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.
August 22, 2008 8:43 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
Ai Wei Wei says these Olympic Games are a waste - of money, of passion, of goodwill.
Ai likens China's Olympic effort to a forced smile.
"I was questioning whether it's possible for a society that doesn't have democracy to excite the joys and celebrations of its people. And is it possible for such a society to win international recognition and approval when liberty and freedom of expression are lacking? There are all kinds of efforts under way that are means for stricter and tighter control. When these new security rules and restrictions are put in place, how can one smile and perform, cheer and pose?" - from NYT interview
"In the Olympics, we expect to witness new heights of effort and hope, speed and strength, that will inspire China to lift the pace of reform, to be more determined, more courageous, and more at peace with ourselves. To reach this point, China has endured disasters, suffering, humiliation, and a darkness that made people hopeless. Almost 60 years after the founding of the People's Republic, we still live under autocratic rule without universal suffrage. We do not have an open media even though freedom of expression is more valuable than life itself. Today is not the time to dwell on our problems, but neither should we accept those who tell us these games are not political." - from Guardian column
China spent $40 billion on the 2008 Games. According to Ai, the country's freedom was never for sale. Other Chinese see things differently.
"I like diving best," a young woman walking near Zhongguancun, 'China's Silicon Valley,' exclaimed. "China wins so many gold medals in diving. Actually, China will probably finish first in the gold medal count. We already have won more than 40.
"It's clear that Chinese sports have developed. We're all very proud. As Chinese sports develop, our country as a whole develops. Our economy, our culture, our living standard - these all may rise together."
Ai the artist trashed an invitation to August 8's Olympic opening ceremonies - spurning spectacle in the 80,000-seat 'Bird's Nest' he once sketched.
"I've always thought of this ceremony as a product of government bureaucracy, rather than a natural celebration and expression generated among free citizens," Ai wrote in The Guardian.
"I'll never forget watching (Chinese hurdler) Liu Xiang drop out," remarked a Beijing BBQ snack vendor. "And I'll never forget the opening ceremonies - so strong, so beautiful."
"I saw the opening ceremonies on television, at home with my family," an elderly neighborhood volunteer, pivoting to use her one good ear. "The best parts were little Lin's song, Chairman Hu (Jintao)'s speech and all the Chinese flags."
"The opening ceremonies demonstrated China's ability as host," explained a young woman out shopping. "I watched them in a bar. There were lots of Chinese, lots of foreigners. Everyone was very excited."
A young Team China fan poses for his parents on Beijing's Olympic Green.
Nini, one of five Olympic mascots, joins the Chaoyang beach volleyball cheerleaders.
"I'm in love with Michael Phelps," crowed the Zhongguancun woman, employed at an Internet company. "He's won eight gold medals - so of course many Chinese people admire him."
A western-style cafe on one Beijing college campus has screened the Olympics on a projector screen every day.
"My favorite memory from the Games has been Team China's (men's basketball) win over Germany," a waitress at the cafe said.
"My favorite? The Chinese rowers' last 1500 meters," said a waiter. China took its first-ever rowing gold in the women's quadruple sculls.
In the run-up to the 2008 Games, Beijingers spoke about China's Olympics in terms of success and failure - after an earthquake 8.0 on the Richter scale devastated China's Sichuan province May 12, even more so.
"(The earthquake) is horrible," said a Beijing construction worker in May. "Our work-unit has already pitched in - we've collected money for the relief effort. Fortunately, we trust our government. As for hosting the Olympics, China will succeed."
Months later, China sits atop the gold medal count. We've had a week of cool, clear weather in Beijing. The opening ceremonies drew oohs and aahs.
On the other hand, Muslim malcontents have mounted a series of violent attacks in China's northwest. Free Tibet activists demonstrated near Tiananmen Square and the Olympic Green. Police roughed up a British reporter. Americans were assailed on the Drum Tower.
Three days and the Games will be over. Undoubtedly, China's leaders will count them a success. Undoubtedly, China's critics won't. As for the country's people...
"Of course we've supported the Games. Of course we've been welcoming. Of course we've watched the competitions here and there," a bent old man in inch-think saucer spectacles confirmed, gesturing at his wheelchair bound friend.
"But we're hobbled. We're poor. No tickets. No Bird's Nest. We don't really know whether the Games have been successful or not, you see."
Down the block, five lao tou'er ('old heads') sat hunched round a tiny courtyard table, playing Chinese chess. A younger man tinkered with his motorcycle in the dirt nearby.
"Some of you foreigners have been courteous. Some of you haven't been courteous," one of the lao tou'er said. "Guests in Beijing but you don't understand China."
He turned back to the chess game and WHOMP slammed down a wood disk.
"Even so - yes, we've hosted a somewhat successful Olympics."
And now that the Games are nearly done, I asked finally, how do you feel?
No answer. WHOMP WHOMP. The chess game continued.
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