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 17, 2008 4:04 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
Michael Phelps has swum. Yao Ming has jammed. Gold medal fever has gripped Beijing.
On the sixth floor of his modest brick building, in the living room of his modest apartment, Ha Yiqi picks a gorgeous dragonfly kite off the wall and flashes his modest smile.
Beijing's greatest kite maker will watch these Olympics on television at home with his family - "No tickets, no problem," chuckled Ha. "I'm just an artist."
But Ha, like China's veiny gymnasts, belongs to the 2008 Games. For seven years he's championed a truly Olympic cause - bringing Chinese culture to the world.
"You foreigners - visiting Beijing for the Olympics - have your own skyscrapers and bullet trains," Ha remarked. "What don't you have? Two thousand years of Chinese kite culture."
A fourth-generation kite-maker, Ha demonstrated his craft before the globe's best athletes August 1-7 at the 2008 Olympic Village. Other Chinese folk artists - singers, dancers and shadow puppeteers - performed beside him.
"The athletes were so civilized," said Ha. "They watched quietly, listened and asked intelligent questions. They were interested - they'd never seen art like ours before."
The first athlete to approach Ha was a friendly man from the tiny West African river nation Togo.
"I gave him a small kite - a present," Ha recalled. "He was very grateful."
Russian tread-marks lead into Georgia and Beijing's protest pens remain empty, but according to Ha, the Olympic Village felt blessedly free of political tension.
"I enjoyed the atmosphere - when the athletes arrived it became hot (as in cool)," said Ha. "Over 200 nations. So many languages. So many faces.
"We met famous Chinese athletes, German gymnasts and a French badminton champion. We met people from 50 different nations one day. We talked a lot, and treated all the athletes the same - the athletes from China and the athletes from Togo."
Ha Yiqi is a fourth-generation Beijing kite maker and Olympic fan.
Ha devoted himself to the Games following Beijing's successful bid in 2001, working on government-sponsored xuanchuan (advertising or propaganda) campaigns. He'll keep on kites when the races are run; these Olympics have boosted cultural pride domestically, awareness abroad and furthered heritage protection.
"The 2008 Games have provided everyone with a chance to think about China," said Dr. Kristin Congdon, professor of film and philosophy at the University of Central Florida. "The Chinese government wants the world to understand who the Chinese people are. That story can best be told through Chinese traditions and folk art."
Congdon leads ChinaVine, an educational alliance designed to teach English-speakers about traditional Chinese culture. She and her students have documented Ha's craft, and that of fellow folk artists in Beijing and Shandong province for ChinaVine's website.
"Because I have made so many friends in China, I was happy that the opening ceremonies were so successful," said Congdon, who's seen Beijing three years in a row. "I think the show honored Chinese traditions beautifully. They were an artistic statement beyond my wildest imagination."
ChinaVine, a partnership between UCF, the University of Oregon and the Shandong University of Art and Design, is part of the cultural renaissance these Olympics have sparked. Of course, Olympic organizers here planned the Games for China's future, not its past.
"Many of Beijing's new buildings are world-class and I applaud the way so many people are being lifted out of poverty there," Congdon said. "At the same time, I mourn the loss of the city's traditional life. Folk art and folklore change with time and place, but Beijing is developing so fast, its folk art and folklore may not have time to adapt."
Ha, 54, is more optimistic.
"Beijingers' attitudes have changed since I was little - changed for the better," he said. "Back then the status of folk art was very low. Now searching through our history for meaning, for identity.
"People appreciate our craft more today. Just as our society has developed economically, it will develop artistically."
Born in Beijing to a professional kite maker, Ha grew up painting. He didn't try kite making until the age of 10.
"My first kite was simple. My father helped me," said Ha, opening a washed-out kite book. "I still remember - a double fly kite."
When Ha was 20, a friend and fellow factory worker asked him for a special kite. So it began.
"At first it was fun," said Ha. "Nothing more, nothing less. But I did a good job. And the more kites I made, the more I grew to love kite making."
Ha's great-grandfather was a kite maker. So was his grandfather. In those days, kite makers in Beijing depended on rich patrons for business. The Ha family ran a small restaurant as well.
"Our kite shop opened during the Qing dynasty," said Ha. "In China, Beijing kites are number one. Quality and exquisiteness, that's what Beijing's lords demanded.
"Kite making is unlike other arts. It requires a combination of imagination and skill, physics and aesthetics. If your kite looks great but doesn't fly..."
In 1970 Ha founded the Beijing Kite Art Company. He's determined to keep his family's craft alive.
"Chinese people have flown kites for quite some time. In the beginning, kites were used only for war. Now everyone can fly."
Ha and other Chinese folk artists' patience and passion have inspired ChinaVine participants.
"(Ha) is more a 'kite scholar' than a 'kite maker'" gushed Myra Tam, 27, a Chinese national from Hong Kong and University of Oregon graduate student. "He respects his family's business - his respect reflects the core tenets of Chinese culture."
"From a westerner's perspective, what really strikes me as special about Chinese folk art is the generations and generations of tradition," said Blair Remington, 20, a UCF undergrad who traveled to China this May as a ChinaVine photographer.
"The styles change to fit popular taste, but the techniques and processes stay the same. In America, if you make the same cookies for Christmas every year, it's a tradition. In China, it's only a tradition if your great-grandfather did it. I wish we had the same respect for history that the Chinese do."
ChinaVine participant Erika Rydell filmed Chinese folk art this March.
When you think 'Olympics,' you might not think 'folk art,' but every modern Games has paid homage to its host city's culture. Barcelona's Catalan, Cubist sheep dog, Nagano's snow monkeys, Atlanta's...Coca-Cola dispensers.
Most people here see these Games as a showcase for Chinese history and culture. Ha, though, believes in a deeper connection between sport and art.
"There's a powerful link between the two," the kite-maker declared. "Sport is art. You hear athletes saying things like 'our gymnastic art,' 'our diving art.' What they're saying is true.
"How do I know? I've watched American basketball players - the Dream Team. Their movements are very artistic, very beautiful."
Asked what he thought of Beijing's Olympic Village, Ha smiled, then described the compound's sprawling tennis and basketball courts, it's streams and trees.
"We artists have worked so hard," Ha said. "Performing for the athletes, even letting them try...it was wonderful.
"They have banks inside the Olympic Village. They have Internet, restaurants and dry cleaners. We wanted to offer them something too - a tranquil, civilized space to appreciate art. I know they appreciated it."
Ha paints and tinkers with kites for art's sake. For tradition's sake. Mostly.
"For the Olympics we made a kite out of 205 different nations' flags," Ha said. "It stretched 103 meters, took seven of us 25 days. It looked so pretty, so harmonious up high. No animosity - everyone's flag in the same sky."
July 30, 2008 4:05 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
(Note: Bus bombs killed two people and injured 14 last week in Kunming, the capital city of southwest China's Yunnan province and the site of August's International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences Conference - postponed by local officials this spring.)
On May 22, Dr. Stevan Harrell, professor of anthropology at the University of Washington, headlined a 'China Earthquake Forum' hosted by the UW Jackson School's China Studies Program.
Since the 1980s, Harrell has conducted research in Sichuan province, where China's May 12 earthquake shook down villages, killed 70,000 people and left millions homeless.
Harrell, who won't attend the 2008 Olympic games, is considered an academic authority on the Nuosu or Liangshan Yi, a Chinese ethnic minority 8 million strong. Yi people speak a Tibeto-Burman language and reside primarily in China's southwestern mountain areas.
They are related to the Qiang, a people dispersed near the May 12 earthquake's epicenter who were hit particularly hard by the disaster.
Director for the UW Worldwide Program, which conducts undergraduate exchanges in partnership with Sichuan University, Harrell has penned and edited number of books, including Ways of Being Ethnic in Southwest China - a regional ethnography.
From 1999-2007, Harrell served as the Burke Museum's Curator of Asian Ethnology. In 2000 he founded the Yangjuan Primary School in rural Sichuan, with the goal of advancing environmental sustainability and community development through education.
In 2005, Harrell founded the Cool Mountain Education Fund, a small NGO that awards scholarships to Yangjuan School graduates. His UW students have participated in ecological fieldwork and community service at the Yangjuan School; UW students studying at Sichuan University relayed eyewitness accounts from the earthquake via The Seattle Times in May.
UW students raised thousands of dollars for victims of the May 12 earthquake this spring. About 100 students from Sichuan University have studied in Seattle since 2002; more than 800 Chinese students and scholars are currently at the UW.
I recently interviewed Harrell about the 2008 Olympic Games, the May 12 earthquake and Chinese ethnic minorities for Blogging Beijing.
When did you begin living/researching/working in China?
I've never lived in China. I lived in Taiwan for a total of two-plus years in the late 1960s and 1970s. I first visited China in 1980 as a tour leader, and did my first actual research project in 1988 in Panzhihua, with Sichuan University and the Panzhihua Artifacts Bureau.
What have been the highlights of your career in China?
The highlights are just starting to happen; for the last 6 years I have brought together research (on community organization, ethnic relations, ecological sustainability and elementary education), teaching (of UW undergrads and graduates) and social action (founding and supporting a school) in Yangjuan and Pianshui villages, Baiwu Township, Yanyuan County, Lianghan Prefecture, Sichuan.
(Note: For more on Dr. Harrell's research in Sichuan, check out Fieldwork Connections, which he co-authored.)
Why were you - and why are you still - interested in China?
It was the first foreign culture I ever encountered, in Hong Kong in 1965. I think that if I had encountered Afghanistan or Tahiti first, that would be where my interest would lie. Once you have put in all the time learning about a culture and language, it's hard to switch; I still don't think I have made an effective switch from Han to Nuosu culture.
How were you drawn into studying minority people in southwest China?
After the Mosher affair , it was impossible for foreigners to do field research in Han areas. My student Dru Gladney had done research with Hui in various areas, and encouraged me to give minorities a try.
For readers who know little about Chinese minorities, what are three essential kernels of information?
1. There are as many minority people in China as there are people in Japan, and way more than there are in any one European country.
2. Not all Chinese minorities have active independence movements. In fact, only two of them do: Tibetans and Uighurs.
3. Minority people participate actively in incorporating themselves into the Chinese state, even when they have resentments against the state and against the Han.
What do the 2008 Games mean for China - Chinese people, Chinese government, Chinese minorities, and Chinese academics?
More than anything else, the Games are a chance to show the world that China is a grownup country. That's really about all.
How have the 2008 Olympic Games affected minority people in China?
It seems pretty clear to me that the Tibetan protestors were emboldened by the prospect of international media attention to their grievances. But it backfired on them and on Uighurs through tighter scrutiny.
It also backfired on the backfire-ers through absolutely horrible press coverage of the government crackdown. On the whole, the Tibetan autonomy cause may have been advanced a bit, and the government agreed to another round of direct talks, which like all the previous rounds will probably lead nowhere.
Most people the Games haven't affected at all.
Do you believe the 2008 Games have been organized primarily for international or for domestic consumption?
Both. They are an attempt to excite further nationalistic pride among the populace, and to show the world that China is a modern country that can pull this off.
How have organizers, academics, government, and local people tied ideas about Chinese minorities to the Olympics?
I haven't seen anything.
What is the relationship between Sichuan's minorities and the Tibet Autonomous Region's Tibetans?
There are over two million Tibetans in Sichuan - that is, people classified as Zangzu (ethnically Tibetan). Some of these are linguistically and cultural identical to those in Tibet, particularly those in Amdo, or northeastern Tibet. One of the main regional dialect groupings of Tibet - Kharms - is located mostly in Sichuan.
There are also people in various parts of Sichuan who are classified as Zangzu but speak languages only distantly related to any form of Tibetan. In addition to Sichuan, there are large numbers of Tibetans in Qinghai and Gansu, and a small number in Yunnan.
There are a lot of cultural policies, including school curriculum, that are formulated by committees covering the Tibetans from the five provinces. The TAR population is in the minority of the total Tibetan population in China.
What are relations between Han and minority people like today in the areas you know?
Nuosu people resent Han for being haughty, untrustworthy and dishonest. They also admire Han for being industrious, studious and successful. On the whole, I think resentment may be greater than it was in the past, because there is more contact.
On the other hand, because so many minority people migrate to cities and interact daily with Han, they have probably gotten to know them better. This could be good or bad.
How have the minority people you know been affected by the May 12 earthquake in Sichuan?
No effects in Liangshan. I have one friend from Mao Xian, a Qiang, and a lot of her relatives' villages were wiped out. Tibetans at Jiuzhaigou (a famously scenic national park) lost a huge amount of income because tourism stopped for several weeks; I just got an email saying they have about 400 visitors a day now versus the 12,000 or so a day they normally have during the summer.
How were or weren't the minority people of Sichuan affected by the earthquake in different ways than Han people?
The Qiang were heavily affected because the epicenter was in their area. No statistics available, but I'm guessing a lot of the earthquake's fatalities were Qiang.
In your opinion, how will the May 12 earthquake affect the 2008 Olympic Games?
Not at all. There will probably be a moment of silence or something, but that's it.
What could go wrong at the 2008 Games?
The air could be too polluted for high-level performances. The water at Qingdao could be un-sailable because of algae.
The foreign press will be extremely fed up and will try to report on this and will not be allowed to. The domestic press may feel stifled.
The government may be so tough visas that the stadiums won't be filled. The Chinese might, as the Communists did in Moscow in 1980, cheat to make sure their own athletes win.
Could minority people be involved in making or breaking the Games?
Not particularly. Nobody in China is against the Games, except for a few radicals.
In your opinion, how will these 2008 Olympics play out?
Just like any other - people in Beijing will welcome foreigners, clean up the streets and make a good impression. There will be dramatic moments in the competition itself, used for chauvinistic purposes by American, Chinese and probably Russian television, and appreciated for their intrinsic worth by more sensible countries.
Do you believe the condition of human rights in China warrants protest of the Games?
Not really. The Tibetans weren't protesting the Games in March. They were protesting curbs on religious freedom and other indignities. But I do think the Games provide a good spotlight to show what is right and wrong with China. For most Chinese people this is one of the biggest events of their lifetime. Do-gooder foreigners shouldn't deprive them of it.
What sorts of ties bind China/Sichuan/Sichuan University and the U.S./Washington/UW?
UW and Sichuan University have a lot of academic programs in common. Sichuan and Washington are 'sister provinces,' although our current state government is not very interested in this. The U.S. and China are completely interdependent; each country's economy would immediately fail without the other. This is a big reason why China does not want to invade Taiwan.
What happened to the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences Conference scheduled to be held this summer in Kunming?
I don't know, but I think someone in a fairly high position got scared after the Tibetan protests that foreign anthropologists would use the congress to demonstrate sympathy with the protestors and with the Tibetan exile cause - which almost all Europeans and a large number of Americans support. It was too risky just before the Olympics.
Why should people in Seattle care about the 2008 Olympics?
1. They should care if they want to understand why China is so prickly, why China's wounded national pride needs stroking. People in Seattle will understand by paying close attention to the Games and the way the Chinese promote them.
2. They should care if they like sports.
Why should people in Seattle care about Chinese minorities?
There's no particular reason unless they are interested in China. Minority people are a big part of China. Also, if people in Seattle are interested in Tibet, they have to understand the Tibet question in light of the situation of minorities in China. But there is no more reason for Seattleites to care about Chinese minorities than to care about Sami in Norway or First Nations in Canada.
July 17, 2008 3:43 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
There's an old Confucian saying, 'he er bu tong.' Literally, it means 'harmonious but not the same.'
According to Yan Xin, a doctoral candidate in Chinese philosophy at Beijing Normal University, 'he er bu tong' could also mean 'a successful 2008 Olympic Games.'
"Confucius taught that we can all learn from one another," Yan said. "He believed in solving problems through dialogue. That's what the Olympic are all about - international dialogue. We compete, yet preserve mutual respect."
(Note: Confucius was a scholar who lived during the 5th century B.C. His conservative, moral, pragmatic lessons on life, relationships and society are basic to traditional Chinese culture.)
China's government has spent billions of yuan on its athletes, transformed Beijing and risked 'face' for these Games. Why? Ask any Beijinger or Olympic volunteer. 'So that the rest of the world may better understand our China,' they'll answer.
It's important to set goals, and Beijing's goals are crystal clear.
But how, I asked a trio of student-volunteers, will China gain the world's understanding - aside from Tang dynasty floor shows, lavish Peking Duck banquets and giant panda sightings.
"Umm," they answered.
Beijing's gorgeous Confucian Temple (Kong Miao) might be a good place to start. Located in north-central Beijing, the leafy complex has been painstakingly renovated ahead of the 2008 Olympics.
Beijing's Confucius Temple and Imperial College
Qufu, a medium-sized city in Shandong province and Confucius' birthplace, boasts China's largest and most magnificent Kong Miao. Kong was Confucius' surname; miao translates as temple. Duke Ai of the state of Lu converted the Kong family home for worship in 478 B.C.
But Confucius, who many Chinese still refer to as the country's first or greatest teacher, was a traveling man. He bounced from ancient fiefdom to fiefdom (there was no unified 'China' in the fifth century B.C.), tutoring monarchs wise and weak in the fine points of benevolent rule.
Confucian temples - usually associated with learning or scholarship - eventually sprouted in Korea, Japan, Vietnam and Indonesia. When the Mongols made Beijing their Yuan dynasty capital in the 14th century, they erected a Kong Miao as well - a version of which remains today.
For centuries, Beijing's visited the temple's sweeping Dachengdian ('Hall of Great Achievement') to offer sacrifices in the name of Confucius.
"Although Confucius did not advocate revolution," Yan explained. "He argued that an emperor is like a boat, and the people like the water. The water may support the boat, or toss it over."
These days, Yonghegong - known to foreign visitors as the 'Beijing Lama Temple' - attracts more foot traffic than Kong Miao. Yonghegong, the capital's largest Tibetan Buddhist structure, sits at the corner of Yonghegong Street and North 2nd Ring Road.
Stroll a few blocks south of Yonghegong's mighty red walls and hang a right. You'll pass under the a gilded gate onto Guozijian alley or hutong. The Kong Miao complex is enormous and clean; sage cypress trees afford some shade.
If you're into history, follow a tour group through the temple's many pavilions. If you prefer peace and quiet, arrive early and claim a wooden bench. Watch out for Chujian Bai, Kong Miao's legendary mind-reading tree. A treacherous Ming dynasty official lost his hat to its branches.
If China had saints, Confucius would be the patron saint of Chinese students and scholars. It was he who advised the land's monarchs to dispense with nepotism. Officials, Confucius asserted, ought to be selected on merit. And to determine merit...tests, tests, tests.
In 2008, 10.5 million high-schoolers sweated out the gaokao, China's university entrance examination. Millions of college graduates took the national examination for officials, our century's answer to the tests Confucius championed.
"It's a well-established fact that Chinese people do well on exams," said Zhang Xinmin, 25, who's seeking a job in Beijing. "Our whole education system is test-oriented. We're accustomed to exams."
Next door to Beijing's Confucius Temple is the Imperial College, where would-be officials tested into China’s substantial bureaucracy. Candidates completed their exams locked in small, stone cubicles designed to prevent cheating; often they wrote and revised for days.
"Confucius was the first person to teach not only emperors, but common people as well," Yan said. "That's why we revere him."
The Imperial College also played host to emperors, however. Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasty rulers worshiped Confucius there. Tradition called for each emperor to compose a work of calligraphy in honor of Kongzi.
The Qianglong emperor and Kangxi emperor left their mark, as did Guomindang (Kuomintang) leaders after 1911. Emperors delivered Confucian-themed lessons from the Imperial College annually.
After 1949 and China's communist liberation, particularly during the Cultural Revolution, Confucian values came under fire here. China's economic surge and participation in a global market economy has further opened country to competing philosophies.
One important facet of Confucianism is filial piety - respect for and devotion to one's mother and father. Some social critics now bemoan a lack of filial piety among young people. Every day, millions of rural Chinese wave their parents goodbye, then board trains for the country's booming cities.
"How is China Confucian or not Confucian today," Yan pondered. "Confucianism is still present in the structure of our government hierarchy.
"But Confucius instructed people to act morally - to do the right thing, regardless of personal loss or gain. Today many Chinese act according to personal benefit."
And the 2008 Olympic Games - if he were alive to attend Beijing's Opening Ceremonies, what might Confucius think?
"If Confucius could see these Olympics, he'd be very happy," said Yan. "Confucius always encouraged his disciples to 'welcome guests from afar.'"
Interactive map of Beijing/China - follow up on posts and get oriented:
July 14, 2008 2:19 PM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
Blogging Beijing is a research blog, not a news-aggregator. Rather than analyze the many reports generated every day in and/or about the 2008 Olympic Games, Blogging Beijing explores China's dynamic culture, landscape and people.
I include a list of 'newslinks' below each Blogging Beijing entry for readers who want to know more about the city and the Games. But once in a while, a story or work of research calls for extra attention.
This ongoing report from Danwei (a Beijing-based English language website) and this comprehensive book review for The New Republic speak to the myriad questions spectators, journalists, academics, politicians, activists and athletes are asking about next month's Olympics.
The former deals with a series of outdoor advertisements that juxtapose China's human rights violations and Olympic Games, placing violent images of abuse in sports settings. The ads were alledgedly produced for Amnesty International by the Paris-based advertising firm TWBA.
TWBA has also been credited with producing Adidas' popular and patriotic Beijing Olympics ad series. The Adidas ads feature Chinese Olympians soaring above China's blurry masses. Whether TWBA's other series has gone or will go public isn't clear. Regardless, images from the series have circulated the Internet in China and provoked some angry responses from Chinese online.
These two campaigns represent two ways of looking at China and the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
(Note: For more on Adidas' Olympic ads, see 'Beijing 2008 Q&A: Jon Brilliant' on Blogging Beijing.)
The latter discusses six recently-published books on Beijing's Games and modern China: 'Beijing: From Imperial Capital to Olympic City' by Lillian M. Li, Alison J. Dray-Novey and Haili Kong, 'Beijing's Games: What the Olympics Mean to China' by Susan Brownell, 'China's Great Leap: The Beijing Games and Olympian Human Rights Challenges' edited by Minky Worden, 'Marketing Dictatorship: Propaganda and Thought Work in Comtemporary China' by Anne-Marie Brady and 'Owning the Olympics: Narratives of the New China' edited by Monroe E. Price and Daniel Dayan."
(Note: For an interview with Brownell, an American anthropologist and expert on Chinese sports, see 'Beijing 2008 Q&A: Dr. Susan Brownell' on Blogging Beijing.)
Andrew J. Nathan, the reviewer (a Columbia University professor and Human Rights Watch in China board co-chair) covers a lot of ground - from the imprisonment of Chinese activists, to International Olympic Committee history, to upward mobility in China's party bureaucracy and the Chinese propaganda apparatus.
Nathan argues that, since Richard Nixon reached out to China decades ago, the People's Republic has 'modernized, 'Westernized,' 'civilized' and yet remained apart. According to Nathan, China has grown into the 2008 Olympics independently, and the world has no choice but to live with a distinctly Chinese Games.
UPDATE: This story from London's Telegraph sheds light on Amnesty's graphic ad series.
June 30, 2008 3:27 PM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
Ethnic unrest at home and politically-charged protest abroad awakened in many Chinese people - young Chinese people, particularly - strong feelings including outrage, disillusionment, patriotism, confusion and pride.
It's been quite the Olympic spring: street violence in Lhasa, drama surrounding torch relay legs in London and Paris, 'human flesh search engines' online, student-led 'anti-CNN' and 'anti-Carrefour' movements in Beijing and Shanghai.
China's devastating May 12 earthquake, powerful as it was, failed to reach Seattle. After all, the quake hit thousands of miles away.
Those conflicts which erupted over Tibet and Beijing's 2008 Games, however, reverberated arcross the Pacific Ocean and stirred Puget Sound.
Pro-China rallies organized by Chinese and Chinese-American students at the University of Washington attracted international attention, as did the Dalai Lama's stay in Seattle. A group of students demanded their school limit the Tibetan leader's address to apolitical topics.
(Note: Click here to view a Seattle Times online video of protests against the Dalai Lama at UW April 14.)
According to the New York Times, there were more than 42,000 students from mainland China studying in the United States last year, an increase from fewer than 20,000 in 2003.
On the Pacific Rim, boasting healthy economic ties to China and a significant Chinese-immigrant population, Seattle straddles a cultural fault-line...one seperating/joining 'east' and 'west.'
Fang Fang, a Beijing native who goes by Flora overseas, knows that fault-line well. She's a first-year MBA student at the UW in Seattle, an outdoor enthusiast and a proud Chinese citizen - sorry she'll miss Beijing's first-ever Olympic Games.
Like her friends and former classmates back home, Fang has found Beijing's troubled spring hard to swallow. Unlike them, Fang wakes up every day in America. Negotiating the differences between Chinese and American society? According to Fang, challenging and rewarding.
I recently interviewed Fang about Beijing, Seattle and the 2008 Games.
How about you introduce yourself?
My Chinese name is Fang Fang. It's very simple. I like it, because I never confuse my surname and first name when filling out English forms. I turned 25 last weekend and celebrated my birthday with several friends from school on a hike.
I'm now a first-year Master's in Business Administration student at the Michael G. Foster School of Business, University of Washington. Prior to my MBA study, I worked as a tax consultant at PricewaterhouseCooper's Beijing office for two years. I did my undergrad at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing - double-majored in English and finance.
My hobbies include traveling, reading, watching movies and appreciating drama.
When, why and how did you end up at the University of Washington?
I applied to four MBA programs in 2006. All of them were on the West Coast except the University of Toronto. My mom has been to the East Coast and she doesn't like the big environment there. I researched programs based on different business school rankings and locked onto several West Coast schools. Many family friends in the United States strongly recommended the city of Seattle, and spoke highly of its beautiful landscape.
What were your initial impressions of the UW? Of Seattle? Of the U.S.?
The UW campus is awesome! It's so fun to run into squirrels and raccoons from time to time! I love the people here! Before coming to the U.S., some people warned me that I had better prepare myself - because the American people are very aggressive, quite opposite to the mild Chinese. However, I was surprised to find that the people here were super nice, including my classmates and strangers. No wonder Hollywood likes 'hero' movies. The heroic spirit is deeply rooted in American culture.
I've been to some European countries. I admire the rich history and well-preserved historical heritage there. I was a bit disappointed upon my arrival in the U.S. when it was not as clean, organized and deep with history as Europe. That said, I'm still in love with the breath-taking natural beauty in the Pacific Northwest. I have a group of friends who are enthusiastic about outdoor activities. I enjoy every adventure with them.
Fang Fang (far right) enjoys hikes in the Pacific Northwest - pictured here with friends on Mt. Ellinor.
How is Seattle different from Beijing? How is the UW different from your Chinese university?
The two cities are very different - in size, in population, in history, in culture, in geographic characteristics, in weather, in urban blue-prints, in lifestyle, in transportation infrastructure, and in economic and political functions etc.
The most impressive observation upon my arrival in Seattle? As Beijingers, we were educated from childhood that it was very important to save every drop of water. The lack of water is always a serious problem in Beijing. The government has invested a lot to build canals for water transportation from other provinces to support the capital. However, Seattle seems like a blessed city with regard to its water resources!
How are Chinese and American students different?
Differences...American students are positive and humorous. Chinese students are conservative and modest. Beijing students are talkative and good at pointing out your mistakes in a humorous way. Creativity is encouraged everywhere in the education system in the U.S. Generally speaking, American students are more creative than Chinese students. Chinese students focus more on the results while American students focus more on value created. Chinese students emphasize more on teamwork, while American students emphasize more on leadership.
My American classmates have shown a strong interest in sustainability and 'green' concepts, while in very few occassions Chinese students pay attention to these topics. It will take some time for Chinese students to catch up with our American peers in this regard.
American students are active in volunteer opportunities in the community, while there isn't such a widely held social awareness in China. As a Beijinger, I participated in many volunteer activities until high school. Our tie with the local communities loosened as we grew up.
American students are allergic to various types of food, while Chinese students are less vulnerable in terms of eating.
Similarities...prior to my MBA studies, one of the stereotypes I had for American students was that grades were not important to them. They would spend less time on study compared to Chinese students. However, I was very surprised to find that my American classmates were very diligent in their MBA study! No pain no gain. It holds for both the American students and the Chinese students.
What are a few common misperceptions about China in Seattle? What are a few common misperceptions about the U.S. in Beijing?
My American friends are too polite to tell me anything bad about China. My observations so far...different understandings regarding Taiwan and Tibet, and differences regarding human rights in China.
The top misperceptions about the U.S. in Beijing...that it's not safe in the U.S. because everybody can own a gun, that campus shootings happen frequently, that there is a 'China threat' theory in the U.S., that clothes and electronic products sold in the U.S. are not as fancy and cute as in China - that there are fewer choices.
What would you like to teach people in Seattle about China?
Don't just see what happened on the news. It's much easier to understand a different country and a different culture by seeing it yourself. It's exciting to experience a country (China) with a two-digit GDP growth rate per year.
How has Beijing changed since you were young?
It's changed A LOT! It's been modernized 100 times over since I was born. The living standard has been greatly improved every year.
I still remember the night when thte city was awarded the 2008 Olympic Games. It was the happiest and craziest night I've ever seen in Beijing. I looked down from my apartment building (about 10 minutes by foot from Tian'anmen Square), and saw people pour into the Square, waving the national flag, blowing trumpets and congratulating strangers on the street.
Since 2001, the government has invested a huge amount of money to upgrade the city's infrastructure and improve the environment. Beijing is a much more clean, beautiful, convenient and high-tech city than it was seven years ago. In addition, the government has been encouraging all Beijing citizens to learn English, facilitating better communication with foreign visitors during the Olympic Games. At the same time, there have also been many actions taken to improve the queuing problems in Beijing. People are now getting used to waiting in lines at bus/train stops!
What are some of the advantages for Beijing people of the 2008 Olympics Games? What are some of the disadvantages?
Beijing people are very proud that the 2008 Olympic Games will be held in Beijing. It will be China's debut in front of the world. People are willing to devote 100 percent enthusiasm to this big event. If not for this great opportunity, it would have taken much longer for Beijing to achieve what it has, in terms of what the city looks like and how people behave today. We appreciate the support from other cities in China, because we know that the central governmnet must have spent a big portion of the financial budget in Beijing in the past seven years.
I'm a big fan of traditional architecture and art, less so of modern buildings. I know that the Olympic stadiums are amazingly high-tech, but I doubt they fit well in the architectural heritage of Beijing. Besides, I wish that the money we've spent could be more sustainable.
How do you feel about the 2008 Olympic Games? Will you attend?
Of course I'm excited about the Olympics! I cannot make it home this summer because I need to get some internship experience in the U.S. I'm kind of sad because it looks like a once in a lifetime thing. I'm a big sports fan and I followed previous Olympic Games closely. Finally it happens at home but I'm far away! Everything has its tradeoffs. I hope missing the Olympics is worthwhile. I'd love to watch the Games on TV in my spare time.
Will the Olympics be a success?
Unfortunately, 2008 doesn't seem like a smooth year for China. Fingers crossed for the Olympics to be successful. It would be unbearable for Chinese people if anything goes wrong with the Games. The 2000 Sydney Games were my favorite so far. I hope China will do a good job as well.
Which of this year's events will most affect the 2008 Olympic Games: March’s Tibetan riots/protests, April's opposition to the Olympic torch relay in Paris or Sichuan’s recent earthquake?
All of them shadowed the 2008 Games, but on different levels. The positive side is that they bring the Chinese people together and spread the love not only all over China, but also all over the world. Although I'm not in China now, I can imagine that the Chinese people are more determined than ever to give the world the best in the Beijing Olympic Games.
Are you plugged into the UW's Chinese/Chinese-American student community?
I was all booked up with MBA studies this year. I'm planning to spend more time with the UW's Chinese/Chinese-American student community next year.
How have you experienced tensions between China and other nations over the Olympic Games, including the United States?
I've already been away from China for 9 months, and missed a lot of TV programs about how the Chinese Olympic teams are preparing. I'm guess China aims to beat the U.S. in Beijing and win first place in the gold medal rankings!
How and how often do you communicate with your family back in China? With your friends?
I'm a MSN and Skype user. We communicate every day. Frankly speaking, I don’t feel too far away from home.
How long will you stay in Seattle? In the United States?
I plan to look for a job in Seattle after my graduation in 2009. I really like the city and the people here. Not sure about long-term.
What are your long-term professional and personal plans?
My career goal post graduation is to secure a job in the corporate finance field. I like working in multi-national companies and taking on challenging projects, but I also value time with my family and my friends. If I can afford to, I want to travel to as many places as possible when I'm still young.
June 20, 2008 2:30 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
China's love affair with the English language didn't begin with the 2008 Olympic Games. It merely gained momentum...a lot of momentum.
In 2001, the same year as Beijing's successful Olympic bid, China declared primary school English compulsory. By 2005, nearly 200 million Chinese were formally studying the language. Educators, parents and employers now regard English as essential - like writing, science or math.
Roughly 500,000 Olympic volunteers - mostly Chinese university students - will recieve roughly 500,000 foreigner visitors to Beijing during the 16-day Games. Why not retired doctors? Why not middle-schoolers? Why not housewives?
It's Beijing's university students who understand, and in many cases speak, English.
The city has demanded they perfect their English ahead of the Olympics, to better guide and assist athletes and guests from abroad. Beijing's cab-drivers, hoteliers and police-officers are in cram-mode - squeezing in study-sessions before, after and during work...often by audio-tape.
More on English learning in China and the 2008 Olympics:
'Crazy English - The national scramble to learn a new language before the Olympics'
'Learning to Speak Olympics in Beijing'
'Mad about English: Chinese flock to learn'
'Zhang Hanzhi, Mao's English Tutor, Dies at 72'
'Beijing Decides Poor Translations Won't Do' (2007)
'Foreign Language Fever Hits Beijing' (2005)
'Beijing Launches English-Learning Programs' (2001)
The 2008 Games have given birth to a new genre of paperbacks here: 'Olympic English' phrasebooks. They're selling fast in Beijing, where a handful of giant, state-run bookstores monopolize the reading scene. China's Olympic organizers have pumped out texts tailored to volunteers', seniors' and security officers' specific needs.
What qualifies as 'Olympic English?'
Here's a sampling from 'Aoyun Yingyu Sanbaiju' ('300 English Sentences for Olympic Games'):
Welcome to Beijing.
How do you do?
Did you come to China for Olympic Games?
How long will you stay in China?
China's porcelain and silk are famous.
It's very hot in July and August in beijing. The air temperature is around 30 degrees centigrade.
Are you lost?
Beijing Shooting Range? Not far from here. You can go by walk.
Do you see that white house? The public toilet is over there.
It is electronic. You can touch the screen, the map is there.
I will go to the Capital Indoor Stadium, too. Follow me please.
It's raining cats and dogs.
What's your name?
It's August 8th.
Sorry, I'm really/so/terribly sorry.
It's my fault.
Will you ever forgive me?
Being a taxi driver
Where to, sir?
Please stop smoking.
Here's your change. Bye-bye.
Are you carsick?
Let's open the window.
Working in a restaurant
Here's an English menu.
How do you want your steak?
Enjoy your meal.
Selling at a store
The red t-shirt fits you.
This is the latest fashion.
The purse is cheap.
I'm afraid I can't bring the price down.
Topics for sports
Let's go watch the football match.
Could you teach me something about equestrian?
I'm a green hand at handball.
I like rhythmic gymnastics. How about you?
Topics for Olympics
What's the slogan of the 29th Olympics?
One world, one dream.
Watching a game
The excellent athlete was eliminated in the preliminaries.
Hi, Mike. What a game! I'm sure that our team will win for the final.
Why did Cameroon's team lose to French's team.
Wang Tao overtook his counterpart 3 to 1.
China may win the gold medal.
My heart is jumping!
Our team losed to the Japanese team.
Beijing's English train derailed temporarily this month, under criticism from Paralympians and disabled fans. The city's Olympic organizers pulled the English version of a 200-page volunteer manual offline, citing insensitive language and the inclusion of offensive stereotypes.
The manual described persons with physical disabilities as having "unusual personalities because of disfigurement."
"For example, some physically disabled are isolated, unsocial and introspective; they usually do not volunteer to contact people. Sometimes they are overly protective of themselves, especially when they are called 'crippled' or 'paralyzed,'" the manual counseled. "never stare at their disfigurement."
Organizers recalled the booklet and issued a public apology.
Other booklets on sale in Beijing employ more tact. China's Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press has translated an American-authored text - 'Aoyun Yingyu' ('Olympic English'). Chapter 5 is titled 'Sharing Cultural Information: Stereotypes.'
It begins, "In this chapter, you will learn to: desribe the people from different countries, make generalizations, qualify or contradict generalizations, talk about sterotypes." 'Aoyun Yingyu' introduces the English proverb 'don't judge a book by its cover.'
Oral practice sentences from the chapter include:
- Americans like baseball, and soccer too.
- Brazilian boys play soccer, and Brazilian girls play soccer too.
- Russians are tall, but Yelana isn't tall.
- Children like television, but my young son doesn't watch it.
Unlike 'Aoyun Yingyu Sanbaiju,' 'Aoyun Yingyu' contains few Chinese footnotes. Clearly, 'Aoyun Yingyu' was written for advanced Chinese learners of English.
June 15, 2008 11:20 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
(A shorter version of this entry appeared as a story in the June 14 print edition of the Seattle Times, and online here at www.seattletimes.com.)
No matter how far you go, Beijing welcomes you back/
One plus one plus one is three/
In Three, In Three, In Three
Bringing the true Beijing style/
Watching the old heads play Chinese chess/
Keep on speak-singing the true Beijing way/
Enough of these brothers with phony spirits/
Stick to speak-singing the true Beijing way/
In Three is dropping a beat
So begins 'Beijing welcomes you back,' as rapped by the soulful Chinese act In Three (Yin San'er). Chen Haoren, Meng Goudong and Jia Wei want the world to remember their city and the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Blast In Three and you'll hear Olympic China - east and west, old and new.
"Maybe a year from now you'll cry when our song comes on," said Chen, 25, who's lived all his life in Beijing.
The Olympics, fast approaching, have inspired all sorts of Beijingers: athletes, scientists, salesmen, dissidents...even rappers struggling to nourish a hip hop scene. This August, 3.1 million potential In Three
fans will visit Beijing.
Sugary pop ballads dominate Chinese music; teenagers here worship superstars from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Most Beijing venues rock to an expatriate beat. In Three are drawing crowds against the odds.
"In China, hip hop is relatively unknown," said Dr. Jin Yuanpu, who heads the Humanistic Olympic Studies Center at People's University. "But if hip hop catches anywhere, it'll catch in Beijing. Beijingers love to talk."
According to Angela Steele, a rap researcher, Beijing spawned China's first hip hop artists between 2000 and 2004 - rappers like Yin Tsang and turntablists like DJ Wordy.
Jia, Meng and Chen share a colorful pad north of Beijing.
The Olympics...everpresent. The 2008 Games could blow the lid off Beijing hip hop.
Rather than imitate American hip hop, In Three have developed a sound based on traditional Beijing shuochang ('speak singing' or rapping). Mule drivers invented shuochang centuries ago. Comedians and salespeople perform the art today.
"We're not about Chinese hip hop, or American hip hop, or English hip hop," explained Meng, 26. "We're about Beijing hip hop.
"We lead different lives than rappers in the United States. We brag less. We're from a socialist society. We're less competitive."
Although Chinese pop stars borrow from rap - Taiwanese heartthrob Jay Chou, for example - record labels here rarely sign raw hip hop acts like In Three.
"We rap about our environment, about Chinese development," Chen said. "We try to make meaningful music. Beijing's hip hop scene is trash - too many pretenders.
"When I see Chinese kids wearing hip hop clothing - kids who are empty inside, I feel uncomfortable."
In Three's 'Beijing welcomes you back' live from Beijing.
Chen, who speaks a slack-jawed Beijing drawl (sanlitun becomes sanlituan'er), has dreaded hair and pierced ears. Meng sports a fitted baseball cap, Jia stylish t-shirts.
Posters of Tupac and Bob Marley hang inside the trio's smoky, two-story apartment - one light-rail stop from outer Beijing.
Chen and Meng have known each other for years.
"For a while we listened to hip hop, danced and drank in the same circles," Meng said.
African friends - from Nigeria and Burundi - turned Chen onto hip hop. He promoted for local nightclubs. That led to freestyle rhyming alongside Meng.
The pair approached Jia, 21, in 2007, at a nightclub in northwest Beijing.
"We heard him flow, and he was...wow," Meng said.
"In Three is the quintessential underground Beijing crew," Steele said. "They rap with Beijing accents, their lyrics represent the lives of Beijingers and they're outspoken, yet humorous.
"I saw In Three live in Guangzhou. Jia is smooth on the microphone," Steele said. "Chen keeps the crowd hyped. And Meng's delivery is fierce. You felt that they loved their music, and the crowd loved it too."
Chen plays a mean clarinet. In fact, he studied music theory at China's Central Conservatory.
"At first we weren't sure about our son and hip hop," Chen's father said. "We were hoping he'd stick to clarinet.
"We encouraged him to go one route and he went another. But we didn't stand in his way. We wanted him to be happy."
Chen got his start as a DJ - here mixing it up at home.
In Three walk a fine line between Beijing's rap underground and pop stardom.
Chen calls his father an 'ex-bad boy.' Chen Shu was 12 years old when China's leaders launched the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). A music-lover like his son, Chen Shu listened to Beethoven and Tchaikovsky behind closed doors.
"Western music wasn't allowed," said Chen Shu. "It was a dangerous time. When my classmates went out to drill with the Red Guards I stayed at home and studied music."
Thousands of fans bounced to In Three's MIDI Music Festival set last year. Now Beijing authorities have postponed MIDI 2008, citing security concerns ahead of the Olympics.
On 'Beijing welcomes you back,' nevertheless, Chen, Meng and Jia wax patriotic.
From track & field to swimming/
From the Bird's Nest (National Stadium) to the Watercube (National
China's people are realizing an Olympic Dream/
Participating determinedly, achieving victory/
Winning glory for our socialist country/
Our national flag rises above Tian'anmen with the sun
The song fits China's manicured Olympic image - grand and upbeat. In
Three are proud of their city.
Then again, Chen, Meng and Jia speak frankly about the Games.
"The Olympics are a business, you know," Chen said.
"There's so much hype," Jia said. "If you yell OLYMPICS, the guy next to you will pull off his headphones."
Children of the early 1980s, Chen, Meng and Jia remember a different Beijing - grayer and quieter. The city and Communist China opened in 1978, under Mao Zedong's successor Deng Xiaoping.
"Hosting an Olympics is like opening your window," Jia said. "You get a nice breeze coming in. And when the wind picks up, you're covered in dust.
"Some older homes have been knocked down. Some people have been asked to move. So the Games...there's good and bad."
Chen, Meng and Jia listen to American hip hop - Chen wants to see Brooklyn. Beijing's Olympics could lend In Three (and Beijing rap music) global exposure.
"Don't count on it," Chen smiled. "For us, the Games are niubi - of great consequence. But streets will be blocked, nightclubs shut down. There won't be hip hop in the Opening Ceremonies."
Maybe there should be.
Nothing's impossible in 2008, listen to In Three/
Beijing is your home/
Let's cheer together for the Chinese team/
Friendship matters most/
Have fun in Beijing/
We'll welcome you back
In Three music online
In Three music video online
In Three on YouTube
For more information on Chinese hip hop, visit Angela Steele's research blog - 'Dongting'
June 2, 2008 5:28 PM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
An East Asian capital. A proud, persevering country. A resurgent economy. A people eager to strut their stuff. A landmark Olympic Games.
Xie Yuxin has seen it all before.
One of China's best-loved soccer players, Xie prowled the midfield for his country at the 1988 Games in Seoul.
The first Chinese player to compete professionally abroad - with Dutch club PEC Zwolle in 1982 - Xie appeared in more than 100 international matches for China between 1987 and 1996.
Sweden and West Germany blanked his 1988 squad, 2-0 and 3-0 respectively. The Chinese held Xie and Tunisia scoreless - a 0-0 draw. It was China's first Olympic soccer appearance, three games and out.
Xie enjoyed Seoul, nonetheless. He was 19 years old.
Two decades later, Xie is coaching middle-schoolers in Shenzhen - China's under-15 national team.
Xie and I recently talked generation gaps, the 1988 and 2008 Games, his career, China's sports system and soccer strategy. Check out our conversation below.
(Note: Zeng Jianguo, a Chinese university student, contributed to this report)
A young Xie poses in his national team uniform
Xie (left) holds a soccer ball beside one of Beijing's Olympic mascots
Why soccer? What attracted you to the game? How did you achieve success?
Soccer was - and is - really popular in my hometown, Meizhou (Guandong province). My family was so poor. I loved playing soccer and recognized it as a way out. I began playing when I was seven years old, maybe six.
I had great coaches. They were smart, and helped me improve. The number one reason for my success: hard work.
I joined a team in 1980. Five years later, I was selected for the under-17 national team. In 1987, the under-22 national team. In 1988, I represented China in Seoul at the Olympics.
You played in a lot of competitions - which will you always remember as special?
Of course, the 1988 Olympics. Those games were incredible. Our 1989 World Cup qualifiers, too.
As an athlete, there's nothing bigger than playing for your country at the Olympics. The 1988 Games really left a deep impression on me. I'm glad I was able participate.
I joined the national soccer team just in time for the Olympics. Before Seoul, I thought I was a pretty good player. I had never been abroad. Our first game was against Sweden.
It was shocking. The foreign teams we competed against and watched were amazing. I realized I still had a long way to go. When we returned to China, I worked even harder. I knew what I had to do.
Abroad, China is known for its state-sponsored sports system - how has the system changed since you were young?
Things are very different. Today's kids benefit from a better environment, a better situation. Look at China's economy. When I was young and part of the system, all we did was practice. All we did was play soccer. We weren't so happy.
Today's kids are happier. The play soccer. They study. They do whatever else. Their lives have balance. On the other hand, today's kids don't know how to chiku ('eat bitter' - endure hardship). They have it easy.
So the 14-year olds you coach - they lead charmed lives?
Not exactly. They're very busy.
They wake up at 7am. By 8am they're in class. They rest after lunch. More class from 2-4pm. We have soccer practice until 6pm. They eat dinner, study 8-9:30pm and then go to sleep. That's the schedule, and it's set.
How do the kids like it?
They have really good attitudes. Some of them really like school. Some only like playing soccer. Personally, I agree with the arrangement. It's good for the kids' development. No one required me to study when I was young, and I regret it. If they do well in school, they'll be able to find a job outside of soccer.
What about the term 'Little Emperors?' Has China's 'One-Child Policy' turned out a generation of overachieving spoiled brats?
I wouldn't go that far. There are kids like this, of course. Some parents are extremely pushy. Most aren't. It's different family to family.
How do you relate to your players?
I'm their coach, first. I'm also their teacher. When they're in trouble, I help. We talk about life, about school...about many things.
How good exactly are your players?
In China, this school is tops. It's a foreign language & sports school. Many of my kids will play professionally. Some will probably join the national team. I really believe in them.
Some of my players want very badly to go pro - they're clear on this. They want to make money and become famous. Some of my players aren't so sure.
Who gets to play for you? Who gets to attend the school?
The school is selective, and expensive. There are kids who play soccer very well, but can't afford to attend the school. It just goes to show - China's sports system is imperfect. What's lacking? Government investment.
Which athlete best represents China's current sports system, and where the system is headed - Olympic hurdler Liu Xiang or NBA basketball star Yao Ming?
Yao Ming, because he plays in the United States. Young Chinese athletes should go abroad, build relationships with foreigners and observe different ways to play and train. That's how to develop China's sport system further.
What are your expectations for China's 2008 Olympic soccer squad?
I hope they succeed. They're a more balanced team than we were in 1988. But what's more important is that they work hard for China. If they show a fighting spirit - that'll be enough.
Earthquake newslinks - China's May 12 disaster:
Earthquake response organizations - donations/volunteers wanted (via www.danwei.org):
May 30, 2008 3:18 AM
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.
"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.
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.
How will China's Olympic gymnastic team perform this summer in Beijing?
a). Very well
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.
What is the relationship between China's central government and provincial governments?
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."
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.
May 23, 2008 1:03 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
The letter below was posted to a Chinese online BBS (bulletin board system) - 'Netease' - on May 16. The photo was featured in a Chinese television special on Sichuan province's Dujiangyan Middle School, where last Monday's earthquake buried 900 students. Hundreds died.
Manchester United, one of England's most successful professional soccer teams, beat English club Chelsea to win the prestigious European Champion's League Wednesday.
To Sir Alex, players of Manchester United, and all staffs:
Congratulations on the Champions!
We are from Guangzhou, China, fans of Manchester United . 12/5/2008, when we immersed in the joy of the Champions League, a century disaster advent in China: earthquake of Wenchuan, Sichuan.
In this tragic natural disaster, we found a photo with a group of middle school students in Dujiangyan, Sichuan, who were killed by earthquake now. They are also fans of Manchester United.
Before the earthquake,they were in celebrations for Manchester United's Champion, too. And they left this photo that we will not forget in our lifetime. Children wearing Manchester United jerseys, take this pictures very happy. But now, some of these children, have died in the catastrophe.
We can not help crying.
Now we solemnly email this photo to Manchester United, to help children achieve their wishes. Hope every player courageously competition in Moscow, to win the european championship, comfort this little spirits.
Best wish for all of you!
A group of Manchester United fans
May 9, 2008 7:24 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
Confucius and Mencius. Sun Yat-sen and Mao Zedong. Beibei, Jingjing, Huanhuan, Yingying and Nini?
Beijing's athletic, cuddly Fuwa - mascots for the 2008 Summer Games - are making Chinese history.
Since 2005, they've appeared on posters and t-shirts, backpacks and bottle-caps, hats and coins, neckties and airplanes, key-chains and sneakers. There's a Fuwa television show. A Fuwa song.
China's official Olympic ambassadors will greet half a million foreign tourists in August. Long ago, they won over Chinese children.
More importantly, the five Fuwa - a panda, a fish, the Olympic torch, a Tibetan antelope and a swallow - promise a friendlier Beijing and betray China's bid for soft power. According to Jon Brilliant, an American Fulbright researcher, the Fuwa are above all else...propaganda.
Brilliant, who has lived in Beijing and Shanghai, says official portrayals of Huanhuan - the Olympic Flame - particularly recall Mao Zedong, former Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party and the father of 'New China.' Historians often refer to the patriotic adulation reserved for Mao during the 1970s as a 'personality cult.'
I recently discussed the Fuwa, propaganda and Beijing's 2008 Games with Brilliant for Blogging Beijing.
What is 'propaganda'? In China? In Beijing?
Propaganda is any material used to coerce people into believing. According to Hannah Arendt, the point of propaganda is to organize people around a fantasy - not to convince them of a fantasy.
Prescriptive art boasts a long history in China, from Confucianism to Maoism. Post-Mao, the official Chinese word for 'propaganda' has been xuanchuan - also translated as 'public affairs.' Xuanchuan is a vestige of totalitarianism in form and function, but today its content is so benign and its aesthetic so corny - xuanchuan is not much of anything anymore.
In Beijing, Olympic campaigns are performing propaganda-like functions. I believe that Beijing's 'Olympic spirit' is actually nationalist spirit and that (don't laugh) Huanhuan is a reincarnation of Mao himself.
What are the Fuwa? What do they represent?
The Fuwa are 'good luck dolls' and Beijing's 2008 Olympic mascots. Beibei, Jingjing, Huanhuan, Yingying and Nini - together their names form a sentence: 'Beijing huanying ni' ('Beijing welcomes you'). So, they're a living slogan for the Olympics.
There were earlier designs for the Fuwa that were much cooler, but official aesthetics trumped those of their designer, Han Meilin.
People, especially Chinese people, think I'm crazy to be studying the Fuwa. But they are important! They are merchandise as well as propaganda, turgid with political meaning and market strategy. They belong to a form of mass media - the collectible item - rarely used for political ends.
They remind me of Mao badges. They reveal the Communist Party's dream-image of China, a utopian cartoon for Chinese society.
Why have the Fuwa been centrally featured ahead of the 2008 Games?
The Fuwa are everywhere because, in the minds of their creators, they present a good picture of China to foreigners - an innocuous one. The Fuwa are cute. China is widely reviled abroad; it's a strategy to reinforce a nicer image of China.
What 2008 Beijing propaganda have proven most popular or successful?
The Fuwa are ubiquitous, and that's a success in one sense. But the Fuwa have also been targeted by counterfeiters, whose activities have cut the Beijing Olympic committee's profits. I think Adidas' 2008 Beijing ads have been very powerful, although I personally find them disturbing.
Why do you find Adidas' 2008 Beijing ads disturbing?
I look at them and see fascist aesthetics. While I don't think Adidas intended to do so...showing 'the many' organized around 'the one' here in China, Adidas tapped some very ugly totalitarian ideologies. The ads resemble propaganda from China's communist revolution - just as I believe the Fuwa reify Maoist iconomania.
What about the Fuwa television show and other 2008 Beijing films?
I own every Fuwa episode! The opening theme song of the show is an amazing a capella arrangement which I hum all the time. I also own an Olympic etiquette DVD set. It's literally 40 hours of a 'professor' teaching one how to behave in a civilized manner (not spitting etc.).
What is the strangest 2008 Beijing propaganda you've seen?
It's all very strange; I've seen the Fuwa made out of everything from plastic to wheat gluten. But the funniest propaganda I've seen - by far - was a competition to see who could prepare food that incorporated the five Olympic colors (red, black, blue, yellow and green). None of it looked good.
The song 'We are ready' (which debuted last August) is bizarre. It's a defensive anthem sung by an army of pop stars...yikes.
What is your favorite Chinese Olympic slogan?
The slogan for the (Shanghai 2007) Special Olympics was 'Let us celebrate love' - I've never felt so comforted by a slogan. 'Let us celebrate love'! It sounds like an invitation to a Bacchanal. But hey, it's colorful!
Lele, a cow, is the mascot for Beijing's 2008 Paralympics. Was there a Shanghai 2007 Special Olympics mascot?
'Let us celebrate love' was accompanied by a cartoon character: San Mao: the three-haired child. It was cute but sort of equated the Special Olympics with children, which was unfair. I don't think this was malicious, though.
What 2008 Beijing propaganda have proven unpopular/unsuccessful?
The campaign 'ten dos and ten don'ts' for the Olympic Games has failed to some extent. One aspect concerns intellectual property rights. There are fake Fuwa dolls everywhere. That aspect has been completely ignored.
How is Shanghai's Olympic propaganda different from Beijing's?
In Shanghai it's sloppier. You see a lot of fake Fuwa dolls, for example. In Beijing things seem more regimented and the Fuwa are used together with xuanchuan/sloganeering.
Who creates the Olympic images?
Usually one official designer has a team; they create an image. Then it is remade by official artists of much less skill, and by counterfeiters of incredible skill. Authorship has never been a central pillar of propaganda production!
What are China's leaders and Olympic organizers hoping to accomplish through 2008 Beijing propaganda?
They want to cultivate a united front - Chinese of all regions and ethnicities rallying behind the Games and the nation.
What three words best describe Beijing 2008 propaganda?
Nationalistic. Nostalgic. Plush.
(Note: Beijing's selection of five Fuwa followed an intense mascot competition. Originally, organizers planned to pick just one animal. Sichuan's giant panda, Tibet's antelope and Yunnan's golden monkey led the pack.
April 29, 2008 11:19 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
According to the Wall Street Journal's Geoffery Fowler ('Where have you gone, Lei Feng' - April 12), Liu Xiang - Shanghai's handsome hurdler - belongs to "a new breed of Chinese hero: the global champion."
Liu won a gold medal for China at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens - dashing 110 meters in 12.91 seconds. He's since become a Chinese media darling - the country's first-ever track star.
"Traditionally, hero making has been the job of the state," Fowler writes, "and most state heroes are idealized former leaders and soldiers who exemplified the Communist ideals. But in an era of reform and commercialized media, China's emerging icons are looking less like heroes of the state than heroes of the people. From athletes to nimble and wealthy entrepreneurs, today's Chinese heroes are exalted for both global achievements and peoples' ability to relate to their success."
According to Fowler, Communist heroes like Lei Feng - a selfless soldier who died young - are fading from this nation's imagination. Modern Chinese idolize Taiwanese rappers and Internet wizards. Modern Chinese admire winners, not martyrs.
Fowler quotes Jack Ma, a celebrated Internet speculator - CEO of the e-commerce firm Alibaba.
"Many years ago, all of the heroes were made by the government," Ma told the WSJ. "Today, people make you a hero. The things you achieve make you a hero. That is a huge change."
Lei Feng was a soldier of the revolution and China's favorite son during the 1960s. Born an orphan in 1940, Lei grew up by way of the Communist Party. His diary was published after his death - struck by an army truck in 1962. A year later, Chairman Mao Zedong urged all Chinese citizens to 'Learn from Comrade Lei Feng.'
Mao applauded Lei's faith in the communist party, plastering Lei slogans thoughout China. A reliable soldier - cheerful, noble, hardworking and helpful - Lei served as a role model. His legend suffered slightly following Mao's death in 1976; Lei, however, is still admired.
Liu Xiang, born in 1983 to a truck driver and waitress, competed at high-jump until his state-sponsored sports school 'gave up on him.' That's when Liu took up hurdles, breezing past local competition.
According to his coach, Liu was initially an awful hurdler. A determined runner nonetheless, Liu won the 110-meter hurdles at Osaka's 2001 East Asian Games and Beijing's 2001 World University Games. Last year, he became China's first athlete to achieve track & field's 'triple crown' as world record holder, world champion and Olympic champion - all at once.
Liu, whose given name means 'take flight,' was raised by grandparents; the 24-year old dedicated his 2004 gold to his grandmother. Possessing a sweet face and sweeter disposition, Liu has earned the adulation of China's young women.
He's taken to fame, charming reporters and consumers alike. Beaming Liu Xiang billboards endorse Nike, Cadillac and Coca-Cola where decades ago Lei Feng's posters hung. Yili, a Chinese dairy firm, pays Liu 10 million yuan (US$1.5 million) a year.
In April, Chinese youngsters - more than 2,000 polled between the ages of 8 and 24 - voted Liu 'most popular athlete'. The hurdler beat out Chinese basketball luminary Yao Ming and soccer's David Beckham.
Liu has clearly achieved iconic status; he's favored by patriots, jocks, gossips and advertising executives. Perhaps Liu does belong to a 'new breed of Chinese hero' - Fowler's 'global champion.'
Blogging Beijing hit the streets to find out...Is Liu Xiang China's new Lei Feng?
"No way," shouted a middle-aged man selling popsicles near Beijing's 'Big Bell Temple' - Da Zhong Si. "Yes, I know Liu Xiang - the runner. I like him. Chinese athletes don't often win medals in track.
"Lei Feng was a soldier - someone who helped other people. Liu Xiang, he's a sports hero. Beyond that...running is one thing, contributing to society is another."
An out-of-town couple visiting the temple agreed.
"Liu Xiang is an athlete," they observed. "We all like him. He sets a great example - with respect to sports. He's no Lei Feng though. He's an Olympian. Lei Feng served the people. Lei Feng was a hero."
"I guess you could compare the two," a 24-year old chuckled. "Although I'm not sure you completely understand Lei Feng. Liu Xiang is China's treasure. He gives us strength. In fact, I prefer him to Lei Feng. I'm a young person."
Liu Xiang's name drew smiles from three women chomping pears outside Da Zhong Si.
"He's an Olympic champion - the whole world knows who Liu Xiang is," lectured one of the women, an icredulous, retired schoolteacher. "He's our hero, the pride of China and a gold medalist. We Chinese all love him.
"We tell our kids - look at Liu Xiang. Work hard to improve your body. Do you best. Practice. Don't worry what other people say. Liu Xiang is a good boy. When he's not running, he helps people. He's young like Lei Feng was young. He's our heart."
This may be Liu Xiang's year - many expect him to win a second gold medal - but he's hardly eclipsed Lei Feng. Most Chinese seem to sincerely respect the soldier's memory and value his deeds.
"I like Liu Xiang - he's a hero on par with your NBA stars in America," commented a 62-year old doctor. "We're all very proud of him.
"But he isn't China's new Lei Feng. That's not right. Lei Feng was a helper. Running isn't the same. Today's kids should study Lei Feng in addition to Liu Xiang, Yao Ming and Kobe Bryant. We old men and women were young when Lei Feng was alive - we care about him very much. He's important to us. He volunteered because he wanted to. Now I suppose Liu Xiang is more popular."
"I really like Liu Xiang because he's a winner," said a Beijing high school student. "I wouldn't say he's the new Lei Feng though. I studied Lei Feng in elementary school. He's still worth studying."
"I know Lei Feng and Liu Xiang," a six-year old answered. "I like them both."
"Liu Xiang runs very fast," his friend added.
Liu Xiang the commercial pitchman and global sex symbol may belong to a 'new breed of Chinese hero' - a self-made man sans socialist state. And yet, not so much has changed.
A few months ago, Liu found himself elected to the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. Mao's precious Lei Feng never achieved that.
April 18, 2008 3:01 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
"Repugnant French!" "Ignorant French!" "France must be eliminated!"
"If you are Chinese, if you are a warm-blooded youth, let's support Beijing's Olympic Games and oppose the Tibetan splittists!"
"With respect to the violence in Tibet, CNN has twisted facts, misled its audience and discredited China."
"Clearly recognize the Western media's mean and shameless true colors!"
"Far too malicious - a flagrant attack from the U.S., a country which has pressured China for too long."
"China unite!" "Go Motherland!"
"Protect the sacred flame, support the Olympic Games!"
- comments posted on www.xiaonei.com, a student-centered Chinese networking website similar to Facebook
If March protests/riots involving Chinese ethnic Tibetans set indignant fires blazing in London, Paris and San Francisco - where onlookers demonstrated against the 2008 Olympic Torch Relay last week, those demonstrations have in turn provoked among Internet-savvy Chinese youth no little nationalistic fervor.
Foreign politicians and Western media have also drawn students' ire, for statements issued regarding Tibet and what many here perceive as unbalanced reporting. Some young Chinese have railed against German and American publications, in particular CNN - most recently demanding an apology from that network.
On April 9, Jack Cafferty, a regular guest on CNN's 'The Situation Room' remarked: "Our relationship with China has certainly changed. I think they're basically the same bunch of goons and thugs they've been for the last 50 years."
Weeks ago, Chinese university students launched 'www.anti-cnn.com' - a website dedicated to exposing the Western media's biased coverage of unrest in Tibet. The website has accused foreign publications of doctoring photos and misrepresenting video footage.
Now urban youths are campaigning against French hypermarket Carrefour, a retail leader in China. Many have called for a boycott on May 1, using text messages to spread the word and rallying online. Chinese activists have suggested that stakeholders in a Carrefour parent company, Moet Hennessy Louis Vitton, previously donated money to the Dalai Lama and/or Tibet independence funds.
They have also criticized French and English police for failing to protect the Olympic torch from protestors on its way through Paris and London. An incident involving one protestor and a young, wheelchair bound Chinese torchbearer has recieved significant attention.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has said he is considering not attending the opening ceremonies for Beijing's Olympics, citing China's response to unrest in Tibet. Presidential hopefuls Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain have urged U.S. President George W. Bush to skip the festivities as well.
"I heard about the protests online," said a Beijing Institute of Technology graduate student, walking between classes in a white collared shirt and black slacks. "I generally go online for www.xiaonei.com and QQ (a Shenzhen-based instant messager).
"When I first heard, the protests seemed very foreign to me, very strange. For us Chinese, the Olympic Games are a matter of heart. For many foreigners, I guess the Games are a political matter. The Olympic flame and Tibet aren't so related - that's how it seems to me. I don't understand why foreigners always discuss them together."
The Internet has served as an important organizing platform for young, nationalistic Chinese both on the Mainland and overseas. In addition to conventional websites such as www.anti-cnn.com and social networking websites like www.xiaonei.com, the fen qing ('angry youths') have cobbled together stirring videos for posting on www.YouTube.com - videos titled 'Don't be too CNN,' 'Dragon Roar' and 'Chinese protest in London you'll never see on BBC' etc.
Online dialogue has spilled onto the front pages of Beijing newspapers and consumed English-language blogs in China. The Beijing 2008 Olympic Games website has recognized 'netizen' (Internet citizen) voices, as have many Western news editors.
Chinese websurfers have targeted a 44-year old Tibetan-American caught on camera attempting to snatch the Olympic torch from Jin Jing, a female wheelchair fencer. They have also disparaged 20-year old Wang Qianyuan, citizen of China and Duke University freshman, who stepped between pro-China and pro-Tibet protestors on campus.
Using various sites, referred to by some as 'human flesh search engines,' netizens have launched collaborative efforts to track down and harass so-called 'enemies of China.' Wang's parents, who live in the coastal Chinese city Qingdao, have been located.
"I first saw photos and videos of the torch relay protests on www.xiaonei.com and on my friends' blogs," a Beijing Foreign Studies University graduate student said. "Sites like www.xiaonei.com are very popular. Online is where we're obtaining information."
According to the Washington Post, the number of Internet users in China hit 228.5 million in March - surpassing for the first time the number of users in the United States, 217.1 million.
"I think it's somewhat silly how excited everyone has become," said the BFSU graduate student. "But young people here are easily angry. Mostly, we're mad at France and England because it was in Paris and London that the Olympic flame went out. If future protests are peaceful of course we'll be upset, but we'll respond in kind. Hopefully, everything will settle down soon."
Strong images from torch relay protests circulating the Internet have turned some apolitical Chinese students into patriots.
"When I saw what went on in France, I became furious," a BIT student majoring in biomedical engineering growled. "All the world's people should embrace the Olympics. These people are protesting for Tibet, claiming that our government is heavy-handed. It isn't their business.
"Online, it's young people cursing and writing angry messages. I'd say 70-80 percent of Chinese young people feel this way. Me too, almost."
A material science major, also studying at BIT, disagreed.
"The torch relay is very important for Beijing - it can help the Chinese people better understand the world," he said. "The torch relay is supposed to be about mutual understanding. Some Tibetans are attempting to play politics.
"I can't say that the Dalai Lama is a good man or a bad man - but I oppose mixing politics and the Olympics. When I heard about the protests, I was a little angry at first. But the people contributing to these online forums aren't so reasonable. They don't represent us all."
Many young Chinese believe local leaders purposefully allowed protestors in London and Paris to run amok. Students from China studying abroad in England and France have posted photos and stories from the front lines, warning their friends back home against European ignorance.
"In England and France, the police did a bad job," said a BIT undergraduate. "So I blame those countries' governments. They want to hurt China. Look at Argentina - when the torch was carried through Argentina it was very safe.
"If people truly understand China and still want to protest Beijing's Games, okay. But most don't understand what's happened in Tibet. The Dalai Lama's supporters killed so many."
"We've heard that many foreigners protesting for Tibet don't know where Tibet is," said the BFSU graduate student. "We've heard that someone from Zhejiang province went to France and a supermarket wouldn't accept his money. We've heard that a Chinese exchange student in France was beaten up.
"I'm in favor of a peaceful world. If a whole people want independence, fine. But if I was (Chinese President) Hu Jintao I would never allow it. If New Mexico tried to sucede from the United States, would George W. Bush approve?
"Our professor explained to us that Western leaders are advancing their own interests when they make statements about Tibet. You can say what you want, but if you're not Chinese you shouldn't interfere directly. Maybe some Western leaders see China as a threat."
Other Chinese students say they've lost faith in the idea of an independent, free press.
"Of course I think the foreign journalists are incorrect," said the material science major. "They've mixed up many reports. Our Chinese journalists downplay politics."
"Some foreign journalists have been spreading lies," the BIT undergraduate said. "With regard to Tibet, they miss what's beneath the surface. It's hard to say anything critical of Chinese journalists because they've barely reported on these issues."
"Before I thought the foreign media were very free," the BFSU graduate student said. "Now I think foreign journalists carry agendas too. They have freedom, but don't make good use of it.
"Perhaps only a small percentage of Tibetans want independence, but in the West they are supported. So they sound very loud."
The Olympic torch's rocky road through Paris could potentially damage, at least temporarily, Sino-Franco relations.
"I read about the protests in the newspaper - in France," said a 25-year old man from Hebei province. "Now we Chinese think we should attack. We are very angry and excited. The fault lies with the French government and people. They are hypocrites. Now we want to boycott Carrefour. We're thinking - 'boycott us and we'll boycott you.'"
"It would be wrong for the owners of Carrefour to make money in China and hand it over to those who want an independent Tibet," the BFSU graduate student said. "Yesterday I went to the supermarket. When I got back to my dorm someone yelled 'Hey, where'd you get that stuff?' 'No, no. Not at Carrefour,' I told them."
A number of Chinese journalists and celebrities have spoken out against boycotting Carrefour, arguing that such action would only hurt the store's Chinese employees.
"At times I've felt angry, because I love my country," said another BIT student. "But those people boycotting Carrefour don't really understand what they're doing."
Of course, not all young people here have tuned into the torch relay drama.
"Protests?" inquired a 20-year old BIT student. "No way. China's foreign relations are great. I think you're mistaken."
"I may have heard something about Tibet," said a BFSU English student. "I'm not too clear on what's happened, though. I mostly read about movie stars rather than politics."
On the other hand, China's campus defenders don't stand alone.
"I was watching CCTV - the news said Tibetan separatists are trying to ruin the 2008 Olympics," recalled a 13-year old middle school student. "I saw photos in the newspaper of policeman knocking down a Tibetan protestor. Those protestors - I hate them very much. The Dalai Lama is a splittist - he doesn't want China united.
"The torch relay is supposed to help the world understand China. I'm mad but there's nothing I can do. If some Western leaders don't want to come to Beijing for the Games that's their business. If they support China they should come. If they don't come, that means they don't support China."
April 17, 2008 8:10 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
On April 12, the Olympic torch passed through Dar es Salaam on its way to Beijing. Chinese leaders applauded Tanzania's political and economic stability. Dar es Salaam's mayor promised China a peaceful, apolitical relay. Officials trimmed the route from 25km to 5km, dodging protestors who harried relay legs in London, Paris and San Francisco.
Liu Xinsheng, ambassador to Tanzania, promised the torch's stop in Dar es Salaam would "enhance mutual understanding."
Mutual understanding - wherein two parties appreciate the similarities that bind and the differences that divide - is an Olympic tagline. According to the Olympic Charter, last updated in 2004, "the goal of the Olympic Movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport...in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play."
The 2008 Games in Beijing have thrust Chinese politics, history and culture before a global spotlight. The Olympics have likewise introduced Beijingers to foreign languages, ideas and traditions.
It's been a rocky education in the Olympic spirit lately, with advocates for and against the Dalai Lama hurling insults across the Pacific Ocean. But genuine disagreements, such as concern Tibet, further mutual understanding too.
Recent protests have exposed Beijingers to Londoners' and Parisians' ideals, insecurities and fears. Young Chinese nationalists tearing through Internet chat rooms to defend the Olympic torch have betrayed themselves to the world.
Tame exchange may enhance mutual understanding - Shenzhen's goofy 'Windows of the World' theme-park, for example. But the 2008 torch relay - by virtue of its ugliness - has inspired candid dialogue from Buenos Aires to Almaty.
"Windows of the World is popular because you've got every civilization represented here," said a young man lounging below the park's 354-foot tall Eiffel Tower. "Everyone wants to have a look. In terms of understanding the world, however, the Olympic Games are much better than Windows of the World. This place - it's not so realistic."
Windows of the World, perhaps Shenzhen's best known attraction, is an adventure in kitsch (see 'In search of China' - April 6 for more on Shenzhen, Hong Kong's sister city). The theme-park offers up more than 100 architectural miniatures, including the Louvre, the Alhambra, the Grand Canyon, Angkor Wat, Stonehenge, Notre Dame, the Matterhorn, Mount Fuji, Versailles, the White House, an Egyptian Sphinx and Mid-Town Manhattan.
Frequented by parasol-wielding Chinese tourists, Windows of the World boasts exotic restaurants, a monorail, fireworks and its own subway stop. Admission is 120 yuan.
Replicas of famous statues crown the theme-park's front gate: Siddhartha Buddha, Shiva, Michelangelo's David. Near a tiny Sydney Opera House, outdoor speakers blare tribal-infused rap. Visitors rent elaborate gowns for photos with the Taj Mahal.
Children cluster round a bronze chimpanzee - perched feet from the Sankore Mosque of Timbuktu. Every afternoon, Chinese women in lipstick and heels perform African 'folk dances.'
"Africa is our favorite exhibit," an older man walking arm-in-arm with his wife said. "Although we moved to Shenzhen just six months ago - our son works here - we've been to Windows of the World many times. We're not sure what's authentic and what's not. We've never been abroad."
Just outside the theme-park, a digital clock mounted on Grecian pillars counts down to August 8 and Beijing's Olympic Games.
"We're very proud of China for hosting the Olympics," confirmed a young woman from Sichuan province. "Beijing will represent our Chinese civilization.
"We came this afternoon to understand other countries a little better. The Games are more effective, though. This park - it's only tourism."
April 3, 2008 4:23 PM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
As the screen flashed unsettling images, ten rows of dark-suited bureaucrats stiffened, frowned and laughed nervously.
The awards ceremony for 2007's best amateur Olympic shorts had begun (see 'Olympic films - part one' for more coverage).
Coordinated by an cultural clearinghouse in Beijing, the '3-Minute Olympic DV & Cartoon Competition' - now in its third cycle - performed an unexpected function last year. Rather than broadcast Olympism to China's masses (as intended), the contest brought academics and officials face-to-face with a new generation's hopes and fears.
Most amateur film makers here are 'reform babies' - heirs to a blossoming Chinese economy and a pressurized post-Mao society. They've been asked to 'embrace the Olympics' and promote President Hu Jintao's twin watchwords: harmony and stability.
Yet change is what China's twenty-somethings know best. Buildings rise and fall every day where they live. New lifestyles are born. Trends come and go.
They've no quarrel with Beijing's Olympic slogan 'One World, One Dream.' But their worlds continue to heave and split. Their dreams aren't fully formed. Their craft - digital video - is foreign itself, and long on potential.
The second-annual 3-Minute awards were held last November, in conjunction with an international forum on Olympic education. Some of the top films stick to conventional themes: Tang Dynasty gowns, smiling peasant children and Beijing's five Fuwa mascots - the 'Olympic Friendlies' (see 'Olympic films - part three' coming soon).
Others, however, take risky turns and avant-garde twists.
In one film, an angular skateboarder zips down computer and amplifier wires. In another, Michael Jordan takes his younger self to the rim. From interpretive dance to clay-mation and alienation, the shorts kept Beijing's Olympic educators guessing.
Ultimately, a third yearlong competition was launched and those present - young and old - cheered.
Back in January, Blogging Beijing featured two films from 2006 and one from 2007. "Dreaming," re-posted below, follows a dancer from China's past into modernity. Minzu feng - 'Nationality wind' fuses today and yesterday. And Wo zui xihuan... - 'I most like' asked elementary students a simple question.
Here are three more award-winning shorts, representing the competition's quirkier side.
In Kuafu zhuiri - 'Chasing the sun' a mythic hero flies skyward. He fails once, fails twice...and from his failure, the world as we know it is born (end omitted).
In Jinbi shilide aoyun guanjun - 'Jailhouse Olympic champion,' a baby left alone finds itself running track for China (end omitted).
In Dui zhan - 'To battle,' a uniformed high-schooler goes to war with a robot in his apartment kitchen.
In Zhu meng - 'Dreaming,' a man from times long gone wakes up in a modern hutong and discovers Olympic Beijing.
February 3, 2008 2:40 PM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
The 2008 Olympics aren't just an event. They're an international brand.
That's why the Chinese are cracking down on fake Olympic merchandise, why 60 corporate sponsors - including Adidas, Volkswagen and GE - bought in years ago at US$40-100 million each, why organizers expect to net US$16 million - after shelling out US$2.1 billion to stage the Games in Beijing.
(Note: China has spent nearly US$40 billion to retrofit Beijing ahead of the Olympics. The US$2.1 billion above refers to the city's 16-day operating budget.)
Consumers everywhere know Asian brands, like Honda (Japan) and Samsung (Korea). As for China's leading firms... Heard of Li Ning? Or Sohu.com?
This August, a Beijing Olympic Emblem will invade the United States - plastered on soda cans, splashed over the Internet.
"The idea of Chinese companies going global was laughed at ten years ago," said Jonathan Tang, an International Marketing manager with Beijing's Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business. "Now there's Haier, Lenovo, Morgan Stanley."
(Note: In December, Morgan Stanley, one of Wall Street's biggest investment banks, sold a US$5 billion stake to the China Investment Corporation.)
A number of Chinese corporate giants - including some Olympic sponsors - are preparing to launch efforts overseas. At the same time, scores of established multinational brands are set to assault consumers here during the 2008 Games.
Beijing's Olympics will highlight what four University of Washington Masters in Business Administration students already know: in global business, understanding China has become essential.
According to Carrie Pederson, one of the MBAs, "China's influence on the world economy is undeniable."
Pederson, Josh Holt, Adam Martin and Ryan Cassidy traveled to Beijing last month on behalf of the UW Foster School of Business. They won top honors at China's first international case competition, organized by Cheung Kong.
"The team gained first-hand experience of China," said Dr. Ming Fan, the students' coach and a Chinese-born UW professor. "Every year, thousands of Chinese students, managers and government officials come to the U.S. to learn about U.S. systems and the U.S. market. American business leaders, entrepreneurs and MBA students may need to do something similar. The trip was extremely valuable for our team members."
Eight teams - six from the U.S., one from Singapore and one from China - attended the two-day 2008 East-West MBA All-Star Case Challenge. Never before had American and Chinese graduate students met to tackle real-world business problems.
Each team was given one month before the event to prepare. Their task: to counsel China's biggest brewer, Tsingtao, on how to woo American drinkers.
"We saw an opportunity," Tang, of Cheung Kong, said. "The competition filled a hole. There is no other event bringing people together like this. Beijing's most respected schools - Beijing University and Qinghua University - have been slow to engage, a bit cautious. But we're a new school. We think our MBAs are as good as those in the U.S."
Cheung Kong caters to Chinese entrepreneurs interested in expanding globally, and advertises itself to foreigners intent on collaborating with China. Hong Kong business magnate Li Ka-shing - whose rags-to-riches life story is admired across Asia - founded the school in 2002.
"He thought China deserved a high-quality, private business school," Tang said. "So many Chinese students seek degrees abroad."
In the course of their winning presentation, Fan's team advised that Tsingtao re-brand its beer sold in the U.S. The UW MBAs suggested 'Tao.' The team had conducted street market research, polling drinkers in Seattle's International District and Belltown.
German colonists began brewing Tsingtao in 1903. Its current logo features a famous pier on the city Qingdao's (Tsingtao is an older spelling) ocean shore.
Check out the UW team's re-design below.
"We wanted to make it easy for Americans to pronounce, so we chose Tao," Pederson, who has worked in Greater China for eight years, explained. "We used red to associate the beer with China, and we kept the pier and established date because consumers - more and more - want to know the story behind the products they're buying."
Over 400 curious spectators showed up for the case finals inside Beijing's Grand Hyatt Ballroom.
"We were really pleased with the turnout," Tang said. "Chinese people want to know what the MBA is all about - it's a new degree here. Plus, there are a lot of people in Beijing interested in business."
"The competition was quite an eye-opener for many in the audience," said Fan. "The professionalism of our team and the other U.S. students, their poise, excellent communication skills and the analytical and strategic angle of their analysis made a deep impression."
Fan's students fought fatigue - after arriving in Beijing, they were each assigned to new a 'mixed' team and asked to prepare a second, unrelated presentation. One 'mixed' team worked through the night. Cheung Kong's organizers hoped to foster networking and cultural exchange.
"With the Northwest's location on the Pacific Rim, ties with China are very important," Pederson said. "China is Washington state's biggest export market, with exports totaling $6.8 billion in 2006."
International sponsorship laws kept Beijing's Olympics more or less out of the spotlight. Although Tsingtao will sponsor the Games in China, a foreign beer-maker will fly the 2008 Olympic flag overseas.
Nevertheless, both Fan and Pederson were impressed by what the Games have wrought in Beijing.
"China has changed a lot in the past decade," Fan said. "The pace of change is really amazing. Compared to China, the urban landscape in the U.S. is quite stable. If there were an (Alaskan Way) Viaduct in Beijing or Shanghai, the government would have probably replaced it with a tunnel without much public consultation."
China's big show subtly colored China's first international case competition.
"The Games helped us attract American schools," Tang said. "This is the year to come to Beijing. We talked about the energy here, and the construction. We talked about what the Olympics might be like."
UW's team ended their Tsingtao presentation with a few recommendations. They proposed that the firm target high-end Pan-Asian restaurants. And they encouraged Tsingtao to "leverage buzz about China" created by the 2008 Olympic Games.
January 21, 2008 1:22 PM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
Few foreigners know Chinese sports and the Olympic Games like American anthropologist Dr. Susan Brownell.
Since her championship performance in track & field at China's second annual National College Games in 1986, Brownell has worked to build cultural bridges between Beijing and the 'West.'
Her first major work - "Training the Body for China" - was well received in 1995, and her second – "Beijing's Games: What the Olympics Mean to China" will hit bookshelves this March."
A member of the International Olympic Committee's Selection Comittee and anthropology department chair at the University of Missouri - St. Louis, Brownell feels, more or less, at home here. From 2002-2006, she translated Olympic diplomat He Zhenliang's biography.
I spent an afternoon with Brownell at her current base of operations - Beijing Sport University. A Fulbright U.S. Research Scholar for 2007-2008, she is working closely with Chinese academics and officials. Below: a truncated version of that interview.
What do you recall from your first year in Beijing - 1985-1986?
I first came here in 1985 to study Chinese at Bei Da (Beijing University). At that time I was a national-class track & field athlete in the United States - in the heptathlon. Actually, I had just competed in an international meet. I'd already begun my Ph.D at the University of California - Santa Barbara, I'd studied Chinese for two years and written two master's theses. My plan was to research sports in China.
After arriving, I went to the coach of the track team at Bei Da. He said I could join. I still remember that conversation - him asking me my best performances and times. My Chinese wasn't good at that point and he had a thick provincial accent. I had trouble understanding him. He couldn't believe that I'd just been training at such a high level - only a few weeks before. He kept thinking I was a retired athlete, because in China at that time you just didn't see high-level college athletes. All the athletes with promise were tracked into the state sports system, where their education was de-emphasized. In fact, that was a major problem back then. The state sports system was producing more high-level athletes than could be absorbed back in as coaches and administrators. They called it an 'exit problem' - chulu wenti. Even at that time, people were making efforts to hook up the state sports system with colleges - like in the U.S.
Anyway, as it happened, China's second National College Games were to take place that year. Other universities had been recruiting student athletes like crazy - accepting those with low admission scores and, in some cases, waiving entrance exams. All the universities hoped to gain face from the Games. But Bei Da (generally considered China's top university) had refused to lower its admission standards. The coaches there were worried that Bei Da was about to lose face.
That year, the Games were to consist of only two sports: track & field and basketball. So when Bei Da's coaches and administrators realized that they had a legitimate student on their doorstep who had passed all the requisite tests and who was a heptathlete capable of setting records and medaling in a number of events (Brownell), they were ecstatic. I was the answer to their prayers.
How was Beijing different back then?
At that time, though China's 'era of reform' had officially begun in 1978, there was still a state-planned economy. There were very few private markets on the streets and few private enterprises. You could get vegetables, peanuts - some kinds of food and clothes, especially in the embassy district. That was about it. I don't think there were any privately run Beijing restaurants in 1985-86. Going outside of campus for a meal was really quite an endeavor. All the public restaurants closed at 7:00 or 7:30 in the evening. We'd go out early and even then the restaurants would always be full. The service was bad. The food was bad. The standard of living was also much lower than it is in Beijing today. In the foreign students' dorms at Bei Da we had hot water for two hours in the morning and in the evening each day. The Chinese dorms didn't have any hot water. I learned how to take cold showers that year.
There were specific places to buy stuff with foreign currency. When you changed your American dollars into Chinese currency you didn't get 'People's money' - renminbi. You got 'foreigners' money' (FEC - Foreign Exchange Currency). With foreigners' money, you could buy things that renminbi couldn't buy. A black market developed. The rate was one U.S. dollar - to three bills of foreigners' currency - to eight renminbi. So we foreign students all went to the black market and changed our U.S. dollars into renminbi. The Uyghurs (a predominantly Muslim Chinese ethnic minority) were mostly the ones handling those transactions. Anyway, it was just this whole way of being a foreigner in Beijing that's gone now. Now you have to elbow out the Chinese businessmen at the five-star hotels - they're everywhere and they aren't very respectful of foreigners.
At that time there was also a job assignment system. You were assigned your job by the Labor Bureau. You weren't allowed to choose on your own. And it was pretty much a lifetime assignment, so people had very little hope for the future. College students, for example, were really pessimistic. It was depressing. I remember meeting very few, if any, happy people. My Chinese friends all wanted to leave China - get graduate degrees in the U.S. They mostly live abroad now. Of course, they were the cream of the cream of the crop. It's different today. There isn't the same desperate desire on the part of China's top students to get out. Now people here have so much hope for the future. Whereas this generation of young Americans are, for the first time in U.S. history, doubting that their standard of living will be higher than their parents' standard, Chinese students seem sure of it.
What about China's sports scene? What was it like in 1986?
I felt that my coaches at Bei Da were very well trained - probably better than the average American coach. There was a centralized training system in China. Presumably, all my coaches had graduated from Beijing Sport University. They were extremely professional. In that sense, their view of sports was not really that different from that held by American coaches.
However, 1985-1986 was the height of women's volleyball fever here. So that was a phenomenon unlike anything I'd ever seen in the U.S. The Chinese national team had won its fourth straight world championship. Their victories kicked off this huge wave of patriotic fever. They were national heroes. There were regular campaigns to "learn from women's volleyball." Back then everyone still had to attend weekly political study sessions. So, in your politics class, for example, you might have "learned from women’s volleyball." You were taught to "eat bitterness" and "struggle" like them.
The team visited Bei Da in 1985 and I was there. There was a mob on the sports field. Actually, that's something I really remember from my first year here - the mobs. You don't see those as much now. I was caught in crowds multiple times. It was scary, especially that day. There were 3,000 students on the field to watch the volleyball players give speeches. I was on the periphery and the mob was undulating back and forth. The people on the outside would press in until the people on the inside were getting crushed. Then the people on the inside of the crowd would press back. If you were in the middle, it was potentially dangerous. Whenever Bei Da held a function like that people would get hurt. I remember a Chinese friend asking me matter-of-factly later that day how many people had gotten hurt. Nevertheless, there was this general feeling that China had rejoined the world, and that Chinese athletes had led the way.
What is the relationship between the 2008 Olympics and Chinese politics?
In general, I think the outside world doesn't realize that the 2008 Olympics are being used to press China's government to do things for the Chinese people. Change usually occurs slowly here, but the Games have sped Beijing's political process up. There has been a huge push to clean up the city, for example.
There is a lot of inertia in Chinese government. A big reason for that is China's enormous population. The country is so big - it takes a lot of effort to accomplish anything. And the nature of Chinese politics contributes to that inertia as well. In Beijing, government consists entirely of guanxi wang ('webs of personal relations'). When you do something, as an official, you must consider how that something will affect everyone connected to you and everyone connected to them - ad infinitum. So political actions are like stones dropped into ponds. They send ripples moving outwards. No one particularly wants to make waves, and so only very slowly do things normally get done.
Consequently, Chinese leaders have, for decades now, used big events to accelerate change and get things accomplished. This is not just true for the 2008 Olympics - it's been done for years and years. Foreign reporters keep making a big deal of Beijing's Olympics-related politeness and anti-spitting campaigns. But those campaigns are decades old. They were certainly around in the 1980s. I was here right before the United Nations' Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 and at that time Beijing was doing similar things - there were campaigns to improve the politeness of taxi drivers, to curb spitting and to improve public health and hygiene. Just before the 1990 Asian Games, disposable chopsticks were finally adopted citywide in Beijing restaurants. In China, events are often agents for change. It's just that the Olympics are bigger.
If China's leaders are using the 2008 Olympics to get things done, what have been their objectives?
The government has really pushed forward both environmental protection and Olympic education. In the context of Beijing, Olympic education has meant training China's next generation to be 'international.' Many young Chinese have been trained via Beijing's Olympic volunteer programs.
But what does 'international' mean? Good question. 'Becoming more international' is a great all-encompassing slogan, but to realize it is a bit more of a problem. If you list what is being emphasized to these college students in Beijing, who account for most of the volunteers, the main thing is 'you need to learn to dare to talk to foreigners.' It's 'don't be afraid of them - go up to them - speak English with them - open your mouth.' The IOC pinpointed Chinese volunteers' English abilities as an area of concern a few months ago. But investigations here have showed that language isn't what's wrong. What's causing trouble is intimidation. Those volunteers observed by the IOC were afraid to open their mouths. In the end, young peoples' language abilities and attitudes are getting a lot of government attention.
Besides 'internationalism,' the Olympic ideals most emphasized in China with respect to the 2008 Games have been friendship, understanding, unity and peace. Olympic education here has been aimed at two distinct groups - volunteer college students and schoolchildren. The government has invested a lot in the teaching of the Games in Beijing primary and secondary schools. Basically, the idea is to teach international friendship and world peace through the Olympic Games, while also preparing young Chinese people for the world. Here in Beijing, the history of the Olympics is taught in a way that emphasizes first the Games' western origins, then China's slow incorporation into the Olympic movement, and finally China's ascendance to its place as an equal partner in that movement with these 2008 Games. It's not only Olympic history - it's a narrative of China's relationship with the outside world as well.
A clear day at Beijing's Beihai (North Lake) Park - 'I participate, I serve, I am happy.'
How did you become interested in sports? In the Olympics? In anthropology? In China?
Actually, I think my interests in anthropology and sports stemmed from the same basic motivation: I wanted to be a citizen of the world. That was what drew me to Olympic sports as an athlete. I grew up during the cold war. I competed in track & field. The big meet every year was the USA-USSR dual meet. It was a way of meeting Soviets you couldn't otherwise meet. For my generation, Olympic sports were really one of the few channels for international understanding - one of the few channels for communication with the 'Eastern Bloc.' I gravitated towards anthropology for the same reason. I wanted to understand people unlike myself. Anthropologists study those people who are most unlike them - western anthropologists typically focus on the non-western world. So I was first drawn to anthropology, and later to China.
I'd always been interested in China. My grandmother grew up in the Mississippi delta - her father was a prominent politician in, and at one point the governor of, Mississippi. He was known as a fair-minded lawyer and at that time there were a number of Chinese in the state. The Mississippi Chinese Association invited him to be their lawyer because they knew he'd defend their rights. So my grandmother grew up close to the Chinese community. Every Christmas Eve, they would knock on the door of her father's mansion and present him with a present. My grandmother kept the presents and gave one to me fifty years later - a woven silk tapestry with garden and pavilion scenes.
I decided to work here in China when I was at UC Santa Barbara. A classmate of mine was one of the first scholars to visit the mainland after diplomacy was restored in 1979. I settled on sports because things were really tightly controlled in China when I arrived here. You couldn't necessarily do fieldwork on most things. Sports were less politically sensitive than other areas of study - I suspected they might be my entree into Chinese society and that turned out to be true. I never encountered the problems and restrictions others did. In fact, I've never had trouble at all. I've been amazed at my access to top officials through the years. Sports have really been a leading realm - the leading realm - in China's 'opening up,' China's 'internationalization,' if that's a word you like.
How so? What role have sports played in China's 'opening up'?
Well, the main thing to realize is that the Chinese government is not stupid - you can't supervise rapid economic growth alongside an amazing level of social order and be stupid. People in the Chinese government know what they're doing. And one way they've always operated is to experiment.
They target certain areas with which to test out ideas and later implement those ideas throughout. That's what they did with the Special Economic Zones in Shenzhen and Xiamen, for example.
Sports have been a major experimental area. China's Sports Ministry was its first to do away with 'eating from the big pot' when it initiated an incentive system in the 1980s. Other ministries look to the Sports Ministry as a model. Why choose sports with which to implement the incentive system? Two reasons. First, in sports there is a clear winner and a clear loser. Performance may be judged on the field - where guanxi ('personal relations') doesn't matter. Second, sports are entertainment. They attract media attention. There is a level of transparency associated with sports that other realms of Chinese society don't naturally enjoy. If someone fails on the field, it's easier to hold them accountable.
In a way, sports have served as a model for how some of China's leaders would prefer Chinese society to function as a whole - transparent, emphasizing efficiency and performance. They want to get away from guanxi and zou houmen ('going through the back door' - relying on bribes, favors and guanxi). Sports have come to represent a non-corrupt, fair and upright society.
In the West, we tend to associate sports like basketball, tennis, track etc. with 'fair play.' Is that what you mean?
Not quite. The YMCA missionaries and administrators who introduced (western) sports to China were clearly hoping to teach Chinese people democracy and fair play. But they were naïve. Things didn't play out how they expected. Even today, I don't think Chinese people have the same notion of fairness that we have. It's not that they lack the notion - it's just that our notion of fairness is different from theirs.
Basketball, tennis, track and the rest - western sports have been domesticated here. They've been modified to fit Chinese culture. Look at Olympic education in Canada and Germany - fair play is stressed more than anything. Yet fair play comes second for Beijing. In the U.S., we teach our children to share - 'I give you my toy and you give me yours.' That's fair play. In China, humility is emphasized from the beginning and, consequently, Chinese teach their children self-confidence. American kids are raised to excel and taught to share. Chinese kids are raised to share and taught to excel. 'Faster, higher, stronger' - that’s been a focus of Olympic education here.
Who is He Zhenliang and why does he matter?
He Zhenliang is China’s 'Mr. Olympics.' He was born in 1929 and educated at a French Jesuit school in Shanghai. He joined the communist student underground during the period just before Liberation (1949) and met his wife. When the new (communist) government was formed, he was brought to Beijing. By 1950 he was working with the Chinese Democratic Youth League and soon became a high-level French interpreter. Mr. He assisted both (Premier) Zhou Enlai and (Chairman) Mao Zedong. That's how he got into diplomacy.
His first major assignment was the 1952 Olympics at Helsinki. These were the first Games China had ever taken part in - and the last for years to come. The Chinese didn't participate in the Olympics again until 1980 and 1984. The cause of that drought was a conflict involving China, the IOC and Taiwan. Mr. He spent 30 years trying to get China recognized by the IOC as the sole legitimate government of mainland China. He was co-opted as a member in 1981, which seems kind of amazing after you've read the letters he drafted to then-IOC president Avery Brundage back in 1958 - their correspondences were amusingly rude.
(Note: The Chinese withdrew from the IOC after pulling out of the 1956 Melbourne Games when the IOC allowed Taiwan to participate.)
A few years ago, I started to feel that the story of China's relationship with the Olympic Games during the Cold War needed to be told in English. What had been written in English at the time barely included Chinese sources and Chinese points of view. The English literature presented China's absence from the Games in the 1960s and 1970s as a boycott - which it wasn't. The West was shutting off mainstream diplomatic channels to and from China. At that time, China reached out to the 'Third World.' The Chinese built lots of sports stadiums during the 1950s and 1960s in Africa, for example. These days, people are upset about China's role in Darfur, in Sudan. But if the West is upset, it's the West's own fault. We drove China there. I really feel that China wanted to be a player and be part of the international community. They were excluded.
If the Chinese had agreed to co-exist with Taiwan, would China have been excluded from the IOC?
No, I don’t think they would have. But, to me, it's important to look at the situation from the Chinese point of view. People like Mr. He remember life in the communist underground. They were in danger of being grabbed by nationalists and executed at any time. Some of Mr. He's friends were killed.
Back before Liberation they had a keen sense of social justice. They looked around and saw Chinese society falling apart. The nationalists were corrupt. So Mr. He and his friends fought back. Years later, after a bloody civil war, they emerged victorious. They'd risked their lives to win it. They thought they had finally gained control of their own fate. And then the nationalists withdrew to Taiwan, claiming to be the sole legitimate government of China. And the rest of the world supported that claim. You can understand Mr. He's predicament. They'd fought a long, hard battle and they wanted their victory to be recognized.
How did you end up translating Mr. He's biography? What was that like?
Initially, I was going to try and write the story of China's relationship with the Olympic Games myself. I contacted Mr. He for an interview. The day before we met, I saw his biography on a bookshelf (Mr. He's biography was penned by his wife). I assumed it would be another boring piece of propaganda about a Chinese official. But I bought it and when I started reading it I was amazed. Here was a real insider's account.
I hadn't known it was possible to be so candid in China. That's when I realized I didn't need to do the research myself - my story had already been written. The next day, I asked Mr. He if he had plans to translate the book and he said I could do it. That was in 2002. I spent four years of my free time working on the translation. The book launched in April 2006 with a celebration at the Great Hall of the People in Tian'anmen Square attended by current IOC president Jacques Rogge.
Dr. Susan Brownell and China's Mr. Olympics - He Zhenliang. (Xinhua photo)
In terms of Chinese Olympic history, where do we stand today?
In 1993, Mr. He and China made a bid for the 2000 Games to be held in Beijing. They failed. Why? There was a huge amount of anti-Chinese sentiment in the world at that time, of course - but today there is probably more. The real reason may have been the money that Australia gave two African IOC members the night before the vote. At that time, what they did was quasi-legitimate - they accepted money for their national committees' sports development programs. However, it wouldn't be considered legitimate now. China lost by two votes.
What people don't understand is that a huge number of IOC members are African. A huge number are from the Third World. Those men and women don't care much about pollution or human rights violations in China. In 1993, a western bloc voted for Sydney. It was solidly against China. And still, Beijing nearly won.
What made the difference in 2001 was eight years of steady economic growth. In 1993, China wasn't ready to host the Olympics. By 2001, it unquestionably was. In 1993 no one knew whether the country's economic growth would continue and there were questions about political stability. By 2001 those weren't really issues. Organizationally, Beijing had the ability. It had hosted many international competitions by then.
So, what do the Olympics mean to China? How do various sorts of Chinese people view the 2008 Games?
Well, the first written record of a call for an Olympic Games in China dates from 1907. So, for Chinese patriots, the idea of hosting the Games has been a fixation for 100 years now. In that time, the U.S. has hosted eight Olympics, starting in 1904. It's hard for Americans to understand what the Games mean to China.
I think that for all Chinese people - officials, intellectuals, common people - hosting the Olympics is the culmination of a 100-year desire to see China take its place as a major player in world politics. Because of that, people here who may have specific complaints about aspects of the Olympic Games differentiate between personal interest and national interest. National pride and support is so widespread. And that's not just true of Chinese people living in mainland China. It's also true of those living in Taiwan and overseas.
Why the Olympics? How will the 2008 Games confirm China in its new role as a global heavyweight?
How do you know that you have become a major actor on the world stage? That's tough. There aren't a whole lot of symbolic markers. Where's the proof? In many ways, the Olympic Games can serve as the proof. Tokyo marked Japan's emergence by hosting the Games in 1964 and Seoul did the same for Korea in 1988. Now it's Beijing's turn in the Far East.
If you take a look at the U.S.'s first Olympics - St. Louis in 1904 - you'll find a lot of the same rhetoric being used in Beijing today. The U.S. had just acquired its first colonies, including the Philippines (in 1898) following the Spanish-American War. The Games were held in conjunction with a World's Fair, which featured a display on the people of the Philippines. 'We are a major civilizing force in the world,' the Americans were saying at their first Olympics. 'Look at us.'
And the U.S. hadn't been nationally humiliated. We still haven't been. The Chinese have. Their understanding of modern history is that China, a great empire, was brought to its knees by the West and by Japan in the mid-19th century. At that time, we called China 'the sick man of East Asia.' That label has loomed large in the Chinese imagination for over 200 years. 'The West and Japan do not respect us,' the thinking goes. 'They don't respect Chinese culture.'
This is a big deal because, for the Chinese, symbolic respect between nations has always been extremely important. In China there have long been highly ritualized ways for polities to express respect to each other, and the West lacks those traditions. The Olympic Games have a meaning here they don't have in western culture. Here the Games are like a big party. You're inviting people into your home. You are showing them hospitality. You are gaining 'face.' Mr. He argued this to his fellow IOC members a long time ago. 'You have hosted us many times,' he said, 'and we haven't yet hosted you. This has embarrassed us. We want to repay our debt to you. We want the chance to invite you to our home.'
This is China's moment to be the host and to express its respect for other nations. China will do this very well. But guests are also supposed to express respect to their host. When the western press comes and criticizes China on human rights or Tibet, the Chinese become angry. From their perspective, a big party is not the occasion to express those kinds of feelings.
What about regular people here in Beijing?
Common people here don't think the Olympics affect them too much. They feel rather distant from the whole process. Most anticipate that they may not be able to buy tickets, for example. But recently the Games have served as impetus for improving the environment and local infrastructure. You can look around and see the energy and optimism the Olympics have encouraged in people here, and you can see the construction.
What is one crucial misconception held by most Americans when it comes to the 2008 Olympics, Beijing and China?
The stereotype Americans have is that China is a dictatorship - that Chinese leaders don't have a lot of popular support and are therefore using the Olympic Games to legitimize themselves. None of that is true. It's not a dictatorship - it's a pretty well-run, open society. In some ways, the Chinese are more open than we are in the West. China's government has a lot of popular support. I think that Chinese people believe in government more than we do in the U.S. The government's primary goal here is not to legitimize itself. I think it is trying to shape the next generation of Chinese people to be international - which will benefit China economically and politically.
January 18, 2008 2:08 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
Ryan Blethen of the Seattle Times recently visited China as part of a journalist exchange organized by the Honolulu-based East-West Center. His experience in Beijing as a much-handled 'media friend' opened Blethen's eyes to the challenges faced by 'parachuting reporters.'
This from Blethen's seattletimes.com blog - Daily Democracy (Journalism and the Olympics, 1/17):
"I have been reading stories from China with a much more skeptical eye since returning from a work related trip there in September. It did not take me long to understand the Chinese government's obsession with controlling the message."
Click "here" to read more.
Blethen also wrote a column about his time in China and about Chinese press freedoms, which ran Sunday, January 13 online and in the newspaper. To read that column, click "here".
Once again, feel free to share your own opinion via Blogging Beijing's comments feature.
January 12, 2008 1:06 PM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
Ask most people here what they think about the Olympics and you'll receive a stock response: "Important for China!" "Great!" "Fun!"
Ask them for three minutes of video and you'll gawk at what you get.
Last month, the Humanistic Olympic Studies Center at People's University in Beijing launched its third annual amateur film competition.
"In order to build a better platform for masses' involvement in Olympic, carry forward the idea of Humanistic Olympic, and leave more abundant cultural legacy with digital contents," the HOSC's English website reads, "the organizing committee of the competition welcomes digital video & cartoon fans from all over the world to join in 3-minute Olympic DV & Cartoon production team. Beijing Olympic Games will be more marvelous because of your participation!"
I attended an awards ceremony for the second competition this fall - a wild affair (confetti, models, power ballads etc.), and I've seen most of the top films from 2006 and 2005. They don't quite run the gamut of Chinese public opinion, but compared to the stuff you see on CCTV 5 (Chinese Central Television's main sports channel, relaunched December 31 as a 24-hour 'Olympics Channel'), these videos are unfiltered, personal and authentic.
In one film, a high school student battles his robot. In another, primitive man meets modern Beijing.
Here's one from the HOSC's first competition, called Wo zui xihuan... - 'I most like...' (please allow time for the video to load):
What do the kids most like? 'Basketball,' 'playing,' 'computers,' 'China's Yao Ming,' 'little white rabbits,' 'cartoons,' 'eating cake,' 'doing homework,' 'beautiful dancers,' 'eating barbequed chicken,' 'fast food,' 'friends,' 'playing in the park,' 'best friends,' 'astronauts,' 'second grade boys,' 'singing songs,' 'Happy New Year,' 'all the teachers,' 'my dad and mom,' 'getting good grades,' 'little animals,' 'little birds,' 'fresh flowers,' 'pretty butterflies,' 'beautiful cities,' 'Tian'anmen,' 'the Great Wall,' 'Beijing' and 'THE 2008 OLYMPIC GAMES!'
A similar entry won the HOSC's second annual competition this fall. Gang Zi, a video technician, filmed "One Dream, One Olympics" at a school for disabled children in Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei Province.
Some of the children featured in "One Dream, One Olympics" are deaf. Some are mute. One boy is an amputee. Gang's opening credits read:
"We live on the same Earth /
We share the same sky and the same sea /
We harbor similar convictions and emotions /
And so... /
We share a common dream"
"The standard of living in China is rising," Gang said following the awards ceremony in November. "But we must not forget our disabled kids. I believe that, with the Olympics, we have an opportunity to bring all kinds of Chinese people into the fold."
Although he spent years working in Wuhan, Gang is from Xi'an - a city in central China famous for its entombed terracotta warriors. He found out about the film competition while surfing the Internet. Gang began work immediately - excited to show his young friends in Wuhan that 2008 belonged to them to.
I asked Gang if there was anything he'd like to tell interested Seattleites. "Come to China, see Beijing, experience our culture and meet our wonderful children," he said.
In Gang's film, one boy in particular all but steals the show. He plays basketball and ping-pong. He laughs and smiles. His arms have been amputated above the elbows.
As the video draws to a close, he grips a long black calligraphy brush between his stumps and starts to write. Elegant, flowing strokes fill up a notebook page: Tong yige shijie, Tong yige mengxiang - 'One world, One dream.'
(Note: I have been trying hard to get a hold of Gang's video. Unfortunately, he's had trouble emailing it to me. If "One Dream, One Olympics" shows up in my inbox, I'll post it on Blogging Beijing right away.)
Instead, here's another from the HOSC's second competition, called Minzu feng - 'Nationality Wind.' It blends traditional Chinese imagery with Olympic themes (please allow time for the video to load):
Here's a less-conventional entry, also from the HOSC's second competition. Zhu meng - 'Dreaming' features a dancer from China's past. He encounters modern Beijing (please allow time for the video to load):
Interactive map of Beijing - follow up on posts and get oriented (please allow time for map's features to load):
January 10, 2008 2:03 PM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
In west-central Beijing, near the city's cavernous Military Museum, fifth and sixth graders gather round a room-length (faux) mahagony table. They've skipped out on class to sit with a researcher from Beijing Sports University. Talk quickly turns to the 2008 Olympics.
"We have learned that the Beijing Olympic Games are the 'Green Olympics,' the 'People's Olympics' and the 'Humanistic Olympics,' a tall girl with braces intones. "We should protect our city's environment. We should improve our city's manners. When our foreign friends arrive for the Olympic Games, we should help them and give them directions."
Finished, she flashes a confident smile - 11 years old, a volleyball fan and an aspiring journalist. Yangfangdian Center Primary School was Beijing's first to implement Olympic education. Now the city boasts 200 such 'demonstration' schools.
Since 2003, Yangfangdian's students have attended Olympics classes. They've also spent extra time in the yard, where teachers lead group calesthenics. Four years ago, the school held a mini-pentatholon. German students have visited Yangfangdian as part of an Olympic exchange.
You might be wondering - what does the world's biggest athletic event have to do with school? According to the International Olympic Charter, last updated in 2004:
"Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy found in effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles."
Pierre de Coubertin, who revived Greece's ancient Olympics in 1894, thought of himself as an educator. He wrote:
"Why have I re-established the Olympic Games? To enoble and stregthen sports, to ensure their independence and endurance, and thus place them in a better position to fufill the educational role which is incumbent upon them in the modern world."
Many cities and countries have pursued educational initiatives in conjunction with their hosting of the Olympics - but none on a scale so grand as Beijing and China. Thousands of students here are learning to value cultural tolerance, hard work and exercise with the Games as their guide. Last year, 556 schools across China were listed as models for childhood Olympic education.
At Yangfangdian, some classes have published amateur newspapers focused around the Olympic Games. They've also boned up on foriegn countries' Olympic histories - Holland's, for example.
"I like the Olympics because they are all about communication and peace," a freckled boy with glasses explains. "Most of all, I'm excited for our foriegn friends to visit China, so we can teach them our history and culture."
For instance? I ask.
"Do you know the story of China's first female emperor?"
Recalling past Olympics-themed projects, Yangfangdian's students heap praise on one in particular. Last year, they fashioned balls out of old newspaper, painted the balls with bright colors and played. To give their games rythym, the kids came up with a chant:
"East, West, South, North, Middle /
Olympic Games in our hearts /
Jump for development /
Discover so much happiness"
(Note: quotes, chant not verbatim translations.)
Check out "Teaching about the Beijing Olympics reaches deep into China's schools" (Associated Press) for more about Yangfangdian and other demonstration schools.
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December 25, 2007 2:49 PM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
"In Beijing, Christmas is cool," a Chinese friend told me.
"Our parents don't pay it much attention," she said. "We young people do. Christmas here is romantic."
Few Beijingers would say they're religious, let alone Christian. Yet the city exudes 'holiday cheer' - carols and lights, trees and reindeer.
Christmas wasn't always big in Beijing. For years, China's leaders discouraged any sort of religious display. But economic reforms have driven consumers' tastes west. As in the U.S., excessive shopping now frames the day.
"We do good business on Christmas," a waitress told me. "Our decorations are pretty."
Christmas hasn't eclipsed China's Spring Festival, known to Americans as Chinese New Year (February 7, 2008). Yet Santa is gaining, it would appear.
Last night, revelers flocked to hear Christmas Eve Mass at St. Joseph's Cathedral ('Dong Tang') in central Beijing. One of the year's hottest (and strangest) dates, it's become a Christmas tradition. Those without tickets gathered nearby.
"We know Jesus was born," one student told me. "The rest isn't too clear."
"Christmas is sexy," observed a security guard. "We're all young people here."
"I don't care for Christmas," a rose-hawker admitted. "What does it mean?"
"We party, put on beautiful clothes, buy delicious food," a teen wearing red devil horns shared. "We celebrate Christmas because...well, I'm not sure."
I approached an old woman sitting just past the crowd.
"The kids like to play," she said with a laugh. "They love western culture."
By eleven o'clock, St. Joseph's was awash in young couples. Christmas here just isn't a family affair.
"What are you doing for Christmas?" another Chinese friend inquired of me. "My buddies and I are headed to Beijing's best Russian restaurant. Then we're going for beer."
Christmas in China is strictly an urban phenomenon. "I'm from the country," a cab driver told me. "No one knows Christmas out there."
In Chinese, 'Santa Claus' is 'Sheng Dan Lao Ren' - 'Old Man Christmas.'
At last report, there were roughly 54 million practicing Christians in China.
A year ago, ten Beijing university students posted an anti-Christmas petition on the Internet, asking their peers to show more respect for Chinese traditions.
Valentine's Day is also a favorite with young Beijingers, for similar reasons.
St. Joseph's Cathedral sits on one of Beijing’s most famous streets – Wangfujing.
The Jesuit cathedral was built in 1655, destroyed in 1720, gutted by fire in 1812 and leveled soon after. Foriegners rebuilt the structure in 1860, only to watch xenophobic militants raze it during the Boxer Rebellion. St. Joseph's was last renovated in 2000.
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December 23, 2007 2:44 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
During a backstreet excursion about one week ago, I stopped to admire a series of cartoons encased in glass - cautionary tales, courtesy of Beijing's municipal authority.
I've posted photos from and translated two of the cartoons below.
Neither references the 2008 Olympic Games directly (most signs here do). Still, I think they're worth a look.
I found the cartoons in a middle-class Beijing neighborhood.
"Keep an eye on things": "Street-corner swindling"
"Aunt, I've come to the city for work and I need to rent a room. Do you know of any?"
"Yes, I do. How many are there of you? Come in a have a look."
"You can't rent this house now. Its 'fengshui' is poor. You don't want bad luck."
"Amida Buddha! It's really bad - all the signs are odious."
"Oh mister, I'm begging you to help. See if you can fix what's wrong. I'll give you money to burn as a sacrifice."
"Rental 'fengshui' fraud: a swindler finds your house for rent, says its 'fengshui' is poor, agrees to perform a ceremony and takes your money. This crime is generally perpetrated by two middle-aged men working together. One-story houses and older persons are at risk."
"Aunt, do you know the way to the post office?"
"You look like an honest person - no need to keep secrets from you. I moved here for work and found eight gold coins at a construction site. Mailing them isn't convenient - I'm afraid they'll get stolen. If you could keep them in your house for a few days - until it's time for me to travel home - I could come fetch them. I'd be grateful."
"Ok, I'll keep them for a few days in my home. Grateful or not, you better hurry back to fetch them."
"According to the people from the cultural relics department, gold coins from the Ming Dynasty are worth several tens of thousands of yuan. Aunt, I'm begging you, please keep these for just a few days. I'll thank you."
"Aunt, I'm scared of being swindled. Before I leave the coins with you, pay me a deposit - 1000 yuan each. Ok? When I return, I'll pay you back and let you keep one of the coins."
"Ok. It's not easy being an independent woman - I'll help you. And pay you a deposit like you said."
"Thanks for your help. I'll leave the eight coins here, take your 8000 yuan and return next month."
"Eight thousand yuan! I want to help you, and you're counting on me - but it sure is hard to be kind. Are you a swindler or not? Even if you are, I suppose I don't have to worry - you're leaving the coins with me. If you don't return to fetch them, it'll be your loss, not mine."
"Oh! These coins are just copper knock-offs and two months have already passed. She'll never come back. My good intentions have backfired. Oh! I really should die!"
Migrants show up in both cartoons, which isn't surprising. Nearly one in three Beijingers belongs to China's "mobile population."
In the first cartoon, a homeless migrant worker sets up the scam. His sob story is convincing because it's all too common. Beijing real estate values have soared (42 percent in three years), trapping workers in a kind of 'Catch-22.'
Most migrants work in construction/demolition. In other words, they're paid to pulverize Beijing's affordable housing. Olympic organizers call this beautification but it's tough on migrant workers. What pays the rent today may leave them homeless tomorrow.
The second cartoon features a stereotyped migrant worker as well. She's young, troubled and alone. She's come from a construction site. She's not to be trusted.
In both cartoons, innocent, friendly Beijingers get burned.
The city is changing, Beijing wants its grandmas and grandpas to know. Buildings are shooting up. Traditions are fading away. Migrants are pouring in.
Most migrant workers, of course, pose no real danger. But excitement breeds anxiety. It's December 2007; Beijing is buzzing; and the Olympics are eight months away.
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