Culture Street'), scarfed fish-scale salad and doughy dumplings (baozi). We also attended the 2008 Gymnastics World Cup - an Olympic preview.

Question #1

"Twenty civil servants. Sixteen provinces. Eight apartments. Three hundred hours of English instruction. Four eye-opening months in Olympic Beijing."
Which does the above passage best describe?
a). Chinese television's newest reality show
b). An intensive English program sponsored by the State Council's Office of Legislative Affairs

Surprisingly, the correct answer is 'b'. For the past three years, the State Council has plucked bright young bureaucrats from China's backwaters for extra education.

The 'Middle Kingdom' is crazy for English; people value the language here, where English speakers net cushy jobs and vocab equals money.

Like it or not...English has facilitated China's post-1978 economic surge and three-decade dance with the West. Cab drivers, hoteliers and volunteers are now immersed in study. More than 500,000 overseas tourists will visit Beijing for the 2008 Olympic Games.

Nearly 200 million Chinese took formal English classes in 2005 (China made primary school English compulsory in 2001). Tack on 'English Corners,' private academies and the country's wacky English-learning magazines. By 2025, China will boast more English-speakers than the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom combined.

This February, at Beijing's behest, an unlikely group took the English plunge - provincial law-clerks determined to further or escape that most mundane of careers.

Question #2

What does a Chinese civil servant dream about becoming, besides a civil servant?
a). A philosopher
b). A businessman and father
c). A central government official
d). A fashion designer
e). All of the above

You guessed it. The correct answer is 'e' - all of the above.

"When I was a little boy, I thought I'd grow up and start a business," said Ted, a 34-year old from Yunnan province. "So many things come between you and your dreams, though. So many things you don't expect."

Ted's classmates like to tease him - the former soldier, married years ago, is desperate for a son.

"I don’t want to be a civil servant my whole life," he remarked softly, smiling. "The job is monotonous."

Halfway down Gu Wenhua Jie, Ted ducked into a Taoist temple. "He's going to pray to Mazu, the sea goddess," explained Bryan, a native Tianjiner. "Ted's going to ask her for a son."

Bryan, chubby and friendly, is young for the program. In July, he'll return to Tianjin. Unwillingly.

"I've always dreamed about becoming a fashion designer," he giggled on the bullet train back to Beijing. "I wish I could move to Tokyo and make clothes for a living. I make clothes now - in my spare time. Men's clothes. Women's clothes. It's a childish dream, maybe. But it's my dream.

"Beijing is more fashionable than Tianjin. There are more people from outside China in the capital. They can wear something new. Of course, I like Tokyo fashion best. I like Tokyo's style."

Paul - short, muscular and restless - fidgeted with his cell phone a few seats away. The program's only participant based in Beijing, Paul speaks excellent English. He works for the State Council. His favorite phrase is - 'Yes, I know.'

"Yes, I know," Paul began. "As a boy, I hoped to become a philosopher. When I was in university, I discovered law."

Paul hails from Ningxia, a poor, sandy autonomous region northeast of Tibet. He spent six years in Xi'an - where China's famous Terracotta Warriors dwell - earning a master's degree.

When I dropped a coin into the mouth of a jade temple toad for good luck, he assured me "you'll acquire many shares in your future company." Paul is a fierce badminton player.

He's also what Linda, from smoggy Chongqing on the banks of the Yangtze, wishes she could be.

"I took the central government exam and passed four years ago," Linda recalled sadly. "Then I failed my interview. It was such a pity. I missed my chance to work in Beijing."

Paul examines an old-time 'Spring Festival' scene, in Tianjin.

Vivian grew up in Urumqi, the biggest city in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Question #3

How will China's Olympic gymnastic team perform this summer in Beijing?
a). Very well
b). Well
c). Poorly
d). Very poorly
e). Yayyy! China! Yayyy!

Both 'a' and 'e' are correct.

Chinese gymnasts tear up Tianjin:

Lu Shanzhen, who coaches the Chinese women, recently lamented her squad's difficult Olympic draw - Lu's gymnasts will open the 2008 Games against Romania. Judging by their performance at the FIG World Cup, however, the Chinese are ready.

Ted grinned, Bryan cheered and China dominated - out-spinning, out-vaulting, out-balancing the planet's best in Tianjin.

Bryan bounced off his seat for Chen Yibing, Tianjiner and World Champion on the still rings.

"China won't win the overall medal count in 2008," Bryan admitted. "We don't have many great runners or swimmers. The U.S.A. will win, as usual.

"The Chinese team will place second or third, though. We're good at gymnastics. Our bodies are suited for tumbling."

Outside the stadium (think Kremlin meets Kingdome) a platoon of grizzled workers spent the afternoon heaving paver-stones. Inside, sleepy ushers shuffled past dated posters of body-builders. The whole place stank of urine.

Chen Yibing, Bryan's favorite gymnast, on the still rings.

A custodian sleeps between rounds of the 2008 FIG World Cup in Tianjin.

A Chinese gymnast mid-flight - the uneven bars.

Question #4

What is the relationship between China's central government and provincial governments?
a). Central:provincial::father:son
b). Central:provincial::equal:equal
c). Central:provincial::dictator:follower
d). Central:provincial::advisor:advisee
e). Any of the above

Once again, 'e'. Which is to say, there's no correct answer. Even Chinese bureaucrats disagree.

"I think the role of the central government is to guide," Bryan said. "China is not a dictatorship. The local governments have some autonomy. We in the provinces can determine some things. This is something that people outside of China often don't understand."

"I don't know that," Linda chimed in. "I think the central government does have so much power. We have very little power in the provinces. We do what the central government tells us to do."

If you answered 'c' - yourre like most Americans. China is the Three Gorges Dam. China is state censorship and propaganda. China is Chairman Mao. You've read about Beijing's 1989 crackdown on student protests in Tian'anmen Square. You know what China's central government demands, what it has accomplished.

Yet many people familiar with China would call you uninformed - naive. "Heaven is high," the old Guangzhou (Canton) saying goes, "and the Emperor is far away." China is immense; Beijing can't manage the country alone. And so, half the policies the central government drafts...are ignored.

Autonomy has its advantages and disadvantages. Some people argue that loosening the reigns on local Chinese politics encourages democratic reform. Others say Beijing's admirable 'green' regulations will remain worthless until properly enforced. A stronger central government, they contend, could save China's environment from dirty politicians and corrupt factory bosses.

"I'm glad that local officials don't always listen to the central government," Bryan said. "If local officials don't protect the environment, they're making a personal mistake. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with the system."

Question #5

Chinese civil servants believe English is awfully important.
True or False?


"I believe English is awfully important," Bryan confirmed.

Would Bryan or Ted, or Linda or Paul - I inquired - use English much after returning to their regular jobs?

"I don't really speak, read or write English at work," Ted apologized.

So why the training? Why should China's civil servants learn English? What does the central government care?

"We must learn English," Bryan said. "How else can we communicate with people outside China? How else can we help our country develop? How else can we learn about the world? If we don't learn English, we'll never understand America."

Ted, walking past Tianjin's brand-new Olympic soccer stadium, sends a text message to his wife in Yunnan province.


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