Globalist Perspective

Beijing Olympics — After the Torch Burns Out (Part I)

What do the Beijing Olympics really mean for the residents of Beijing, in particular, and China, in general?

Takeaways


  • "Most people in Beijing, we struggle just to make ends meet. We don't have the luxury to care about the Olympics."
  • While there will be significant earnings in some sections of the tourist industry, the Games also represent significant burdens to Beijing residents.
  • "The government is spending billions of dollars preparing for the Olympics and there are people who struggle to find five cents to buy a simple bun on the street."
  • Billboards and media outlets throughout Beijing remind people to make China proud this August when millions of visitors are expected to descend on the city.

It will be fun!” My new landlord Dapeng declared cheerily as I settled into the passenger seat of his new Passat. “You’ll get to see the whole city on our way, and we’ll drive right by the Bird’s Nest!”

He glanced in my direction and I smiled in agreement, offering an “Oh wow, the Bird’s Nest!” in a tone I hoped would match his enthusiasm.

In reality, I could think of a hundred other things I would rather do on this Saturday morning other than take a two-hour drive through Beijing’s ever-congested streets to go furniture shopping.

And his mention of Beijing’s new National Stadium, nicknamed the Bird’s Nest for its basket-like futuristic architecture, made my stomach turn.

Was Dapeng’s excitement genuine enthusiasm for the upcoming Olympic games, or was it only skin-deep, touted only for my benefit as a foreigner experiencing the wonders of modern China?

This is 2008 — Beijing’s “Olympic year” — and the city is abuzz with Olympic-sized preparations for the largest international event in the country’s history.

The city committed an impressive $59.6 billion for Olympic infrastructure development alone. Billions more are being poured into improvements that range from public etiquette campaigns and English menu editing, to energy and water supply development.

The Olympic Planning Committee has declared these Olympics to be the greenest in Olympic history. Billboards and media outlets throughout the city remind people to make China proud this August when tens of millions of visitors are expected to descend on the city.

And in these early days of 2008, it seems that Beijing is already making China proud.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s visit to the capital earlier this year was declared a success when he toured the Bird’s Nest and announced that it was “a great stadium, a huge project by the people of Beijing, a great contribution by China to world peace and prosperity.” And further concluded that “This is going to be the greatest Olympic Games ever.”

As Dapeng’s car approached the stadium on the highway, I could barely make out the scramble of steel through the thick smog. Its contours and net-like appearance looked out of place in the chaos of flat, featureless construction that characterizes so much of the rest of Beijing.

I asked Dapeng what he thought about the Olympics, and all of the changes being made to the city where he has lived his entire life.

I expected him to give me the answer so many cab drivers have given me over the last several months — to tell me about what a great opportunity it was for Beijing to welcome the rest of the world to modern China. But instead he shook his head and let out a slight sigh. “This is mostly going to benefit the government and the government’s reputation.”

Dapeng lifted his hand from the steering wheel and gestured over the cityscape at the massive stadium standing alone in the surrounding landscaped turf.

“Who is going to use these buildings once the games are over?” he asked. Gone was his earlier enthusiasm for sharing the structure with me. Instead, there was a tired bitterness in his voice.

“Most people in Beijing,” Dapeng continued, “we struggle just to make ends meet. We don’t have the luxury to care about the Olympics.”

Sure the games might be interesting to watch a bit on TV, he admitted. “But most Chinese don’t care too much for these kinds of sports — we have our own entertainment traditions like Chinese chess and mahjong.”

“The government is spending billions of dollars preparing for the Olympics,” added Dapeng, “and there are people who struggle to find five cents to buy a simple bun on the street.”

And while there will be significant earnings in some sections of the tourist industry, he further explained, the Games also represented significant burdens to Beijing residents.

“The government is asking us to sacrifice a lot. Every shopkeeper and taxi driver, every school child and doctor, we’re all supposed to learn English and change our behavior — no driving on certain days, no spitting, no plastic bags, no more street vending.

“But,” Dapeng continued, gaining enthusiasm of a different kind, “most of us won’t use the Olympic facilities. Most of us won’t be better off once everyone leaves.”

“We are supposed to ‘participate, contribute and enjoy’ the games,” he added, referencing a common billboard seen around the city. “But most of us can only participate from a distance. And we don’t have the means to contribute, so it is harder to enjoy.”

Editor’s Note: This is Part I of a two-part series. Part II will appear tomorrow on The Globalist.

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About Lila Buckley

Lila Buckley is the assistant executive director for the Global Environment Institute, a non-profit organization based in Beijing, China.

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