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Beijing holds its breath

On a trip to Beijing in the days before the hub-bub, Corbin Hiar finds a mixture of excitement and dread. He gazes back while taking in the five-ring circus ...

Corbin Hiar | August 20th 2008

The first thing we noticed stepping out of Beijing Capital International Airport was the smog. It hung heavy in the humid night like ozone after a violent thunderstorm. My mother, sister and I loaded our bloated backpacks into an idling cab. Its headlamps sent beams of light into the hazy evening air. In the waning days before the 2008 Summer Olympics, the much-needed subway line connecting the airport to the city centre had yet to be completed.

Fuwa, the five "good-luck dolls" that are the city's Olympic mascots (pictured), swung from the mirror of our cabdriver's Hyundai as he merged onto the airport expressway. We soon saw the first of many huge, flashing Olympic countdown clocks, as if anyone needed to be reminded of the declining sum of seconds before the opening ceremonies on August 8th. We passed over the recently completed Sixth Ring Road, fringed on both sides with bamboo. Gleaming new hotels shone in the dirty night sky as we followed the expressway into the heart of Beijing, where we would be staying for the week.    

The transformation of the city from the imperial capital laid out by Kublai Khan in the 13th century to the current smoggy sprawl of glass, steel and the occasional slum began largely with Mao Zedong, who tore down most of the historic city walls. He began the grand project of the Second Ring Road--a mislabelled rectangular highway that circumscribes most of medieval Beijing and the entire Forbidden City. Mao destroyed most of Beijing's distinctive hutong neighbourhoods of single-storey courtyard houses huddled along narrow alleyways, replacing them with massive Soviet-style concrete buildings. He also shut down many ancient temples or converted them into factories.

It wasn't until 1980, with Deng Xiaoping's awkwardly capitalist "Reforms and Opening up", that Mao's Second Ring Road was finally completed. A new wave of creative destruction began to reshape the city in earnest. When Beijing was awarded the 2008 Summer Olympics by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 2001 (seven years after narrowly losing out to Sydney), the building frenzy intensified. We arrived in time to witness this most recent wave wash over the city.

 


The government's enthusiasm for the games was visible everywhere: in the airport's stunning new dragon-shaped Terminal 3, along the manicured six-lane highways, and in the sleek new subways, each outfitted with TV monitors airing sports highlights. The excitement could also be felt in our interactions with locals. From the cramped hutongs to the expansive grounds of the Temple of Heaven complex, Beijingers seemed proud to see conspicuous tourists like us enjoying their city. More than a few eager Chinese asked my curly-haired sister and me to take photos with them. Chinese security officers were ubiquitous, yet oddly unimposing. In spite of the official ban on pirated Olympic merchandise, energetic vendors hawked knock-off Fuwa on busy street corners and in crowded antique markets. 

Of course reminders of the games (and their many corporate sponsors) were everywhere. Yet the city's Olympic passion seemed more spontaneous than what I had envisioned. In Peter Hessler's excellent memoir of his experiences in China, "Oracle Bones", he recounts the state's effort to teach English to Beijing's cab drivers before the IOC made its final decision. The government distributed English-tutorial cassettes full of phrases such as "The city's traffic is getting better" and "I am proud of being a Chinese." We heard little of this on the congested roads, but one driver did deliver a polite "thank you" after we paid the fare.

Having followed the smooth, if not entirely jubilant, progress of the games so far, I now wonder if what I assumed was the city's Olympics euphoria was actually a feeling closer to the nervous anticipation before throwing a grand wedding. So much time, effort and expectation rides on one short period of choreographed celebration, the outcome of which can never be entirely predicted or assured. And almost every wedding includes a few sceptical guests with strong reservations about the event taking place. 

"The tourists will be coming to visit the Bird's Nest (pictured), not the Great Wall," huffed our English-speaking guide on our tour of the Great Wall at Mutianyu. He belonged to the still reticent minority in Beijing who were dreading the Olympics. A former teacher who now supports himself by leading freelance trips around China for tourists, he anticipated a big loss in earnings during the games. The government's increased visa restrictions had already begun to have an effect on his business. (It didn't bode well that we had him to ourselves on what was meant to be a group tour.) Even if he could find interested visitors, he explained "I won't be able to take them to Mutianyu in my mini-bus anyway," owing to restrictions on driving during the games--part of the government's last-minute effort to reduce smog. With empty stadium seats, vacant hotel rooms and driving restrictions now in place, many more businesspeople and residents must share our guide's pessimism.

 


Even the adorable Fuwa mascots are not without controversy. Some superstitious Chinese have linked the creatures to a number of crises and natural disasters in the run up to the Olympics. The unrest in Tibet, the flooding in southern China and the earthquake in Sichuan (a province known for its panda population) have all been weirdly associated with the Tibetan antelope, Chinese sturgeon and panda mascots, respectively. Even the artist who created the mascot models (and suffered two heart attacks in the process) has disowned his creations. A reported 40% of Chinese claim to either dislike or be indifferent to the Fuwa (or "witch dolls", as our guide referred to them). The mascots have become cuddly targets for Chinese discontentment with the games.

The government's restrictions on driving and factory pollution are certainly irritating for locals, but what is amazing is just how necessary any effort to minimise pollution is. As someone with mild, exercise-induced asthma, I brought my inhaler along as a precaution. The smog obscured my view of the city from the heights of the Summer Palace, and the polluted air left my hair straw-like and gritty by the end of each day. But I didn't notice any respiratory side-effects until I had to make a quick dash from a restaurant to our nearby hotel for some more yuan. After running only a few hundred metres, I was shocked to feel my breathing passages tighten significantly. After hustlling back to the restaurant, I spent the rest of the meal wheezing down my order of Peking duck. Unless the Party's last-ditch clampdowns on emissions transformed the city's air-pollution levels, I pity the endurance athletes who must compete in the city's soupy smog.  

It was an interesting time for my family to visit Beijing, just at the moment when the city was holding its breath before the big celebration. Watching China use the Olympics to announce its rising place in the world feels a lot like holding one's breath when Yang Wei performs a triple salto. While most Fuwa souvenirs, counterfeit or otherwise, are no doubt headed for the bargain-bin come September, just where the People's Republic of China goes next is anyone's guess.

Photo credit: Martin Dougiamas/flickr

(Corbin Hiar is a contributor to Economist.com and a writer based in Brooklyn. The Economist's China correspondent has written a correspondent's diary about the Beijing Olympics for Economist.com)