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 5, 2008 5:05 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
Blogging Beijing traveled north to Harbin and China's only Korean Autonomous Prefecture over the weekend. Meanwhile, back in Beijing...
On August 1, Chinese president Hu Jintao held a rare press conference for foreign reporters. Hu often speaks with the world press when abroad, but Friday's tete-a-tete was his first here in nearly six years as China's top leader.
Beijing lifted blocks on several long-barred websites Saturday, August 2. Following overnight talks with the International Olympic Committee, China's government agreed to make accessible a number of contentious websites, including those of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and BBC in Chinese. For days now, a confusing debate has raged over what Beijing promised the IOC, in terms of Internet censorship or lack thereof, what the IOC understood and what all the fuss will mean for Olympic coverage.
(Note: All three websites mentioned above were, indeed, accessible via a Beijing coffee shop wireless connection Tuesday morning.)
An official Olympic-themed pin trading center opened Sunday, August 3, in Beijing. According to organizers, four such centers will operate during the 2008 Games.
News from Beijing soured on Monday, when two dozen Beijingers demonstrating against evictions ahead of the Olympics scuffled with police in the city's historic Qianmen district just south of Tiananmen Square. The area is under renovation. High-end retailers like Nike and Starbucks will replace many of Qianmen's traditional alley-neighborhoods.
(Note: For background on Qianmen's transformation, see 'Heart of the city - part two' on Blogging Beijing.)
Also on Monday, superstar American swimmer Michael Phelps touched down in Beijing. Phelps, sporting a new mustache, snuck past hundreds of fans and photographers onto a team bus at Beijing's Terminal 3 airport addition.
(Note: For more on the world's largest flight terminal, see 'T3 - Beijing's dragon-inspired airport' on Blogging Beijing.)
Tuesday dawned hazy in Beijing, between 90 and 110 on the city's pollution index. Organizers here refer to skies under 100 on the index as 'blue.' The Sydney Morning Herald reported Tuesday that Zimbabwe's president Robert Mugabe will not attend this week's Olympic opening ceremonies, at China's behest.
Headlines sprouted outside of Beijing as well. On Sunday, China's prolonged Olympic torch relay reached Mianyang in Sichuan province, where a devastating earthquake struck May 12. Yesterday, torchbearers jogged round a stadium that only weeks ago hosted thousands of diaster victims.
Today the torch relay arrived in Chengdu, Sichuan's capital. Sichuan is Washington's sister province in China; former governor and Chinese-American lawyer Gary Locke will serve as a Chengdu torchbearer.
Perhaps the weekend's biggest story occurred Monday morning in Kashgar, an ancient oasis city near Afghanistan in China's northwest Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. According to Chinese sources, two assailants in a truck ran down a group of jogging Kashgar policeman, then tossed grenades and slashed at the officers with knives, killing 16. The assailants were arrested, but state media failed to identify them members of the country's Han Chinese majority or Muslim Uyghur minority most numerous in Xinjiang.
(Note: For more on the region, re-visit 'Xinjiang - living snapshots' on Blogging Beijing.)
Elsewhere in the world, Olympic fans have been swindled by an Internet ticketing scam. The families of Olympic athletes in both Australia and New Zealand were among those who fell prey to the bogus website.
August 2, 2008 12:39 PM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
Since I began Blogging Beijing nine months ago, I've asked all sorts of Beijingers about the 2008 Olympic Games - teachers, students, peddlers, conductors, soldiers, beggars, doctors, rappers, athletes, farmers.
From recent arrivals - migrant workers, to Lao Beijing - tenured hutong dwellers, everyone has had something interesting to say.
I've particularly enjoyed engaging the city's elderly in Olympic conversations. Twenty years ago, even five years ago, Beijing was a different place. Their home has changed so much, so fast.
With the Games just days away, I decided to pay Beijing's oldest resident a visit. A trip to Zhoukoudian, I figured, would help put the Games in perspective.
Zhoukoudian is an archeological site turned museum/park 40 kilometers southwest of central Beijing, once home to Homo erectus Pekinesis - a prehistoric human nicknamed 'Peking Man.'
Peking Man in fact refers to a series of homo erectus communities based at Zhoukoudian, a cave-riddled limestone hill. Heavy-browed men and women hunted, fashioned stone tools and kindled fires near Beijing 500,000 years ago.
Accompanied by an American friend, I boarded a long-distance bus near the Temple of Heaven. We passed fields of newly planted trees, hundreds of nut-and-bolt shops, suburban villas and a compound marked 'Earthquake Command Center.'
Tickets to see what's left of Peking Man cost 30 yuan - around US$4. On this Monday morning, the museum's sprawling grounds were nearly empty. Huge busts of Peking Man, however, greeted us at every turn.
I approached an older man on his way out of the park. If he were still alive, what would Peking Man think of the 2008 Olympics? I wondered aloud.
"Oh ho!" our fellow tourist cried. "Peking Man! The Olympic Games! I'm certain he could've never imagined it. The Olympics don't belong to ancient Beijing. The Olympics belong to ancient Greece. And these 2008 Games...are for modern men."
A bust of Peking Man, Beijing Yuanren ('Beijing Ape-man') in Chinese.
Chinese archaeologists explore Zhoukoudian.
A pleasant scene near Zhoukoudian's 'Locality One.'
I collared an aged museum staffer and posed the same question.
"Of course, Peking Man would be happy for China," he answered. "Why? Because, years ago, foreigners called our country dongya bingfu - the 'Sick Man of East Asia.' Now China is hosting the Olympics. Now China is strong."
"He'd not only support Beijing's Games, he'd participate," asserted a Beijing Institute of Technology student and Olympic volunteer, stationed through August at Zhoukoudian.
The park/museum at Zhoukoudian consists of three parts: museum, excavation sites and gift shop.
The museum features oil paintings of a sociable, thriving Peking Man and a small collection of fossilized skullcaps. His contemporaries included woolly rhinos, saber tooth tigers and broad-jawed deer.
Leafy paths run between Zhoukoudian's various excavation sites. Local quarry men led Swedish geologist Johan Gunnar Andersson and American paleontologist Walter W. Granger to the hill in 1921. Andersson recognized quartz deposits not native to the area and famously exclaimed 'Here is primitive man, now all we have to do is find him!'
Andersson and an Austrian paleontologist turned up molars at Zhoukoudian. A Canadian anatomist discovered skull fragments in 1928. Chinese archaeologists found more later on.
"I don't understand your question," a puzzled museum staffer told me. "Peking Man lived hundreds of thousands of years ago. He's got nothing to do with the Olympics."
We stood in the shade of a broad persimmon tree, admiring a life-sized plastic wooly rhino. Cicadas hummed furiously in the breeze.
"I brought my son here today," a middle aged man explained. "I want him to know Beijing's history."
So that's a woolly rhino? Peking Man shared Zhoukoudian with sabertooth tigers too.
Olympic volunteers from the Beijing Institute of Technology sleep off the smog at Zhoukoudian.
Treasure in the gift shop: yours for only 380 yuan (US$42).
From Peking Man to modern man inside Zhoukoudian's museum.
Chinese excavations at Zhoukoudian halted in 1937, as the Japanese marched near Beijing. Fossils from the site were placed in a safe at the Peking Union Medical College for wartime safekeeping.
Bound for the U.S. in 1941, the fossils vanished. Countless authors and dreamers have speculated as to their fate. In 2005, Beijing established a committee to recover the bones - 60 years after the Second World War.
Zhoukoudian's gift shop boasts Peking Man t-shirts, Peking Man playing cards and ballpoint Peking Man pens.
Beijing's come a long way since the cenozoic.
I searched for Zhoukoudian - Olympics cross-marketing. The gift shop hasn't stocked Peking Man ping-pong paddles...yet.
(Note: After visiting Zhoukoudian, my friend and I proceeded to Yinhudong ('Silver Fox Cave'), another Fangshan District attraction. On our way back to Beijing, we encountered a police checkpoint. Not having brought our passports along, we waited two hours for a foreign affairs policeman to arrive. She had us sign a slip of paper admitting we'd broken Chinese law. Our taxi driver wasn't surprised. "Why such strict security measures? For the Olympics!")
Interactive map of Beijing/China - follow up on posts and get oriented:
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 28, 2008 3:54 PM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
"Agh!" the Beijing Guo'an striker shouted, watching his shot skip wide.
"Welcome Olympics - Embrace Civilization - Reject Cursuing" the jumbo screen at Fengtai Stadium flashed.
"Stupid @*$#! Stupid @*$#!" three hundred emerald-clad groupies screamed.
So much for propaganda. Welcome to professional soccer in China.
Beijing Guo'an fans take in a soccer match at Fengtai Stadium.
A club of Guo'an supporters - the 'Capital Cursing League' - ran afoul of Olympic organizers last year.
When Beijing Guo'an met Qingdao Jonoon for an evening tilt July 6, it was the qiumi ('ball fans') who stood out.
Their heroes - perennial contenders for China's 'Super League' crown - looked sluggish at best, spraying balls off target between doubtful dives. Beijing won, 1-0, on a tall Brazilian ringer's goal.
Days from the opening ceremonies, asthmatic marathoners, prying reporters and plotting terrorists rate among Olympic organizers' most pressing concerns. Qiumi don't.
But qiumi do worry the Beijing brass. Liu Jingmin, the city's vice-mayor, launched a campaign against foul language last year. According to Liu, boorish Beijingers pose a threat to China's gracious Olympic image.
(Note: For more on the campaign, see 'Beijing's Olympic curse' on Blogging Beijing.)
Raucous Chinese crowds could undo Beijing's seven-year campaign in global public relations, officials fear.
Beijing's Fengtai Sports Center complex will host Olympic softball in August.
It's unclear whether the festival spirit of Guo'an soccer matches will carry over to the Olympics.
Organizers here have campaigned hard for proper match-time behavior, sponsoring corporate cheer trainings, promulgating an official 2008 cheer and selecting a 400-member platoon of booty-shaking Olympic cheerleaders.
Concepts like 'mutual respect' and 'international friendship' have received top billing at elementary schools across Beijing charged with implementing Olympic education.
(Note: For more on Beijing's unique brand of Olympic education, see 'We're proud of Beijing' on Blogging Beijing.)
National pride is one thing, name-calling another. Riots broke out following Team China's bitter loss to Japan in 2004. Next month, Beijing will crack down on disorder of any kind.
Chinese students held xenophobic demonstrations from Dalian to Shanghai following controversial Olympic torch relay stops in London and Paris this spring. Sino-Japanese relations remain shaky. Then there's the 2008 Olympic slogan: 'One World, One Dream.'
"There are still hard feelings between China and Japan," said Wu Peng, a university student in Beijing. "But when the Japanese arrive for the Olympics, we'll make friends with them."
Chinese supporters should dominate the 2008 Games - four years ago in Athens they propelled China's delegation to a record 32 gold medals.
How exactly they'll cheer, no one knows. Beijing's Olympic test events attracted a different sort of crowd than frequents Guo'an bouts. If the Games unfold without incident, it may be because communist party members and mannered business-people have hoarded all the tickets.
Interactive map of Beijing/China - follow up on posts and get oriented:
July 25, 2008 10:51 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
China's remaining 250,000 Olympics tickets went on sale at 9am Friday in Beijing. Enormous crowds turned out for the rush - sports fans and ticket-seekers grasping for a piece of Chinese history.
Thousands camped outside the iconic new Bird's Nest (National Stadium) and Water Cube (National Aquatics Center) - obscured by sweltering smog cover - overnight, determined to snag spots at the front of ticketing lines.
"Haha! Got'em!" exclaimed a middle-aged man wearing sandals and glasses Friday afternoon. "I feel great. I waited 15 hours standing for Bird's Nest tickets - 24 hours in all."
"I got'em! Bird's Nest here I come!"
Enormous crowds collected on Beijing's Olympic Green Friday - many spent Thursday night waiting in line.
Tempers flared in the midday heat, as security guards struggled to prevent stampedes.
The Bird's Nest will host the 2008 Games' opening and closing ceremonies, sandwiching track & field. The Water Cube will host swimming and diving - a popular sport in China.
Friday morning dawned hot and hazy. Some ticket-seekers sat on newly poured concrete curbs to play poker and wave breezy Chinese fans. Others surged forward in line, pressing impatiently against each other and police barricades.
"It's like we're riding on the subway," chuckled one man, face planted into another man's sweaty back.
An atmosphere of confusion hung over Beijing's Olympic Green, site of the Bird's Nest, Water Cube and other top venues. A steady trickle of exasperated Beijingers wandered past line after tangled line, searching for helpful signage in vain.
"This is the line for water polo, right?" asked a young woman twirling her parasol. "What? This is the line for equestrian? Isn't that going to be held in Hong Kong?"
Thousands of uniformed policemen and security guards swarmed the complex, charged with keeping order. But few were able to answer questions regarding ticket prices and availability.
"Bu tai qingchu," one policeman repeated over and over again, smiling through gritted teeth. "I'm not sure."
A group of security guards, pimply teenagers mostly, held hands to form a human barricade when fans in line for modern pentathlon tickets threatened to stampede.
"I've had enough," muttered one man, turning back.
"Hooray, one less person in line," remarked another ticket-seeker gleefully.
Conspicuously absent from the Olympic green Friday were Beijing's snazzy-dressed Olympic volunteers. Close to one million volunteers will work the 2008 Games. Many are university students, and have already deployed across the city.
"Yeah!" a tiny volunteer waiting to buy handball tickets snorted. "I don't know why there aren't volunteers helping here. It's bizarre."
"There are a bunch of Olympic volunteers here," explained another. "They're just not wearing their uniforms, because the ticket windows won't sell to uniformed volunteers."
By 1pm, a number of sports had sold out and Beijingers clasping precious tickets streamed toward the city's recently opened Subway Line 10. Sales will continue Saturday and Sunday.
"Mei zhunbei hao le," an older woman grumbled, glaring at the Olympic ticket booths. "Totally unprepared."
Photographers took precarious perches to document the ticket rush.
Surprising, only a few of Beijing's million Olympic volunteers were on hand.
A young security guard stares down water-polo ticket seekers.
Security guards form a human barricade.
Sitting out the Olympic heat.
Beijing's most determined Olympic fans camped out for days.
Nearby, a weapons installment - organizers are worried about terrorist attacks during the 2008 Games.
July 25, 2008 9:40 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
Beijing Capital Airport's monstrous Terminal 3 opened months ago, but these next two weeks will serve as its real debut. Most of the 200,000-plus foreigners expected to attend China's first-ever Olympic Games will touch down at 'T3.'
Designed by celebrity English architect Norman Foster, the 986,000 square meter structure resembles a 'flying dragon.' It rests on smooth crimson pillars and boasts a warped, scaly golden roof.
It just got easier for Seattleites to visit T3. On June 10, Hainan Airlines launched its new nonstop service between Seattle and Beijing.
So book a flight - check out East Asia's answer to London Heathrow and New York JFK.
Or, if a quick jaunt to China sounds infeasible, scroll through Blogging Beijing's photos of T3 below.
Beijing Capital Airport - Terminal 3
'T3' at night - 50,000 workers toiled nearly four years on the world's largest airport building.
Beijing's new terminal claims 300 check-in counters, 451 elevators and a system of luggage carriers able to move 20,000 bags per hour over 60 kilometers of track, at 7 meters per second.
Beijing's new terminal hosts 64 restaurants and 84 shops. Planners say it will accomadate 50 million passengers a year by 2020.
Why construct a US$4.6 billion airport terminal? For the Olympic Games!
T3's arrivals concourse in moonlight - Beijing's air traffic is growing 20 percent each year.
Night shift at T3 for a group of Beijing university students turned 2008 Olympic volunteers.
The terminal's biggest tenants: Air China, Oneworld and Star Alliance.
July 24, 2008 6:19 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
China's Olympic organizers will set up special protest zones for use during the 2008 Games in Beijing.
Liu Shaowu, security director for Beijing's organizing committee, declared Wednesday plans for protest zones in three public parks: World Park, Purple Bamboo Park and Ritan Park. None lie adjacent to Olympic venues, although all three are located near the city center.
"This will allow people to protest without disrupting the Olympics," Ni Jianping, director of the Shanghai Institute of American Studies, announced. "We're giving people a platform to express their views."
Concerns that protestors and Chinese security forces could clash have swelled in recent weeks.
Human rights, press freedoms and religious-ethnic issues - particulary those involving China's Tibet and Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Regions - remain contenious issues ahead of the 2008 Games (for more information see "International furor, domestic solidarity" and "Protests and counter-protests" on Blogging Beijing).
China's ties with oil-rich and war-torn Sudan have also come under fire.
Hoping to shield the Olympics from terrorism and dissent, organizers have brought Beijing under strict control. Subway sniffing dogs, highway checkpoints and random visa inspectations are among the security measures now in effect.
Ni and Susan Brownell, an American expert on the politics and culture of Chinese sport, urged leaders here to consider Olympic protest zones.
Supporters of the plan say organizers have taken a meaningful step, opening the city and China's government to criticism. Detractors and realists, Brownell included, contend that Beijing will use the zones to isolate and monitor disruptive activities during the Games.
"It was about placating the West. They were really concerned about social order," Brownell, an anthropologist from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, told the Associated Press.
(For more perspective from Brownell, see "Beijing 2008 Q&A: Dr. Susan Brownell" on Blogging Beijing.)
Addressing reporters at a press conference, Liu revealed that groups wishing to protest would be required to apply and receive permission from local officials first. The Olympics begin in roughly two weeks.
Protest zones were adopted for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, but little used.
Western press coverage of ethnic violence in Tibet this March, and demonstrations against China's global Olympic torch relay in Paris and London this April, sparked patriotic counter-demonstrations and xenophobic outrage among Chinese from Guangdong to Beijing.
Fengtai District's World Park is three miles from the Olympic softball field; Purple Bamboo Park is two bus stops south of the Beijing Institute of Technology's Olympic volleyball venue.
Interactive map of Beijing/China - follow up on posts and get oriented:
July 24, 2008 4:22 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
Less than one month before the 2008 Olympic Games, a spate of publications have weighed in on Beijing's architectural transformation - the city's fantastic new skyline.
In 2001, after winning the right to host China's first Olympics, Beijing disappeared into a cloud of construction dust. It will emerge this August completely changed - a looming, muscular mass of concrete, steel and innovation.
From squat imperial village, to socialist stage, to global metropolis, Beijing certainly grown. Nearly 18 million people call the municipality home, a third of them migrants from China's countryside.
From the backseat of a Lincoln Town car or the window seat of an Air China jet, Beijing looks magnificent. It's 'Bird's Nest' (National Stadium) and 'Water Cube' (National Aquatics Center) will dazzle curious Olympic audiences.
So will Rem Koolhas' puzzling CCTV Center. Four impressive new subway lines snake out from inner Beijing, servicing the capital's sprawling suburbs, as do countless highways.
But according to Neville Mars, Dutch architect and chairman of the Dynamic City Foundation, Beijing's exceptional Olympic environment is synthetic, the capital itself doomed.
Hailing from the Netherlands' Delft Technical University, Mars moved to China four years ago. His foundation, Dynamic City, is an international urban research and development platform; his goal is to combat the 'build now, plan later' attitude driving Chinese development.
Mars, 32, agreed to answer a few questions for Blogging Beijing.
How did you end up in China?
I was trained as an architect in Holland, where I set up a small architecture research company, planning small projects. Then one day I came across an article online; it said that China wanted to build 400 new cities by 2020. That ambition triggered something in me.
Something had been missing for me in Holland. I wanted the chance to do really large-scale research on high-speed urbanization; rather than focus on the glitziest new buildings, I wanted to explore the direct and profound relationship between building environments and the way societies are shaping.
I started calling around for specialists who knew China - specialists in a whole range of subjects, from architecture to engineering. We built a team, raised funds for a year in Holland. When we got the green light we moved our foundation to China. That was in 2004.
How did the Dynamic City project evolve?
For four years, we basically had a big studio research space in 798 (a sprawling neo-industrial artists' commune north of Beijing). Most of the foreigners on our team have finished and moved home. Our book was published. We joined forces with firms here that do 3-D renderings and are now busy trying to construct some buildings.
Our approach is unique - we've made a huge effort to combine in-depth research with realistic proposals and designs. Most foundations/companies are either too scholarly or produce plans lacking research base. A handful of people in Asia do more wishful, utopian artistic projects. We're somewhere in between. Although we've come up with some fairly crazy schemes, we take into account what's happening on the ground in China's market and what might happen if we don't act now to modify urbanization.
Right now in China, people are too busy cashing in on this economic monster to think about what is actually desirable for the future. It's a serious problem. We're responding ad hoc to existing needs; this can't deliver sustainability. And when I say sustainability, I don't even mean 'going green. That's almost too ambitious. I only mean providing Chinese people with living environments that can suffice for more than on generation.
So, what does Dynamic City recommend?
What we're suggesting is an integrated solution that accounts for five levels of environment, five level of policy - individual, block, city, region and nation.
The 'fortification' of housing - gated communities - is a huge problem in Beijing. People always tell me that China has a long tradition of building walled cities and courtyards...5,000 years.
And that was extremely effective for a long time. But now, more than some people like to acknowledge, China must adhere to a market reality. Those building residential spaces must respond to the needs of customers. The original 'gated block' model no longer fits when individuals possess voting power by way of their wallets.
It's funny, because the Chinese market today suggests that people wanted walled communities. Perhaps for the short term, that's true. But Beijing will soon have to find how to provide quality living not just on a block-by-block basis but also at the citywide level. That means alleviating traffic, making the air breathable. If you want to achieve quality at the citywide level, you need to think of the city as a collection of buildings, rather than a bunch of isolated blocks.
Instead of building in grids, Beijing is building closed bubbles. Politically, these make sense. They are easy to manage, easy to define. But from an infrastructural standpoint, they are horrific. You have one entry and one exit. You create bottlenecks. Like in Dashanzi...you have the same amount of roads as before, just enclosed. It's so inefficient. The only people using those roads are the people on their way from Dashanzi to work, or on their way home.
In terms of planning and design, what is Beijing doing well?
I like to point out - to a Western audience - things that the Chinese are doing well - things we in Europe and the United States should consider learning from. What Beijing has always had going for it is density and a very compact center - less so since 2005.
This means that you can offer the city public transport and other services easier. In fact, Beijing is rapidly losing its density to the suburbs. But there are heartening examples. Even in the city's suburbs, the types of buildings and compounds going up are extremely dense.
Take Tiantongyuan (a high-rise development north of Beijing constructed along Subway Line 5). A neighborhood of half a million people has emerged out of nowhere, its growth facilitated by mass transportation. This is what cities should be trying to achieve everywhere. It proves we need to look at suburbanization in a different context. In the West we're scared of suburbanization because to us it means sprawl. But Tiantongyuan shows that classic sprawl can quickly rejuvenate itself into healthy city tissue.
How and why is suburbanization happening in Beijing?
The city is fragmenting...on two levels. Beijing as a whole is fragmenting at its periphery, as the suburbs grow. And central Beijing is fragmenting as well, cut up by giant highways.
Beijing has always been a purely mono-centric city, with concentric rings emanating from a dense center. Mono-centric cities are much more efficient than polycentric cities, with multiple hubs. Naturally, when a mono-centric city grows beyond 5 million people, it begins to fall apart. You can plan for that, or you can watch it happen. Beijing has watched it happen.
Instead of developing a strategy for the future, Beijing policy makers continue to wait...then make retroactive decisions. Back in 1952, planners here proposed that the city, already growing, construct suburban satellites - the idea being that your satellite communities eventually expand and fuse together.
First, 40 satellites were recommended. The government failed to act. Now suburban satellites ring Beijing haphazardly. Planners here have latched onto the 'satellite city' concept again, but only after the fact. It's too late. We call this 'post-planning.'
Who are the players in Beijing urban planning and development?
That's a good question. There's a long answer and a short answer.
The short answer is...well, I can say who should be involved - four parties: government, developers, designers and users. These four should form a closed loop. There should be full dialogue. It's not so efficient for quick decisions, but it ensures that what's built meets the city's needs.
If you were going to be crude, you might say that in China two of these four parties don't participate at all: the designers and the users. The government and developers fill all four roles, ambiguously, between them. The government is often developer and policy maker all at once. Or the government and developers are one and the same. It's one guy with two hats or two guys with one hat.
The reason why China can develop urban space so quickly is that the government can shift gears between public and private functions in a flash.
The long answer is...well, there's a long and detailed chain of command, which involves state-sponsored design institutes etc. In a way, who does and decides what is very clearly spelled out. But there is no real mechanism for working together, so you get departments and institutes vying for power and protecting their turf.
One thing I will say is that the top levels of government are really quite aware of the planning and design problems that exist in Beijing and other Chinese cities. They are aware on a sophisticated level. For instance, in our book I quote the mayor of Beijing saying that his city suffers from a disconnect between real estate development and infrastructural development. He really understands what's going on.
But China's top policy-makers have trouble forming progressive strategies to tackle these problems and have even more trouble implementing those strategies. In China, mid-level politics is really the jawbreaker. It's a bit sad but true.
And understanding is not the same as solving. Many of the urban planning policies in place today are counterproductive. For example, Beijing practices 'policy sprawl.' The term has a double meaning. First, there are so many rules and regulations it's impossible for anyone to adhere to all of them. Second, those rules and regulations, which are supposed to prevent sprawl, encourage sprawl.
How do policies in place encourage unhealthy sprawl?
China's hukou (residence) system (see "We're proud of Beijing" on Blogging Beijing) is at the heart of this problem. The country is still very divided between people who are urban citizens and people who are rural citizens. This completely contradicts reality. In reality, there is no more city vs. countryside, only a blur. The system bans people from moving to urban areas. The idea is to prevent the growth of slums around China's big cities.
In a way, the hukou system has worked. Suburban slums don't exist in China to the same extent as they do in other countries. But the secret truth is that the whole Chinese countryside is undergoing suburbanization; the whole countryside is becoming an enormous suburban slum. And this is leading to an ecological catastrophe.
Is 'Old Beijing' in danger? How and why is 'Old Beijing' disappearing?
There are a lot of contradictory forces at work in 'Old Beijing' - same as everywhere. Much of it is officially protected and there are incentives in place that encourage preservation. Some people are receiving state money to renovate buildings using traditional materials and techniques etc.
But at the same time, the edges of the hutong (see "Heart of the city" on Blogging Beijing) are still being eaten away at a dramatic rate. For someone like me, who is involved in the future of Beijing and on new urbanization, 'Old Beijing' is a sticky situation and a bit of quagmire.
So, how to deal with the old city? One surefire way to take pressure off 'Old Beijing' is to offer Beijingers a healthy new city. Unfortunately, at the moment, 'Old Beijing' remains part of the city's urban plans for the future.
The reasoning currently being applied to 'Old Beijing' is simply horrible. The planners are saying 'the old city is congested with people and cars, so what we have to do is move people out to the suburbs.'
But this has a negative effect. You're moving people, few of whom own cars and most of whom lived very efficiently together in Beijing's historic core with no transportation needs, outside the city where suddenly they begin driving cars and traveling long distances to shop, work etc.
In their place you are raising towers and laying down roads. You are decongesting 'Old Beijing' when to be efficient it should remain as densely populated as possible. The only way to fix the old city's problems without disrupting what's right is to move public administration beyond the third or fourth ring. There are 400-some government structures in 'Old Beijing' sucking in thousands of bureaucrats who drive black Audis. Of course, this will never happen.
How have the 2008 Olympic Games fit into Beiijing's urban plans?
The Games are just a mammoth example of the city's general approach to urban planning - that is, the 'stepping stone' approach. The idea is to realize a large, quality project very quickly...and then wait for the areas nearby to follow.
The reality is these projects don't really work as stepping-stones - they remain islands, unconnected to the urban fabric. The ideal scenario would be for these giant monoliths, like the Bird's Nest or Water Cube, to be part of living city tissue, embedded within real communities where people can walk past and through them.
But in Beijing, these Olympic monoliths are highway-oriented and strangely conceived. I'm in favor of infusing these structures with Chinese identity. But the idea that a round stadium (Bird's Nest) and a square swimming pool (Water Cube) fixed to Beijing's ancient north-south axis makes the 2008 Games Chinese? Please.
The axis is completely invisible if you're a user. You can't even walk along the axis. Plus, Chinese traditional philosophy emphasizes working with, not against, nature. Beijing's Olympic Green is the most egregiously exploded landscape I've ever seen. It's a desert. I like the Water Cube - it's a beautiful building. But why not impregnate it in within the real city.
The Olympic planning has been driven by fear of people congregating - to party or revolt or whatever. There's no incentive to create breathing public space. In Beijing, public space is only for pushing through more cars.
What will Beijing look like in ten years?
I think it will boast an extremely flashy center and some slightly livable areas - exceptions to the rule and pricey exceptions at that. The rest of the city will look nice as long as you're not stuck in traffic. So...in the middle of the night.
How does Beijing's water shortage affect urban planning?
Water availability should be a big part of planning here, because you need to give people clean water. It was predicted that once Beijing reached 18 million people, it couldn't give them clean water. Beijing has reached 18 million people.
But now there are water pipelines running into Beijing from the south. Beijing is an artificial environment; the 2008 Olympics will be artificial as well. Financial and natural resources have been drained from other areas of the country. Even Beijing's air will be fake - factories which have nothing to do with the city's economy are shut down.
Planners don't need to consider Beijing's water shortage anymore. The city has already missed that opportunity. Now the people who have to worry are in the south.
Interactive map of Beijing/China - follow up on posts and get oriented:
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