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Blogging Beijing

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

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August 5, 2008 4:09 PM

China's ethnic Koreans and the Olympics

Posted by Daniel Beekman

Once Yao Ming lights Beijing's Olympic cauldron and the 2008 Games begin, you'll hear a lot of talk about 'China' and 'the Chinese.'

Rightly so, because these are China's Olympic Games - Tibetan dissent notwithstanding, a truly unifying, national moment.

But it's worth remembering how enormous and diverse the Middle Kingdom is.

Several hundred miles northeast of Beijing there's a sliver of rugged, green land where most every morning reveals a 'blue sky day' and peddlers peddle leisurely, sniping at passersby in accented Korean.

"What're you doing up here?" a leathery man selling pears in Yanji city asked Monday. "The Olympics are in Beijing. Want to buy a pear?"

Yanji is the capital of Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in Jilin province, home to two million people - 850,000 members of China's Korean ethnic minority. Yanji and Yanbian are wedged between China, North Korea and Russia.

The 2008 Games have proved more contentious than even Zhongnanhai's critics expected. Spurned by princes and marathoners, championed by movie stars and dictators, China's first-ever Olympics have elicited ethnic unrest and intense media scrutiny.

Chief among the questions fueling pre-Games debate here and abroad: whose Olympics are these? Are they China's? Are they the world's? Do they belong to big business? Or to the Chinese people? To the rich? To the poor? To Beijing? Or to the entire country?

Years ago, Beijing's Olympic organizers bestowed on the 2008 Games a trio of didactic 'concepts' : 'Hi-tech Olympics,' 'Humanistic Olympics,' and 'People's Olympics.'

According to their official website:

"People's Olympics means that we will take the hosting of the Olympic Games as an opportunity to popularize the Olympic spirit...We will always give first consideration to the need of people...We will also encourage the widest participation of the people in the preparation for the Games, as it will greatly push forward the sports and cultural development nationwide and increase the cohesion and pride of the Chinese nation."

Chinese Olympic volunteers number over two million, from crossing guards to Internet nannies. Contrary to popular belief on the streets of Beijing, millions of tickets to the Games were sold at affordable rates.

Yet for the residents of isolated Yanji, less than 100km west of North Korea and culturally distinct from Beijing, what Olympic ownership is there to claim?

A statue representing longevity presides over China's border with North Korea.

Crossing into North Korea from China without a visa is strictly forbidden.

Tourists snap photos from China's half of a bridge; a faded poster of Kim Il-Sung.

China's partnership with North Korea has suffered in recent years.

Many ethnic Koreans here will cheer for China during Beijing's Olympics.

"I've got nothing to do with the Olympics personally," explained a newspaper seller in Yanji who belongs to China's Han Chinese majority. "I don't have the means to attend the Games in Beijing.

"Even when the torch relay came through Yanji, I stayed to man my newspaper stand. I support the Olympics all the same, though. I'm proud of China."

This summer's domestic torch relay represents organizers' bid to include all of China in the Olympics. The sacred flame passed through more than 100 Chinese cities on its way to Beijing. It will reach the capital tomorrow; on July 16 the torch relay visited Yanji.

"Yeah, I went to see the torch relay here," said an energetic, ethnic Korean man spitting seeds outside his Yanji cornerstone. "It was really great, although it rained."

An old ethnic Korean man exploded when asked about Beijing's Games.

"Jiayou! Jiayou! Aoyun jiaoyou! Aoyun wansui!" he shouted. "Go! Go! Go Olympics! Long live the Olympics!

"We're Korean - we are a minority in China. We welcome outsiders. We're just like you," he continued, then launched into another cheer. "Friendship! Harmony! WorldpeaceOlympicGamestenthousandyears!"

South Korean fashions dominate the small Chinese city of Yanji.

In Jilin province's Yanbian Prefecture, dog is a popular dish. Here, pet dogs for sale.

Yanji is buslting thanks to Chinese and South Korean investment.

Locals - Korean and Chinese - favor hikes on Mao'er mountain, near Yanji.

Green vistas, blue skies, fresh air...a world away from Beijing.

Traditional Korean culture, including dance, is alive and well in Yanbian.

There are rumors of ethnic competition, and possibly resentment, in Yanji. Decades ago the city was overwhelmingly Korean - a sleepy metropolis in North Korea's shadow. During the China's Cultural Revolution, it's said that some Yanji Koreans fled over the border.

Refugees cross from North Korea to China now, and Yanji's economy has taken off thanks to a booming Chinese markets and South Korean investment. South Koreans manage a top-notch university: the Yanbian College of Science and Technology.

"My older brother works for Samsung - a South Korean firm - in Guangzhou," said one recent graduate, a third-generation ethnic Korean.

In 1952 ethnic Koreans accounted for 60 percent of Yanbian's population - today half that. Yanji is a relatively prosperous city, and Han Chinese are moving in.

"Most Chaozu (ethnic Koreans) support China and the 2008 Games," the newspaper seller said. "The ones who don't, it's a personality problem. It's got nothing to do with their ethnicity."

"There are no ethnic problems here," said a female migrant worker from Liaoning province. "We're all for the Olympics and China."

"I've lived here 30 years," said a Beijing native and artist. "I was assigned to Yanji by the government after college graduation. We Chinese are peace-loving people. We avoid conflict. For all of us, these Olympics are a dream come true."

Koreans came to Yanbian in two waves - first in the 19th century, and again between the World Wars. Many sought refuge in China during Japan's 20th century occupation of Korea.

"My parents fled the Japanese, immigrated to Yanji," a 47-year old ethnic Korean said. "I was born here. The Olympics haven't really changed our lives. If South Korea were to face China during the Games, I suppose I'd cheer for the country with more athletic ability."

"We'll support China against Korea during the Olympics, of course," said a 16-year old boy. "Our family immigrated from Korea 20 years ago, but there's no difference between us and our Han neighbors."

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