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Going For The Gold

The world watches as China struggles to highlight its phenomenal growth and obscure its more unpleasant realities

By Andrew Potter


The first thing I noticed about Beijing was the sky. As our 777 began the last descending stages of its leapfrog over the North Pole, the captain came on to tell us that it was a sunny, cloudless day in the Chinese capital. But he was having us on. From where I stood waiting in the taxi ranks outside the arrivals area, the sky wasn’t even close to blue, or even the washed-out beige you get on a smoggy day in Toronto. Instead, it was a post-apocalyptic, anorexic yellow—like someone had smeared a thick layer of liposuction fat across the lens of the heavens. Beijing is one seriously polluted city, a fact that has not gone down well with the athletes who will have to compete and excel in an atmosphere saturated with particulate matter.

I last visited Beijing in the summer of 2000, when the only thing that impressed me more than the agoraphobia-inducing expanse of Tiananmen Square was the ability of the locals to accommodate a pervasive form of mechanical life known as bicycles. In a sense, there weren’t single bikes on the road, there was a single bicyclish entity that flowed more than it rode, a constantly shape-shifting organism that sent tendrils and pseudopods into every nook and cranny of the city. Back then, getting around Beijing meant figuring out how to deal with bicycles.

Since then, the city has added another few million residents (current population of Beijing Municipality: 17.5 million) as the Chinese economic engine had shifted into overdrive, with an annual rate of growth of around 10 percent. Put another way, real Chinese wealth has doubled in the past eight years, a stupendous achievement by any reasonable measure.

Which helps explain why the next thing I noticed about Beijing was how fresh-scrubbed and modern it has become. Most of the third-world trappings that served as upfront reminders of how stalled the country was under the old-school communists have been renovated or swept completely away: the transfer of the jostling outdoor warrens of the old silk market into a four-story department store; the relentless gentrification of the hutongs (the ancient residences and alleyways that surround the Forbidden City); and the almost complete disappearance of the bicycles, pushed out of their niche by the encroachment of the one thousand automobiles added to city’s streets every day.

Beijing starts boasting of its modernity from the moment you arrive in the just-opened Terminal 3, the world’s largest airport building. Not impressed? Beijing has spent the last seven years preparing for the Olympics; along with the airport, and along with the 24 new venues devoted to sporting events, the city has added architectural dreamworks like the China Central Television (CCTV) headquarters designed by Rem Koolhaas and the new National Centre for the Performing Arts, an egg-shaped marvel of titanium and glass designed by the French architect Paul Andreu. In short, today’s Beijing is so sharply defined it looks like it was created in Photoshop then dragged-and-dropped into place, where it sits awaiting the hundreds of thousands who will arrive in early August for the opening of the Games of the XXIX Olympiad.

It has been a tough few months for the Chinese. The March 14 uprising in Tibet coincided with the start of the international legs of the Olympic torch relay and focused the world’s attention on China’s unimpressive human rights record. The subsequent crackdown in Tibet by Chinese authorities, and the sealing off of the region to foreigners, sparked widespread violence resulting in—depending on whom you ask—21 deaths caused by Tibetan rioters, or 203 deaths caused by Chinese troops.

Either way, the conflict in Tibet inspired brought the Free Tibet sympathizers scrambling out of the woodwork, and they managed to disrupt the relay in a number of cities including Athens, London, and, most notoriously, Paris, where a Chinese torchbearer in a wheelchair almost had the torch snatched from her hand. Beijing Organizing Committee (BOCOG) officials blame the disruption on the organizers in the host cities, accusing them of failing to follow through on their written guarantees to ensure the security of the torch and its bearers. As we were told by Mr. Jiang Xiao Yu, the executive vice-president of BOCOG, the disruptions were “an insult to the flame and the Olympic Movement.” Worse, he added, “it is a pity that some cities did not fulfill their commitments, and even indulged the disturbances.”

The torch relay fiasco was soon followed by a railway accident where one train derailed and barreled into another, killing at least 70 people and injuring another 400. It happened on the Beijing-Qindao line—the route that will be used to ferry spectators to the Olympic sailing events. Then, on May 12, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit the southwestern province of Sichuan, toppling mountains, leveling entire villages and burying thousands beneath tons of low-grade concrete. The official death toll has now topped 70,000, and they are far from done digging out the corpses.

The good news is that the Chinese leadership received some well-deserved props for their response to the earthquake. Given the logistical nightmare involved, the rescue effort has been fast and effective, while government officials have been surprisingly open with both the domestic and international media. Could this be the confident and prosperous China we hoped we would see when they were awarded the Games back in 2001?

Not exactly. It is one thing to come clean with the world about a seismic event that rattled teacups from one end of the country to the other. But how about that outbreak of hand-foot-and-mouth disease (HFMD, also known as E-71) that has swept through seven provinces, killing 43 children and infecting another 30,000? The state news agency Xinhua has not been especially forthcoming about it, and the way the government first denied and then downplayed the outbreak has stirred uneasy reminders of its secrecy surrounding previous epidemics such as SARS and bird flu.

The Chinese understanding of the role of the government is strongly influenced by an ancient doctrine known as the Mandate of Heaven, devised by the kings of the Zhou dynasty to justify their overthrow of the Shang in 1111 BC. The Mandate was conceived as a something along the lines of a divinely-sanctioned sovereignty similar to the notion of the “divine right of kings,” except the legitimacy of the ruling regime depends not upon proper lineage but upon proper behavior—the good works and deeds of the rulers. To keep the Mandate of Heaven, a ruler is obliged to seek the welfare of his people and govern justly, fairly, and wisely. Any leader who fails his people, or who rules only in his own self-interest, will lose the Mandate of Heaven and be overthrown.

What is interesting is that according to the theory, the mere fact that an uprising is successful is proof enough that the regime has lost the moral right to govern, which is one reason why the Chinese value stability and social order more than just about anything else. The notion of the Mandate of Heaven also makes no distinction between social unrest (like a riot in Tibet), accidents (like a train derailment) and natural disasters such as earthquakes. All of these contribute to instability, suggesting that the regime has failed in its duties and has forfeited the right to govern.

The thing about the Mandate of Heaven is that it effectively turns politics into a huge bluff. It requires that the government preserve, at all costs, the appearance of order, stability, and prosperity. This is not because the people are stupid or cannot be trusted, but because the ability to preserve the illusion is itself indicative of the regime’s merit. If the existence of unrest is evidence that the regime has lost the Mandate of Heaven, then the absence of any sign of unrest is proof of the opposite. In short, bluffing the people becomes a political virtue, which helps explain why the Chinese authorities are such massive control freaks. It also explains the importance to the Chinese of honor, “face,” and—ultimately—our rather strange itinerary on a recent guided tour of the Olympic facilities organized by the Beijing Olympic Media Centre.

Here is what they had planned out for our four days in Beijing: Day 1: Visit to a primary school; food safety monitoring facility; sewage treatment plant Day 2: Meeting with Beijing Olympic Media Centre officials; meeting with BOCOG officials; visit to school for gifted athletes; tour of Olympic event facilities.

Day 3: Meeting with scholars at Beijing Tibetology Research Center; visit urban-planning museum and environmental monitoring facility; tickets to the opera (Madama Butterfly!)

Day 4: Cultural visits to Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, and Great Wall of China.

A couple of things to note. First of all, if you’re trying to soften up a crew of skeptical western journalists, you can do no better than to take them to a primary school and show them adorable eight-year olds in uniform doing kung-fu, followed by an extraordinarily talented student orchestra playing folksongs on traditional Chinese instruments, most of which sound like kazoos. If cuteness is a form of soft power, then Chinese kids are one of the most powerful diplomatic weapons in existence.

Second, I cannot overstate what formidable hosts the Chinese are. At every stage in the agenda we were given the full VIP treatment—formal welcomes, easy access to very senior officials, and delightful parting gifts. In between, they stuffed us like foie gras ducks with obscene amounts of food from some very fine restaurants, even if the actual dining hours were a bit hard to take (lunch at 11:30 AM, supper at 5 or 5:30—it was like being guided around by retirees.)

Notwithstanding all of that, for a trip designed to showcase the state of preparations for the Olympic Games, the schedule was very light on what you might call “Olympic-related activities.”

The crown jewels of these games are the Olympic Stadium, which will host the track and field events as well as the opening and closing ceremonies, and the aquatic centre, which will host the swimming and diving events. Both are architectural joys. The stadium is affectionately referred to as the “bird’s nest” thanks to its elaborate network of interlaced steel girders, while the National Aquatics Centre is better known as the “water cube,” because it looks like a giant box of blue soap bubbles.

The bird’s nest and water cube are situated next to one another at the northern end of the north-south axis around which all of Beijing is oriented. They sit in perfect feng shui balance, with the stadium to the east representing the active male “yang” power, while the aquatics centre to the west represents the passive female yin. These are the two installations we were all most keen to see, but our hosts insisted that a tour of the interior of either building would be impossible. We protested, they tossed off excuses as casually as a chef tosses a salad (“there are test events going on”; “the floors were just sanded”; “it’s too short notice”), and in the end all we got was a quick drop-off so we could stand in the middle of the Olympic park, shoot some badly composed photos and watch the swarms of workers plant trees.

It is precisely this sort of caginess that impels bored and jet-lagged journalists to engage in idle conspiracy-theorizing. Could it be that the facilities are not close to being finished? Is the running track crooked? Does the pool leak? Were the seats installed backwards?

None of the above, I’d say. My sense is that it was not that BOCOG did not want us to see inside their gorgeous new stadiums. Instead, I think they simply felt they had much more important things to show us. What do Westerners always say they like about China? The food and the culture. So let’s give them lots of food and culture. What are Westerners always harping on China about? Well, the environment, for one. So let’s show them all sorts of mind-numbingly dull pollution-reducing infrastructure. (Note: There may be a planet upon which a visit to a sewage-treatment plant is interesting. I never want to visit that planet.)

Anything else? Well, there’s the human-rights thing, especially as it pertains to Tibet.

But I’ll be honest, I don’t really know much about Tibet, and in the grand scheme of things, there are plenty of things I care about a lot more than its political future. So that is why, barely halfway through the week, I was already sick to death of talking about Tibet. My colleagues from the other papers were sick of talking about Tibet. I assumed that our Chinese hosts were growing tired of Western journalists asking them about Tibet. Unfortunately for all concerned, almost everything of substance on this tour was designed to force us to ask them about Tibet.

There really is no other explanation for our visit one morning to the China Tibetology Research Center. The center is an agency of the United Front Work Department of the Communist Party of China, but within the obvious political confines, it is engaged in significant and serious academic research, centering on issues of economic development, demographic change, and theological elements of Tibetan Buddhism. While there, we met with a group of scholars—about half of whom were ethnic Tibetans—who introduced us to the center and the work they do.

All very interesting stuff, except none of us were Tibetan scholars. My colleagues were mostly sports journalists, doing preliminary research before the Games start. Which means the only reason we were being introduced to all of this Tibet content was because the Chinese wanted to send us a message about the place.

And so we played along. Whenever the opportunity presented itself, we would ask them the questions they wanted us to ask about freedoms in Tibet, and they would give us the answers they wanted us to hear, at considerable length. But they kept coming back to the same plot points:

* Of course there are restrictions on travel to Tibet. What would you expect any responsible government to do, given the rioting that has happened there quite recently?

* Have you ever been to Tibet? No? Maybe you should go to Tibet before asking these sorts of questions.

* Tibet was a feudal, backwards society in 1959, where 95 percent of the people were serfs. There has been substantial social and economic development since then, thanks to investment from the rest of China.

* The Dalai Lama is basically the leader of a barbarian cult. Did you know that Tibetans used to make lamps out of the skulls of serfs?

The decision to award the 2008 Summer Olympics to China was fraught with political calculations on all sides. For the Chinese, they saw winning the Games as a just reward for 30 years of openness—a sign of the country’s acceptance by the international community and an affirmation of its program of social and economic reform. For the IOC and the delegates from the West who voted for Beijing (ahead of Toronto; Paris; Osaka, Japan; and Istanbul), as well as the political leaders who tacitly went along, the thinking was that the Games could serve as a wedge that would help crack China open even more and encourage it to get its act together on human rights.

The problem is that these are conflicting goals: China saw getting the Games as an affirmation of its policies, while the West gave the Olympics to them because we thought it would motivate China to change. It does not seem to have occurred to anyone at the time that this was a recipe for serious conflict, of which the torch relay disruptions were merely the opening skirmishes.

As I sat in the Beijing airport, almost one week to the hour after I had arrived, I tried to sort out the unruly tangle of ideas that was scrambling around in my brain. I tried to pull them apart, these questions about politics and the Olympics, about the environment and economic development, about the rise of China and supposed decline of America, about Tibet, nationalism, and human rights, and about state-funded propaganda, free speech, and what it means to be a journalist in the West.

It is too much. Too much for me for sure—I wasn’t going to solve any of these problems in one short trip. But it is also too much to ask of these Games. Of what is, in the end, just a very large track meet.

The big question people are asking is: Are the Chinese ready to host the Summer Olympics? There is no doubt in my mind that, logistically speaking, the Games will go off without a hitch. It is inconceivable to me the people in charge would allow it to be otherwise. The more important question, though, is whether the world is ready for China—the China of today, not the China of our liberal imagination—to host a successful Olympics.

What if China manages to pull off a wonderful Olympics, but then goes back to censoring the Internet, to putting the screws to Tibet, to running the most efficient capital-punishment machine on Earth? Whatever will it mean for liberalism, for the West, for the Olympic Movement, if these Games turn out to be just another two-week celebration of the best of sport and culture the world has to offer?

I don’t know, and honestly, I don’t think we will know for a long time. The answer I am increasingly inclined to give, is the one Zhou Enlai famously gave when asked his opinion of the ultimate effects of the French revolution: Too soon to tell.

Andrew Potter is citizen editor at the Ottawa Citizen, where this article first appeared. Source:

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