LIVE & DIRECT | BEIJING 2008: PART ONE
By Grace Callahan
Greetings from my new home for the month: the sprawling metropolis of Beijing…at least I think it’s sprawling: I can’t really see it sprawling through the thick "haze" that no one here seems to be concerned with or find problematic (elephant in the room or elephant sitting on top of us?). The smog is worse than smog. It’s as if we are walking around in a foggy cloud, only this cloud tastes really bad and I can feel a ball of nastiness curling up in the back of my throat every time I walk outside. The air seems to be a bit less dense and stinky once inside the hotel — maybe there is some sort of air filtration system? Not so over on the campus of Beijing Normal University, the home of the High Performance Training Center; the sacred ground upon which the US athletes complete their final days of training before competing…and also home to the group of people that we are hosting here. The air seems to be heavier over there — and more invasive. Imagine working out while breathing pure exhaust fumes…ick.
As for Olympic preparations, Beijing is in full speed ahead mode finalizing all of their beautification and last minute touches before the games officially open three days from today. But despite all of the potted plants lining the interstates and boulevards, English language street signs signaling Olympic venues, innovative public lighting, pervasive graphics advertising "One World, One Dream" flanking every lamppost and even wrapping some buildings, and the throngs of volunteers on every street corner, in every major department store eager to assist in every need that any of us round-eyed folk might need, the not-so-favorable news stories that I’m sure you’re hearing about lie persistently, if subtly, under the surface of the national excitement and it’s difficult to ignore them even with all of the state-driven fervor that dominates headlines.
Here’s a sample of a headline that was buried in the corner of the China Daily newspaper: "All Measures Taken to Ensure Clear Skies." The first sentence of the articles reads as follows: "Beijing will use all its science and engineering capabilities — including satellite monitoring and cloud seeding — to prevent rain from disrupting the Olympic Games’ opening ceremony on Aug. 8" (What the fuck??????) Also, there was a report that "Haze" doesn’t mean poor air quality, and that Games should be about athleticism, so all of this nonsense about countries taking issue with China’s human rights record or their support of the Sudanese government is completely non-nonsensical, and has nothing to do with the games. We have all been warned not to email anything about contested regions, or anything else that could be construed as upsetting to the Chinese government — that there is software in place to identify key words, and that sometimes email addresses have been blocked from each other on the basis of that…(yikes!) They don’t even try to refute the fact that the International Media Center is blocking access to certain websites like Amnesty International or other "inappropriate" outlets…despite their promises to keep all internet access open…although they do contest the claim that they are monitoring or spying on all hotel guests’ internet activity. I guess if I am unable to email any of you again, we’ll know what happened, right? Ha!
Being here feels a lot like living in some sort of weird Orwellian world, where everything is controlled down to the smallest detail. Standing in the aisles at a grocery, examining various products, attendants will swarm, trying to help…I think…security guards line the streets: they are posted at every doorway, every intersection, even in random places, like along the shoulders of the interstates…and I’m sometimes confused as to what they are looking for…But whatever they do or don’t see, the cameras that speckle the entire city will surely catch. You don’t notice them at first, but once you start to see them, you notice them EVERYWHERE. Small ones (in the top right hand corner of every elevator), bigger ones shaped like black glass globes hang from tall posts and line the streets, they line the hallways of every department or grocery store you enter, they are in every lobby of every building, and they even are posted along the large boulevards and interstates as well. It’s a bit confusing: are there people really monitoring every camera angle? If so, where is the headquarters and how many people does it take to watch every camera that lines every street in Beijing? Or every camera that lines every street in all of China?? Depending on the count, people say that there are anywhere from 12-17 million inhabitants here — how on earth is it possible to monitor all of their movements at all times?? I can understand cameras in hotels, places of business, etc…but on the street??? So if they aren’t really watching all of their cameras….then are they just used as intimidation tactics? Like if you think we’re watching you, then you will behave?? Its just really weird….
I know that you probably don’t want to read another long article online after having read this long post, but if for some odd reason you have insomnia or you have no life and you are more interested in this surveillance obsessed culture and how it’s been aided by and now is being used as inspiration for our own "homeland security," there is a great article that outlines the plan and puts it into a very interesting context: global and local; individual and institutional; communist and capitalist; old and new…very fascinating (at least to me.) Here’s the link: www.naomiklein.org
It’s as if someone read Orwell’s 1984 and thought: "That’s a great idea! Let’s implement that…" WEIRD.
BUT — it’s not all gray dusty skyscrapers and security cameras and Olympic propaganda. If you kind of look behind corners and off into the distance (if you can see it) and underneath whatever you can find to look underneath of, there are some moments of beauty. The past two days the haze has cleared up a bit (can you tell I’m writing this post over a series of days?) and as I was riding yesterday along the 5th ring road (the furthest out from the center of the city) lo and behold, I caught sight of mountains!! The sun was setting, and for the first time, a sunset was partially visible, due to presence of clouds — it was amazing and so gorgeous. I literally exploded to the driver; "Look! Mountains!" He looked at me like who is this crazy large girl in my backseat showing me something that has been there forever….The silhouetted mountains with outlines of temples on top was shocking to my system after having been smothered by skyscrapers and construction sites for the past ten days. I had forgotten that outside the sprawl there exists land without buildings…it was refreshing and reassuring to be reminded that I am not getting sucked into a rabbit hole of concrete and dust!
When you are able to escape the world of construction and uber-modernity, the reminder of just how old this place is, is mind blowing. To think that people have existed here for over 2000 years is difficult to grasp. I think that as Americans, we tend to identify Europe as the "old world" and marvel at the history that is still visible in their big cities — most notably their architecture and art museums…but this completely dwarfs that! The Forbidden City was completed in 1420 (after only 14 years of construction — a fact which is so totally inconceivable when you walk around in that place), which was only 600 years ago — but that was late in the game. There was 1,000 years worth of history before that — or more, maybe — I am by no means an expert on ancient Chinese history. But the most interesting thing to me, and the reason that I bring up the issue of Beijing being so old is that when you are standing inside of this huge city, you don’t get that feeling of old age that you get when you stand in Rome or Paris or even New York City. It doesn’t feel old because there is no architecture that has existed that long (save for the protected monuments: Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Great Wall, etc.) I keep asking people to take me to an old part of the city, and I repeatedly get directed to go to the Forbidden City…not quite was I was looking for, but when I try to explain that, I run smack up against the brick wall that is the language barrier….The mantra of the Chinese people seems to be tear down and re-build. This goes for not just now (post Cultural Revolution), but I think it was the case even during the time of Mao. During that time, the idea of the Cultural Revolution was to start anew: one way to do this was to destroy all remnants of the past (including buildings) and begin with a fresh blank slate. Although the ideology of the Cultural Revolution is no longer officially espoused, it feels as though some of those sentiments remain, although are being applied a bit differently. The idea that it is more important to focus on the present rather than the past is strikingly apparent here in Beijing amidst Olympic furor. The government has been systematically tearing down old neighborhoods to make way for the influx of new architecture, but is doing so at the cost of losing a vital part of the character of the city….not to mention displacing hundreds of thousands of people — but that is a completely separate discussion.
I think also that there is a bit of the "New Money" syndrome as well — Countries (like people) when they come into money tend to buy flashy things and flaunt them with little regard for people or environmental concerns or….anything — they are primarily focused on showing off their newly acquired funds. It feels as if there is a bit of this going on here as well — which only fuels the destroy and re-create pattern.
Interestingly, poverty (which I know from everything that I read) abounds here — of course, we all know that it abounds everywhere in the world. But unlike the rest of the countries and cities that I’ve been to (including every city I’ve ever visited in the US), it is difficult to spot poor neighborhoods inside of the major neighborhoods of Beijing. Maybe I don’t get out of the hotel enough — this is quite possible — but it seems as though the government keeps these neighborhoods under wraps, to ensure the best possible outward impressions. it’s hard to tell how much of this has been orchestrated for the benefit of the international travelers to the Games, or if this is just the way life in Beijing is…I’m sure my impressions of China will change drastically after I get out of Beijing and after the Games have come and gone: the international spotlight removed….
But for now, here I sit: in a hotel ballroom, surviving on room service and experiencing the hoopla of the Games from the sidelines, albeit much closer geographically…
(And don’t tell anyone, but I’m secretly rooting for the Iraqi team!)
Until next time,
Your own personal Olympic correspondent…
Known to some as Big Healthy, Grace Callahan is an event planner and world traveler based out of New Orleans, LA who writes on the side. To holler at Grace, e-mail her at: email@example.com.