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Kristi Heim: The World in China

Seattle Times reporter Kristi Heim explores a changing China on the world stage.

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August 5, 2008 11:41 PM

Olympic torch runs through Beijing

Posted by Kristi Heim

The pre-Olympics excitement reached a fever pitch today when the torch arrived in Beijing. I went out to watch it with Seattle Times photographer Rod Mar in the heart of the city near the ancient Drum Tower. I've been in crowds before but never one quite like today.

Thousands of onlookers gathered all along the relay route and waited hours for the runners to arrive. People had small red flags and hearts pasted on their cheeks and waved larger flags in their hands. A bright red Coca-Cola bus snaked through the crowd and led a chant "Go, China," "Go, Liu Xiang," "Go, Yao Ming," "Go, Beijing," "Go Olympics."


Spectators posed for pictures long after the torch runners were gone.

As the torch procession started moving toward us, the surge of humanity pressed against police and volunteers who linked hands to form a barrier. "Get back!" a security officer kept barking at the fans, ordering them behind a white line. The crowd was sweltering and manic. It seemed someone might easily get trampled.

There was a minute of levity when people near me erupted in laughter at someone's off-key singing. But mostly the mood felt anxious.The expression on peoples' faces was emotional and full of longing. With expectations this high, I had to wonder whether they could ultimately be fulfilled. For good weather, for gold medals, for international acceptance and praise. A middle aged woman in the crowd smiled at me, tentatively at first and then warmly, happy to see a visitor witnessing China's big moment.

I asked two teenage boys who they hoped to see running past. "Liu Xiang," one said. "Yao Ming," chimed the other. But neither athlete was running this leg of the relay, sponsored by Lenovo. The corporate torch bearer hopped on a bus after his short run, and I heard a voice in the crowd ask "Who is that?"

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August 5, 2008 10:37 AM

Peaceful coexistence: The real and the fake

Posted by Kristi Heim

Beijing sells official Olympic souvenirs in a place where tourists can't miss them -- inside the market for pirated goods.

The sprawling indoor mall called Silk Alley is home to dozens of small shops selling fake brand-name clothing, golf gear, watches and other products.


It's a mecca for tourists from around the world looking for designer knockoffs at a fraction of the price real ones cost. In Beijing, some trademarks enjoy more protection than others: The stand for authorized Olympic souvenirs sits inside the main floor just opposite a shop selling fake Ralph Lauren polo shirts.


Among the trendy clothes for sale was a new creation giving Starbucks some free advertising. Vendors put a large green Starbucks logo on the front of T-shirts and sweatshirts.

No irony in this iron-on: even as it shrinks in the U.S., the chain is still expanding briskly in China as a popular hangout.

For more on this, read this piece on China's teeming world of fake goods.

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August 3, 2008 7:07 PM

Beijing skies turn hazy

Posted by Kristi Heim

It's Monday morning here, just four days before opening ceremony, and Beijing is once again blanketed by a thick haze. Hard to say if it's pollution or just fog, but it feels miserable outside. Here is the view looking northeast from the central business district:


Local residents have been told that new limits on driving might be needed to take another 10 percent of cars off the road during the games. I've talked with three Beijing residents who drive regularly and none was upset by the restrictions. In fact, people concerned about air quality wondered why the caps were not imposed much earlier.

But even with stringent rules and impressive technology, Beijing seems to be facing the reality that nature can't be turned on and off like a switch.

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August 2, 2008 3:47 AM

Beijing: First Impressions

Posted by Kristi Heim

Beijing has mountains?

A visitor unfamiliar with the city might have gone a long time before noticing. The Fragrant Hills don't make an appearance most summers when the capital is shrouded in fog and pollution. But when the plane descended into Beijing on Friday, there they were, along with blue skies.

The air quality seems substantially better than what I experienced last summer. A frequent visitor to Beijing from Canada told me said it was the clearest she can remember seeing the city in years.

Inside the brand new airport terminal, an immigration official smiled and wished me a good stay. Throngs of young volunteers in blue shirts welcomed guests in English. I turned a corner and almost ran into what appeared to be a large yellow space creature with antlers who was posing for a picture with a tourist. I realized this must be one of the five official Olympic mascots, a Tibetan antelope named Yingying.

Traffic coming into the city was so light I saved a few dollars on taxi fare, which usually costs more because of the extra time it takes wading through gridlock.


The air outside is fresh, but sidewalk seating is not allowed here during the Olympics.

On Saturday morning, I could see how the fortress-like security has put a damper on business. On a tree-lined stretch of sidewalk in the embassy district, not a single table sitting outside of Grandma's Restaurant. For "safety reasons," all of the cafes were told to do away with sidewalk seating until September. The new rule put an end to a summer weekend ritual, resulting in lost revenue for these small shops.

Local residents told me about the changes they do hope will last: non smokers now have separate sections in restaurants, buses and trucks aren't spewing so much filthy exhaust because of a crackdown on emissions, consumers are using fewer plastic bags now that shops have to charge for them, and people are not kept awake all hours by construction noise.

Everything's a little different, from the Buddhist shrines appearing in restaurants to the tattoos and pierced lips that have become trendy. Beijing is full of new streets, parks and buildings, including the cutting-edge CCTV headquarters that looks like a giant pair of shorts.

As the games approach, in the air I noticed a heavy dose of something that's become elusive at home and in many parts of the world these days: optimism.

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July 31, 2008 3:00 PM

Too much control could backfire

Posted by Kristi Heim

China's Internet meddling and shutting out visits by business travelers around the Olympics are worrying longtime China watchers.

China's censorship of media and reported plan to monitor hotel guests' Web surfing ultimately won't work, said former Gov. Gary Locke, who plans to travel to China next week to run a leg of the torch relay.

"In many ways the Chinese government can't stop it," Locke said. "As much as they try with the Internet, the censors are always five steps behind people."

The reality is there are thousands of protests and demonstrations in China every day over matters such as land confiscation and closure of plants.

"For Chinese government leaders to think they can stop all this is not practical," Locke said.

"This is an opportunity for the Chinese government to showcase the progress and modernization of China and how far it has come in the last 10-15 years," he said. "The more they try to clamp down and control things, the more that becomes the story rather than how the standard of living for the vast majority of Chinese has improved."

Troubles with the Olympic torch run also prompted a crackdown on visitor visas.

That policy is a big problem for business, says Jim McGregor, an author and businessman who lives in China's capital.

"It's sending the wrong signals to the world that China is closing its doors," he said.

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July 30, 2008 10:15 PM

An Olympic question

Posted by Kristi Heim

How should people come to terms with the question of whether to celebrate the Olympics? Ketty Loeb, a University of Washington and Blakemore Foundation alumna now working on microcredit programs, said many people have begun to ask her that question lately. Loeb traveled across China last year and walked all day along a Beijing river with me last summer as part of a grassroots environmental gathering. That event showed the degree to which ordinary citizens are actively pressing for change.


Loeb (center, with backpack) and Chinese environmental volunteers along Beijing's Qing River in June 2007

She decided it's a matter of recognizing the issues raised by critics, while respecting the aspirations of Chinese citizens -- their anticipation, hope and pride.

"Taxi drivers, peasants, restaurateurs, and children all across China are waiting with intense excitement for the Games to begin," she said. "This is their chance to show the world that China is not some belligerent behemoth or a backward, uncivilized country, but a strong and capable people."

With so much attention focused on the country, it's a time for China and the rest of the world to understand each other better.

The Olympics are never free from politics, but in the center are the athletes, who can pull off such great feats of speed, strength and grace they break down boundaries.

Besides watching the games, people should take the opportunity to learn more about China and the challenges that it faces in the future, she said. Challenges like "balancing the desire for political stability and legitimacy with growing demands for civil liberties and human rights, continuing rapid economic development while paying more heed to environmental health, and providing for millions of impoverished Chinese citizens who are being left behind during China's selective economic boom."

In just a few decades, China has transformed itself from a socially and economically devastated state into a world power with a booming economy, she notes. It hasn't done everything right, but the progress has been astonishing.

When the Games start in Beijing, the events will be well choreographed, but the way Chinese authorities (and the public) respond to unpredictable situations will be the most revealing. Thirty years ago Deng Xiaoping ended decades of isolation, and now the Olympics will test how far China's door is open.

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July 30, 2008 3:44 PM

Locke to carry torch through China

Posted by Kristi Heim

Former Washington Gov. Gary Locke will carry the Olympic torch through Chengdu next week, showing support for the earthquake victims in Washington state's sister province of Sichuan.

Chengdu is the last leg of the journey before the torch reaches Beijing days before the opening ceremony.

Locke, who makes his torch run on Tuesday, said he's honored to have been asked and hopes "to emphasize the concern and sympathy and desires of American people to help out" following the May 12 disaster.

The earthquake, centered about 50 miles northwest of Chengdu, killed nearly 70,000 people and left five million homeless. The number of homeless equals more than 80 percent of Washington state's population, Locke said.

Locke, who is a partner in the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, said he's also traveling to Beijing to represent several companies, including a Seattle environmental technology firm that he hopes could help China address problems like the algae buildup along the coast in Qingdao.


Gary Locke meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in 2006

The first Chinese American governor was invited to attend the opening ceremony in Beijing. Locke said he had to decline because of a long-planned family vacation.

While he's in Sichuan he hopes to visit the areas impacted by the earthquake.

Locke said he's bringing along bracelets made by a young girl from Seattle who wanted to offer gifts to children there. The girl wrote messages on the package: "I love you," and "You rock."

"In many ways the victims exemplify the Olympic spirit of overcoming adversity with such courage," Locke said.

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July 29, 2008 3:16 PM

The Colors of Beijing

Posted by Kristi Heim

On Thursday I'll be leaving for Beijing to cover the Olympics. For someone who has observed China closely for the last two decades, it's an unprecedented historical moment. But it's also one fraught with contradictions.

The colors, for instance.


These were supposed to be the green Games, but that doesn't exactly describe the environment in Beijing. It might refer to the color of the algae-clogged water at the Olympic sailing venue in Qingdao or the inexperience of organizers who have clamped down on the city with such vice-like control that they risk a joy-free Olympics.

I'm sure to find a sea of red Chinese flags, but there's no more Red China in the People's Republic of Capitalism. These days, red means nationalism, not communism. And the traditional color of festivity. Besides the opening ceremony on 8/8/08, numerous weddings will compete for space in Beijing's banquet halls. The date is especially coveted because the number 8 in Chinese is pronounced "ba," which rhymes with "fa," meaning prosperity.

Above all, the Games are about bringing home the gold. China's sense of historical insecurity is fueling a drive to catch up and surpass the West, using the bodies of athletes to rack up the most medals of any country.

But the hotel and tourist operators are feeling more than a little blue. Craigs List Beijing is littered with pages of would-be renters who hoped to cash in on a wave of visitors looking for rooms. Many hotels expecting to sell out are only half full.

Beijing sports legions of ubiquitous black Audis whisking around government officials and corporate VIPs. Even with half of the city's 3 million cars now off the road, the skies still look hazy. That means the athletes have to hope that black is not color of their lungs in September.

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More from this blog

Recent entries

Aug 24, 08 - 07:30 AM
Closing ceremony: Chinese youth culture and a double-decker bus to London

Aug 22, 08 - 11:06 PM
An Olympics beyond gold medals: one alternative view

Aug 22, 08 - 08:46 PM
Three countries borne by one athlete

Aug 22, 08 - 06:23 AM
A patch of green in a sea of gray

Aug 21, 08 - 11:50 AM
A personal quest for Hope







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