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The Olympics countdown: Beijing to Shanghai

Kerry Brown
5 August 2008

The Beijing Olympics opening ceremony on 8 August 2008 is now in sight.The final rehearsals are underway; the torch-relay nears its final destination; display-boards and front-pages feature clocksticking down the hours; the stringent security-checks at the airportsare in place; a few protestors who managed to get visas areprotesting. The sign at Beijing airport proclaims the official message of controlled harmony as well as the Olympic slogan “one world, one dream”.

Beijing Olympic Stadium

Photo with thanks to Monster

Yeteven now, on the eve, not everyone is included in the embrace - or,it seems, wants to be. A horde of people the authorities regard asunsightly has been cleared from Beijing's central streets andneighbourhoods as part of the city's ferocious clean-up campaign;and there is heightened surveillance and monitoring of potentialsources of disruption, internal and foreign. The welcome to somevisitors, not just the protestors, is less than warm: Lorna Ball, thehead of the BBC'sChinese service,found herself abruptly disinvitedto the opening night.

KerryBrown is an associatefellow on the Asia programme,Chatham House, and director of StrategicChina Ltd. His most recent booksis StrugglingGiant: China in the 21st Century(Anthem Press, 2007)
Also by Kerry Brown onopenDemocracy:

"China'stop fifty: the China power list"(2 April 2007)

Chinagoes global” (2 August2007)

China’sparty congress: getting serious”(5 October 2007)

Shanghai:Formula One’s last ride” (15October 2007)

Beijing’spolitical tightrope-walk”(12 March 2008)

Taiwanand China: an electoral prelude”(4 April 2008)

China’sOlympics: after the storm”(6 May 2008)

Chinaon Olympic eve: a globalisation of sentiment”(10 July 2008)

Manylong-term foreign residents are leaving Beijing voluntarily for theduration. The climate makes August a hot, hard month in the cityanyway; and the first eight months of the year have been full enoughof nationalistic jubilation. True, tickets for the events themselveshave been hard to get. But hotel-rooms, it seems, are not a problem -the 60%-70% occupancy of three-star premises in Beijing is actuallylowerthan usual for a peak-season month. So much for the panicky warningsto book rooms in2001, themomentBeijing won its bid.

Thetears and the pride

Afew days in Shanghai also offers a refreshing take on the Beijingrazzamattazz. China's second city oddly underwhelmed by theimminent epoch-making festivities in its great rival to the north.The waterfront Bundis being dug up, in order to install an underground road-tunnel sothat the area can be pedestrianised (see Edward Denison & GuangYu Ren, BuildingShanghai: The Story of China's Gateway[Wiley, 2006/07]). This will take until 2010, when the city has itsown great event - the ShanghaiWorld Expoon 1 May - 31 October that year. The most that this proud andsophisticated city will get from the Beijing Olympics is a fewfootball games. It's hard not to feel that most people here aregoing through the motions, without real enthusiasm.

Thereverberations of events in China's southwest and northwest havereached its east. The explosionsin two buses in Kunming, Yunnan province on 21 July that killed twopeople and injured fourteen created nervousness, though officialsdeniedclaims by a Xinjiang separatist group that it was responsible. Theattack in the city of Kashgar in Xinjiang itself on 4 August whichkilledsixteen policemen heightened the tension. In the aftermath, the headof Olympic security appeared on TV and in newspapers solemnlydeclaring that the threat is real, and that people must be"vigilant". I ask a friend in Beijing about plans for the openingceremony. "I could have got a ticket", was the reply, "but I'llwatch it at home. It's too dangerous." If this is how nervous aneveryday Chinese citizen feels, then it is hard to imagine whatPresident Hu will be going through.

Thefirst arrival of sports-people happens at the same time as thejournalists. It's hard to work out which group is more important tothis event. Until now, the sport has seemed like an afterthought.When logging onto the internet, the arrivals discovered quicklythat a lot of sites were blocked. True, last-minute negotiationbetween the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Beijingauthorities - following the dealbetween the two partners - led to the unblocking of some of them. Butthis is unlikely to be the last unpleasant surprise.

Thereis much tiresome overkill. Every night Chinese TV is showingrelentless, huge, spectacular - and thus exhausting - performancescelebrating the world's greatest games before they even start. Yetit would be churlish not to wish the Chinese a successful games (seeIsabel Hilton, "Beijingdoesn't like to give....",Independenton Sunday,3 August 2008). The first eight months of 2008 have been tough forthe Chinese - from the winter freeze to the Tibet uprising, frominflation worries to the Sichuan earthquake - and very far from thetriumphal path that they wished for. They deserve this moment to bean uplifting one.

Moreover,there has been too much bitterness and disappointment, even inChina's recent past. An old man deep in the countryside was filmedon TV, saying - close to tears - that he never thought he would seethe day when the world would be coming to China, and that the gameswould be held here. He must have lived through the Maoistyears, when China was a closed world. It's not hard to imagine thesights he must have seen and the pain he must have lived through.There are hundreds of millions of such "ordinary" - yet each inhis or her own way extraordinary - Chinese people, for whom the gamesare a source of national pride.

Itis only political elites that seem to want to twist them intosomething else (see Li Datong, "Beijing'sOlympics, China's politics",19 September 2007). For China's citizens, something more affectingand simple - if not, ultimately, uncomplicated for themselves and theworld - is brought to the surface by what is happening: the feelingthat this is their country, that they are happy to belong to it, andproud to see it take its respected and dignified place alongsideevery other.

Thefit moment

Dou Dou Huang Soars up the Beijing 2008 Banner

(Photo thanks to StuckInCustoms)

Thereis more than enough room for the unexpected in China these days. Asthe clock counts down to the last few days, I am startled by ataxi-driver when the conversation turns - quite naturally, it seems -to corruption. I mention ChenLiangyu,the Shanghai party secretary who was placed under house-arrest inSeptember 2006 for allegedly diverting social-security money intododgy property-deals. "I don't reckon Chen was a bad man" thedriver says. "I don't care if he had twenty lovers, and spent hislife carousing. But he did one thing right. Under him, Shanghaipulled itself forward. And he was the only one to think about how tocover pensions. In your country, you can retire and know you've gotsomething. We've got nothing here. He knew the only way to make anymoney was to put all the city's funds into property. He was right.It's shot up in value. But of course, the central government hatethis sort of independence. I say if we ever get a half-decent pensionwhen we grow old, it'll be down to Chen, not those apes inBeijing." Ithink over what he said. "But where's the money he's said tohave laundered?" "As far as I know, it's all still there. Hehardly needs it now. He never touched a penny of it."

Itseems symbolic to me. Three days before the young century'sgreatest public event,and this taxi-driver - like almost everyone else you meet in Shanghai- seems both to have his mind on other things, and to see them forwhat they are, without illusion (see Li Datong, "Shanghai:new history, old politics",19 September 2007). The experience of this other great and modernChinese city on Olympic eve leads me to a prediction: that during thegames, soon after the start - and as long as there isn't some sortof unplanned spectacle - the news will shift pretty quickly from allthe politics to the usual rage and indignity of who wins and wholoses (and who has taken drugs and who hasn't) in the sportsevents.

Inshort: finally, we got there. After the (hoped-for) relief of theopening, the games will commence. In my view, and in that of most ofthe people I meet in China, that seems to be the right thing.

 

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