July 29, 2008

Counting Down the Days to “New Beijing, New Olympics”

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The Olympics open in twelve days. You could say that Beijing is putting the final touches on what it hopes will be a masterpiece, a sign of China’s rising power and ascension to an important global position. Yet these preparations have cut widely and deeply into the daily lives of those who live in and around Beijing.
To improve the air quality, hundreds of factories in Beijing and the neighboring Hebei province have been shut down. In addition, half of Beijing’s private cars have been taken off the road (each half getting an alternating day based upon license plate numbers) and all construction has been halted. There were some strong improvements initially, [img_assist|nid=30918|title=A typical promotional Olympics sign in China.|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]but today as I write, the sky is still hazy with pollution. The difference between regular fog and pollution fog is clear to anyone who’s been in a heavily polluted city. It lies somewhere between the smell of the air and color of the sky, and although obvious, is hard to describe. It might be that the sky is yellow-grey instead of blue with visibility of only a couple city blocks, or maybe it’s that you can look directly at the sun without hurting your eyes. The air smells heavy. Although those yellow-grey clouds have no dead giveaway scent, when you step outside you can feel the air as it sits low, dense and all around. These surely aren’t any rain clouds.
With concerns about pollution discussed as early as during the bidding process, the Olympics’ organizers are making a science out of weather control. Both Xinhua (China’s state news agency) and the word on the street (sometimes a more effective medium) have reported that the government has, and will if necessary, shoot rockets into the atmosphere that “seed” the clouds with mercury, forcing rain. In a prelude to what may happen in the weeks leading up to the games, June was the wettest month in recent memory for normally arid Beijing. The forced rain more often than not clears the air for a while but not for good, and a yellow haze returns in a few days. I’m expecting that as the big day rapidly approaches I’ll to have to dodge rain storms left and right to make it to work.
Beyond environmental factors, the government’s done it’s best to make Beijing a model city, for better or worse. For better, the new subway line and airport train opened this past weekend, with a spur line to the Olympic Green to open for the games. When I arrived in Beijing for study abroad last fall, there were only three subway lines. Now there are six plus the airport line, with more to open in the coming years. Imagine trying to mobilize that investment in public transport in the U.S.! But for worse, China more or less has sanitized the city, making bars [img_assist|nid=30916|title=An Olympics poster that reads (black text): “Beijing Olympics, So the world will deeply understand China.”|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=|height=0]close early, taking the food vendors off the streets and asking migrant workers to return home. New visa policies have made it nearly impossible for long-time ex-patriots to renew their visas, forcing many to go back home, with the option of returning to China “after the Olympics.” These same visa policies have made it harder for international visitors to come to China, and we have yet to see whether or not the hotels will even be filled to capacity for the Games.
Some of the other changes are purely cosmetic and purely temporary. Walls have been put up to hide less appealing neighborhoods from visitors’ eye. Pirated DVD stores have been temporarily closed and prostitutes who used to cat call from “barber” shops have put up signs saying they have shut down as well. These phenomenon, like the liberalizations in press freedom and in opening up previously-banned internet sites, seem temporary. China is only going through the motions of change for the show of it.
One of the numerous promotional (or propaganda) posters I saw on a bus shelter really puts the organizers’ perspective out there. It implores the average Chinese bus rider to support the Olympics because the Games will make the world appreciate China. So it’s not so much then about changing anything. It’s more about selling that something has been changed to the world.